Jaipur working elephant death rate soars––but more elephants are on the job

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  May/June 2013:

JAIPUR,  India––Four years after the Rajasthan state government took over administration of the working elephant aid program in Jaipur,  the Rajasthan capital city,  the death rate among the Jaipur elephants has markedly accelerated.

Paradoxically,  the number of working elephants in Jaipur has increased from 96 in 2008 to 119 as of April 2013,  according to the Times of India News Network.

Rajasthan forest department records inspected by TNN reportedly show a death rate among the Jaipur working elephants of less than 1% per year,  until recently:  nine deaths in the 1970s,  nine deaths in the 1980s,  11 in the 1990s.  But 22 elephants died between 2001 and 2008,  and nine more since 2010,  with seven more elephants seriously ill,  TNN found.

The state-funded elephant aid program was initially touted as part of a planned humane phase-out of the use of elephants to ferry tourists up a steep grade to the famed Amber Fort.  The walk normally takes humans on foot about 20 minutes;  elephants do it in 10 minutes,  compared to five minutes for taxis.

The combination of the rising elephant death rate with the increase in the working elephant population suggests that older elephants are being replaced upon death or disability,  and additional elephants are somehow being added to the inventory,  despite federal legislation meant to restrict the use of elephants in entertainment and commerce. 

The arid Rajasthan desert is far from native elephant habitat.  The one Jaipur elephant known to have escaped into the desert in recent years,  a 26-year-old female who bolted in August 2009,  soon died from the combination of heat stress and dehydration with alleged over-sedation when she was captured,  contributing to a fatal fall. Yet working and war elephants have been kept in Jaipur since the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II founded the city in 1727. Traditionally the elephants cooled off daily in Sagar Lake,  surrounding the Jah Mahal,  or “water palace,”  that is among the central Jaipur landmarks.  But frequent droughts have turned much of Sagar Lake into mud flats.

Concerned that the Amber Fort elephants were spending more time standing on hot asphalt awaiting fares,  with less access to water,   the Jaipur-based humane organization Help In Suffering and the Wildlife Trust of India in August 2001 organized a four-day clinic for the elephants and their mahouts.  The clinic was co-sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corp.

“All the elephants were assessed by elephant experts from Kerala,”  then-Help In Suffering head trustee Christine Townend told ANIMAL PEOPLE.  “Most were dehydrated,  with cracked and burnt feet due to walking on the tarmac,  being walked too far every day,  and being kept chained in excrement,  with nowhere for them to bathe.” “The elephants were suffering from foot rot,  lameness,  cracked toenails [which can lead to foot rot],  and malnutrition. Many of the elephants had huge abscesses on their bodies.  Most had corneal opacity,  due either to lack of vitamin A or beatings.”  added Kala Santha,  DVM,  of Sri Lanka,  an elephant specialist who trained 20 Jaipur vets in elephant care basics.

Wildlife Trust of India founder Vivek Menon asked the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation to start a permanent elephant care facility in Jaipur.  The tourism agency envisioned developing an Elephant Village surrounded by shops and restaurants as a visitor attraction,   but the plans did not advance for seven years.

The Help In Suffering program meanwhile expanded into more frequent clinics,  funded in part by the proceeds from annual elephant polo matches organized by Mark Shand of The Elephant Family,  a British charity.  But the elephant polo matches became politically controversial in 2006-2007.  Amid the controversy,  the Rajasthan government at last moved ahead in building the Elephant Village,  located about two kilometers from the Amber Fort.  The elephants were promised facilities designed to promote their well-being.  The mahouts were to live in adjacent housing.

The Elephant Family withdrew from involvement in Jaipur.  The elephant polo matches were suspended in 2009-2010 due to litigation,  but resumed as a tourist attraction in 2011.  After helping in 2009 to introduce the use of a lighter elephant saddle than those traditionally used,  the Help In Suffering outreach program refocused from providing elephant aid to helping working camels,  who had not previously been aided in an organized manner by anyone.

The Elephant Village opened in 2010 with housing for 51 elephants.  But it received a highly critical online review from photographer Rebecca Yale,  who was among the first visitors.

“The elephants are still chained and bound when they sleep,”  Yale wrote.  “You can see the visible chaffing marks on their legs and belly from the chains and harness they wear for the tourists to sit on.  It is true that the mahouts care for the elephants because they are their livelihood,  but they still use the very sharp bull hooks.”

Initially only 32 mahouts used the Elephant Village,  mostly because the water supply was reportedly insufficient.  Now, however,   “The village has a pond in which at a given time at least 50 elephants can take a bath,”  senior mahout Abdul Rashid told TNN.  Rashid,  a mahout for 50 years,  heads the Elephant Owners Society,  locally known as Haathi Malik Vikas Samiti.

But the Elephant Village still does not have either a resident veterinarian or a vet who visits during normal business hours.  “There is a hospital,  but the government is yet to depute a veterinary doctor or any other medical staff,”  Rashid said. In addition,  the Elephant Village is accessible only over a rough,  unlighted stone road.  “Elephant rides continue till 10:30 pm every day and therefore,  it gets very dark by the time we return to the village.  With roads being uneven,  the animals often hurt themselves while walking,”  Rashid explained.

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