It is literally a ton of weight on the shoulders of authorities of Tamil Nadu in southern India. The temple elephants kept for religious reasons in the state are getting obese, and now their keepers are planning a strict diet and exercise regime to bring the jumbos back into shape.
Temple elephants unlike their wild counterparts are an over pampered lot. Apart from their daily diet of tones of husk and fruits, the elephants are offered fruits and vegetables constantly by the over zealous worshippers, trying to appease the lord. Elephants have a special place in Hindu mythology also because of Lord Ganesh, the elephant Lord.
But what has lately been observed is that without much exercise in the confined temple compounds and with the constant eating all the temple elephants in the state have gained huge amount of weight.
“The female temple elephant – 15 year-old Parvathi – is overweight by 500kg and efforts are on to reduce it,” said Pon Jayaraman, executive officer of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple.
Another elephant in the Kallazagar Temple weighs 700kg more than the optimum for its age, according to Ravindran, the Mahout of the 48-year-old female elephant -Madhuravalli.
Vets point out that the weight issue of the temple elephants arises mainly because of their captive life. The main differences are,
- The wild elephants have a daily diet of a variety of jungle food like fruits, berries, leaves, stems, etc. The temple jumbos are given the same diet everyday.
- The wild elephants are never exposed to processed food and grains like rice, millet etc. while the temple elephants often eat wheat, rice, chapattis etc. They are also given excessive amounts of sugar in their diet coming from the sweets offered.
- Wild elephants wander, trek uphill, cross streams and walk on a variety of terrain. Captive elephants in the temple are confined to the premises and even if they are taken on a daily walk, it is not more than a few kilometers each day which is too low. Contrarily, in the wilderness an elephant has to walk at least 20 sq km to find its daily food intake of around 250kg of plant matter.
- Wild elephants are competing for nature’s resources with other animals. Temple elephants lose their survival skills and lead a sedentary life.
A senior forest veterinary officer in the state observed,
“In captivity, elephants eat constantly, and that coupled with lack of exercise makes the animals obese.”
Dr AJT John Singh, former director the Wildlife Institute of India, called the practice a “grave sin”.
“It’s like confining a solitary person in… the middle of the forest,” he said. “Elephants are social animals and have amazing social bonds with one another. Breaking that, and keeping the animal alone, is like solitary confinement, the greatest form of punishment to a human being.”
Many experts are of the opinion that it is not right to keep elephants in temples. In Tamil Nadu alone there are 37 temple elephants. Double the amount of elephants are present in the neighbouring state of Kerala.
Although temple athourities claim that the elephants are housed properly with a natural environment created for them, previous studies show that the accommodations are not suited for an elephant’s needs.
A reasonable option where both the temples worshippers and the elephants are happy would be, according to Dr John Singh, for several temples to join together to buy a patch of land with natural cover, water and food so that the animals can wander and be brought to the temple on festive occasions.
The elephants don’t really need the sweet offerings…just a sweet thought from our part to let them live in an environment that suits their wild needs.
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