Sacred assault

High stress levels are affecting the reproductive health of endangered Asian elephants in captivity, says study

By M Suchitra
Published: Thursday 31 July 2014


At 50, he is tall and handsome. His majestic looks have earned him many fans. But in January last year, something went wrong with ThechikottukavuRamachandran, one of the most sought-after elephants in Kerala for carrying deities. He killed three women during a procession at Rayamangalam near Kochi. The temple administration in Thrissur, ThechikottukavuPeramangalathu Devas-wom, which owns the elephant, had to submit a bond of Rs 30 lakh to the judicial magistrate’s court to release him on bail.

Calm and gentle, Ramachandran had never disobeyed his mahout’s instructions. Since 1996, however, he has become increasingly restless and started showing instincts of violence. “Around that time, Ramachandran was frequently rented out for festivals,” says V K Venkitachalam, an elephant lover in Kerala, who fights against keeping elephants in captivity and cruelties meted out to them.

A study explains this changing behaviour of Ramachandran and many other Asian elephants that remain in captivity.

“Stress levels of captive elephants increase when they are housed in poor, unhealthy circumstances. Stress levels are much higher in elephants used for public functions,” states the study by scientists from Hyderabad-based Laboratory of Endangered Species (LaCONS), a unit of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

The scientists analysed stress levels and reproductive status of 12 healthy elephants—eight females and four males—at three zoological parks in the southern cities of Hyderabad, Tirupati and Mysore. They were aged between nine and 58. Since collecting blood samples every day for months was not suitable for the animals, they followed the non-invasive method of hormone analysis from dung samples. Dung samples were collected twice a week for 10 to 27 months. In case of the female elephant employed in festivals, samples were collected daily for 10 days before and after the functions. In total, the team analysed 1,700 dung samples between July 2010 and March 2013.

“Only one female elephant was frequently used in public functions. She did not show any health problems, but her level of stress hormone, glucocorticoids, was two to 10 times higher than that of other female elephants,” says G Umapathy, a conservation biologist who led the study. While the normal level for stress hormone is 2-8 nanograms (ng) per gram of dung, on festival days her hormone level shot up to 40-80 ng/g, Umapathy adds.


In male elephants, the study shows a significant correlation between stress hormone and reproductive hormone, androgen. Usually, androgen level in dung samples ranges between 13.04 ng/g and 37.38 ng/g. During musth, or periodic sexually active phase, androgen levels of the studied elephants ranged between 253.90 ng/g and 737.63 ng/g. In three of the four male elephants, stress hormone levels increased just before and during musth, shows the study, funded by the Centre’s Department of Science and Technology. It was published in the May 15, 2014 issue of General and Comparative Endocrinology. Explaining the correlation, scientists say during musth, captive elephants spend most of their time searching for females and less time in feeding, which results in significant weight loss.

“No one cares whether the tusker being paraded is in musth. This causes tremendous physical and mental trauma for the animal,” says Venkitachalam. He points out that during festival seasons, individuals and temple trusts rent out their elephants to contractors for a sum as high as Rs 6 lakh for eight months. The contractors violate all rules and regulations to make a fortune out of the elephants by making them participate in as many festivals as possible. They charge anything between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh a day. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Kerala Captive Elephants Rules of 2003 and the amendments to the rules in 2012 prohibit unskilled mahouts from handling captive elephants, making them walk on tarred roads between 11 am and 3 pm and transporting them in trucks for more than five hours without a break to ensure the welfare of captive elephants. These rules are rarely followed.

Elephants need 350 kg of fodder and 150 litres of water a day and take six to eight hours to finish their food. Captive elephants are not given enough food or water during festivals. They are not even allowed to sleep. Instead, they are forced to walk under the scorching sun for kilometres or are transported in trucks to faraway places. Unskilled mahouts beat them with sticks and iron rods to make them obedient. Despite deep, infectious tethering wounds on the hind legs, they are made to stand for hours during festivals, amid loud noise of fireworks and percussion.

Declining fertility

High levels of stress could be affecting reproductive health of the endangered species, say the scientists. Analysis of female reproductive hormone, progestogen, shows the elephant taken out for public functions had irregular reproductive cycles. CCMB director Mohan Rao says the finding is important because 20-30 per cent of Asian elephant population is in captivity. So far, only 20 per cent of them have bred. Low rate of breeding and increasing deaths is affecting their population. Kerala had 702 captive elephants in 2010. It is left with 336.

The study analysed overall stress level of all the 12 elephants with reference to management practices in the zoos, and found that Mysore zoo elephants were less stressed and had better health indicators. “In Hyderabad and Tirupati zoos, elephants were kept chained and given little time to interact with each other. Mysore zoo allowed elephants to interact between 8 am and 4 pm,” says Umapathy. “Existing laws don’t address reproductive and mental health status of captive animals. Our findings call for reviewing these laws and implement them strictly.”

The study recommends better management of captive elephants, periodic health screening, keeping male and female elephants in a large enclosure with near-wild conditions and bars using elephants in reproductive age group for public functions.

Elephant experts say such studies need to be conducted for elephants employed in tourism and entertainment sectors. “Assessments should be done using precise measurements of well-characterised glucocorticoid metabolites,” suggests R Sukumar, head of the Centre for Ecological Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Such studies would provide the scientific basis for a national policy on the welfare of elephants in captivity, he adds.

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