Written by Nelvin Wilson
For owners of captive elephants in Kerala, the summer months of March, April and May are generally a hectic period. This is the time when a large number of temples in the state observe their annual festivals which are considered ritualistically incomplete without caparisoned elephants swaying to traditional percussion beats. However, the ongoing nationwide coronavirus lockdown, which just got extended to May 3, has left elephant owners staring at dark days ahead as all temples have suspended elaborate festivals and shut its doors to the public.
“This year’s season began on January 21 and we had regular bookings till May. But we have lost all of that now. The next season would begin only in January next year. Till then, managing the elephant’s requirements is a mammoth task. We incur a daily cost of Rs. 4000 per elephant for food and other needs,” said Sreejith, a native of Thrissur district who owns the elephant going by the name of Guruji Sivaranayanan.
Sreejith’s elephant is a regular alongside the more popular, 80-year-old Thechikottukavu Ramachandran at the annual Thrissur Pooram festivities. This year, the Thrissur Pooram, a melange of festivals of ten temples in and around the town of Thrissur scheduled to take place on May 2, has been called off. This is the first time in living memory that a huge event such as the Pooram, which draws in lakhs of people including from foreign countries and sees the parading of 30 elephants at a time, has been reduced to rituals without the participation of the public.
In Kerala, ownership of domesticated elephants come under two categories: those owned by the devaswoms, or temple managements and those owned by private individuals. Both the temple managements as well as private individuals rent out their pachyderms for festivals that range from 5 to 10 days for sums that run into lakhs. The revenues they shore up from such festivals during the summer months goes into taking care of the animal’s food and medical needs for the rest of the year. The taller the elephant and longer its tusks, the higher its demand goes. For decades, elephant owners and temple management committees in Kerala have tapped into the average Malayali’s fascination for the elephant to draw larger crowds. Every year, incidents of unruly elephants creating chaos at such festivals are reported. But the public fascination for them has rarely dipped.
Now, with the lockdown adding to the uncertainties of social and public life in the days ahead, elephant owners like Sreejith are scrambling to cover rising expenses.
“To take care of my elephant, I have to spend at least Rs. 4000 per day including wages of the mahout. An elephant needs at least 20 sets of coconut fronds a day which costs about Rs. 2500. The fronds come from Palakkad. At the start of the lockdown, we had logistical difficulties in bringing the leaves. But now, we are able to source them,” he added.
Temple festivals during the summer, says Sreejith, are so lucrative that people with even postgraduate degrees are thrilled to take up temporary stint in taking care of the elephant during the season. For owners like him, an entire season can help make a profit of Rs 2-3 lakhs. But now, with all bookings cancelled, the picture isn’t rosy anymore.
Oottoli Krishnan, who owns six elephants in Thrissur, chipped in, “I’m forced to borrow money to take care of the expenses right now. I have to incur a daily cost of Rs 25000 for my six elephants. Because of the lockdown, each of my elephants have missed an average of 50 festivals this season. It’s a very sensitive situation.”
The mahouts have been equally affected. Chirakkal Sreedharan, who owns three elephants, said a mahout can make as much as Rs 4000 on the day of a temple festival. If there are two mahouts per elephant, they divide it among themselves.
Chandran Ramanthara, the Thrissur district president of the elephant owners federation, said, “The government has to intervene immediately. 75 per cent of the elephant owners in the state are those who are unable to pay daily wages of their mahouts due to financial constraints. Since an entire season has been washed away, elephant owners have to wait for months to shore up revenues again.”
“Elephants for us are like our family members. When one of them falls ill, we take care of them, right? So right now, we’re managing expenses as much as we can. We have a duty to take care of them,” said Mangalamkunnu Chettiar, an owner of 12 captive elephants including some of the famous ones such as Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan.
Apart from the financial constraints, protecting the elephants and their respective mahouts from potential Covid-19 infection is another worry plaguing their minds. When the owners realised that their elephants, tethered all day near a public spot, are drawing people, a state-wide association of owners had to put out a statement requesting people not to come near the animals. Recently, a tiger tested positive for coronavirus at the Bronx Zoo in New York, sparking fears about human-to-animal transmission, but so far, there has not been conclusive evidence about such transmission in elephants.
Dr. PS Easa, an expert on conservation of asian elephants, said it’s always good to take precautions as no one predicted the transmission of the virus into a tiger in the US.
“For example, elephants can get tuberculosis from human beings. So a possibility always exists. But so far, veterinarians have ruled it out. It’s important to be careful, especially the mahouts. They are the ones taking care of the elephants. They can be carriers, so their health is equally important,” he said.