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It’s a painful walk in this concrete jungle

An Elephant loves the wild. But its might eventually proved to be its nemesis, reports Avishek G Dastidar.
None | By Avishek G Dastidar, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 18, 2007 02:35 AM IST

An Elephant loves the wild. But its might eventually proved to be its nemesis. Considered auspicious and devoted labourers, elephants got shackled to the man’s world for odd jobs, entertainment and sacred ceremonies meant to invoke the Gods, especially Lord Ganesha. Separated from their dear ones in the wild, hundreds of elephants are leading a life full of pain and fear in cities like Delhi today, only to earn a mouthful of jaggery, sugarcane, or whatever the mahouts serve them.

In God’s own country, Kerala, elephants have a special place in the heart of the faithfuls. Thanks to a high court directive on captive elephants’ management rules, jumbos are not supposed to be paraded on the roads between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sadly, their cousins in Delhi do not enjoy such a luxury.

Meet Muniya, a 10-feet-tall 45-year-old elephant. For years, Muniya has been trudging through the streets of the Capital to earn two square meals a day. She has graced countless weddings in the city and treated many foreigners to what may be called a safari in the concrete jungle.

Muniya is a member of an exclusive club of about 40 elephants in Delhi. They make a grand appearance at various religious festivals, weddings, parties and functions. The Delhi Elephant Owners’ Association (DEOA) frequently reviews the food, shelter and upkeep requirements for all the jumbos. The bright side of the story ends there.

Ever seen an elephant enjoying a bath in the Yamuna? It’s undoubtedly an intelligent animal, and it sure knows that the river is polluted. But then, does it have a choice? Similarly, many a commuter would have shared road space with an elephant. The blaring horns and the menacingly driven vehicles bogs down every one of us. What about the elephant which cries silently everytime it steps on the hot, tarred road? Life just goes on the hard way.

Have you ever been to an elephant’s favourite haunt in the Capital? Off the ITO Bridge across acres of fields along the river, there is a densely populated area of eucalyptus trees. That’s the place they love to be in. Amid the trees, there is a small cluster of huts where the caretakers and the mahouts live. This correspondent met Mohammed Akram, a DEOA member and keeper of five elephants. Akram said, “My elephants and I have been here for decades. Delhi has grown bigger and busier everyday, but its requirement for elephants has remained the same.”

Behind his hut, two of his elephants were preparing for yet another day of work after a three-hour bath in the river. But not before the feast — unusually thick and big rotis.

Akram, who hails from Bijnaur in UP, had been using the elephants for commercial purposes since 1982. He proudly said, “When elephants walk on the roads, even the biggest and most expensive cars look so ordinary.” But when an elephant gets stuck in traffic, anything is possible. An elephant-keeper recalled an incident that still leaves him in peals of laughter. Once there was a major traffic jam near Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi, and his elephant, too, got stranded. To be extra cautious, he had requested a scooterist behind the elephant to move a little further. That’s when the elephant relieved herself, and the poor scooterist paid the price for being too close. “But there are no public toiltes for the elephants anyway,” Akram said.

A fellow elephant-keeper joined us, and recalled a similar story. “Once on the way to Ghaziabad, my elephant decided that she had walked long enough and it was time to take some rest. No problem, except that she chose to rest bang in the middle of the road. The mahout and I kept on urging her to shift to the roadside, but she did not. She held up the traffic for nearly half-an-hour,” he said.

Elephant-keepers and mahouts have learnt a lot from such bitter experiences. “Nowadays, we start early to escape the rush hour,” said Akram.

Mohammad Ashraf, DEOA President, then summed up the story of their lives. “There is a lot of inconvenience — for us and others. It’s difficult to keep elephants in the city. Besides, the income is too less as compared to the monthly spending. It costs around Rs 10,000 a month for the upkeep of an elephant,” he said.

On a daily basis, Muniya and Champa are served rotis — made with 10 kg of flour — and 5 kg of jaggery. “That’s just average diet,” said Zulfikar, an elephant-keeper.

For six months in a year, the elephants are given a royal treatment, claim the caretakers. And once the peak season for weddings and functions sets in — usually from October to April — work takes a toll on the elephants. That’s where the animal welfare NGOs step in. “All the elephants suffer from stress. Since they walk on tarred roads, they develop cracks and blisters on their footpads,” said wildlife activist Kartick Satyanarayan of NGO Wildlife SOS.

Wildlife SOS has been running an elephant welfare programme for the past two years. There is a mobile medical van to attend to any health-related call from elephant owners. “Delhi is so different from the elephants’ natural habitat. They are not meant to be here,” said Satyanarayan. “We all love to see an elephant on the road. But we don’t realise that the elephant is actually suffering. Even the elephant-keepers are fudging their accounts and investing the least for the animal,” says wildlife activist Gautam Grover of NGO Animal Savior.

Elephants have a good memory. Muniya and Champa may know the way back to the wild, but they are shackled to the material world.

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