Death and disease strike Assam's captive jumbos
Scores of captive elephants have died and hundreds more are struggling for survival in India's northeastern state of Assam because their keepers can't afford food and medicines.
For the past four days, Dharanidhar Bhumiz, 52-year-old owner of three bull elephants in this village, 170 km north of Assam's main city of Guwahati, has not had a morsel of food.
One of his tuskers, Ramu, died last week after fracturing his hind leg and a severe bout of parasitic infection.
"I did not have money to treat Ramu, although he was like one of my family members. I do not feel like eating. Ramu's towering figure haunts me even while sleeping," Bhumiz said tearfully.
Like Ramu, scores of domestic elephants have either died or are suffering from multiple ailments with their keepers finding it hard to rear the giant animals.
"The health of working elephants in Assam is fast deteriorating with the animals becoming weak due to non-availability of balanced nutrition and medical attention," said Kushal Konwar Sharma, a noted elephant expert and teacher at Guwahati's College of Veterinary Science.
"I have personally examined hundreds of such elephants suffering from severe parasitic infections and food related diseases. A number of the animals have died and many more are going to perish unless treated soon."
Elephant keepers blame a 1996 Supreme Court ruling banning illegal felling of trees for the pachyderms' plight. Authorities estimate that 1,200 captive elephants in Assam were affected by the court ruling.
"Our elephants used to work in timber transport and earned anything between Rs.40,000-50,000 (about $1,000) per month," said Abani Payeng, who owns two elephants.
Today, owning elephants are a burden with the animals failing to earn even Rs.10,000 a year, said Rontu Das, another elephant keeper.
Asian elephants consume about 250 kg or more of food a day to support their huge bulk. In captivity, they have longer life spans living 60 to 70 years, or even longer.
"For an elephant's upkeep, including food and medicines, we require about Rs.7,000-10,000 a month," Payeng said.
Lack of work has also prompted elephant owners to compromise and employ unskilled mahouts, resulting in an increase in casualties with the animals killing their keepers.
"We find unskilled keepers are engaged to nurture the elephants. These second-rung mahouts very often get trampled as they are not trained to handle a bull when they develop musth, a symptom when the animals go berserk," Sharma said.
Elephant owners are angry with wildlife authorities for failing to come to the animal's rescue.
"There are no health camps organised by the authorities and no alternative employment measures chalked out for tamed elephants when the court ban was enforced," said Priabrata Teron, who owns six elephants.
Last week, the Assam government announced its decision to employ domestic elephants in the tourism sector.
"We are planning to employ some of the jumbos within the national parks by developing schemes like eco-tourism and more elephant safaris," said Assam Forest Minister Pradyut Bordoloi.
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