Jumbo confusion at the zoo

Jumbo confusion at the zoo

The Central Zoo Authority recently sent a surprising circular to all the zoos in the country. According to the circular sent on November 7, the zoos cannot house elephants in future. They should be immediately handed over to the forest department, the circular says.

It goes on to add that elephants are kept chained in their enclosure, which affects their physical and mental health. Some zoos are finding it burdensome to maintain the jumbos. Moreover, these gentle giants may turn dangerous during the mating season and may harm visitors. To prevent it, they may be forcefully kept in confinement for a few weeks. Considering all these reasons, the Authority sent the circular advising the zoos that the elephants be sent to the elephant camps, rehabilitation camps, national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves coming under the forest department.

Confusion among managements
The Authority’s order has created confusion among the managements of zoos across the State, including the Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens, Mysore.
Wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists are now debating whether such a move is appropriate or if it is scientific at all.
The two prestigious national parks - Bandipur and Nagarhole - come under the Tiger Project and are considered to be core critical tiger habitats. Development activity, or for that matter, any kind of human activity is banned in these parks.
The Nagarhole park has 35-40 domesticated or tame elephants while Bandipur, five. Once zoo elephants join the camps, it is natural to suppose that human activities will increase. Each elephant is looked after by its mahout with assistance from a kavadi. Their families also stay close-by. More elephants mean increased tourist pressure on the area, an additional inconvenience.

The camp elephants have to be let out in the forest for foraging or grazing. Or, branches of leaves, favoured by the animals. At the Murkal camp, Nagarhole, one can see that trees around four-five km surrounding the camp look bare. The grass and low branches are long gone, inside the elephants’ stomachs. It is indeed rare these days to sight a deer, a sambhar or a gaur anywhere near Murkal camp.
But, the Range Forest Office has no such problem. Deers can be seen prancing around its periphery without bothering the least about this human habitat. It is clear that there is not enough food for the deer at Murkal camp. It does not make sense to add more elephants to the camp.
The elephants also enjoy the services offered by the water-holes in the surrounding area, affecting other wild animals. Most important, nocturnal animals give the water bodies a wide berth if the elephants are around, another problem posed by the pachyderms.

Then, there is also the possibility of contracting diseases. Diseases, commonly found in livestock, may spread to the wild animals, once they come into contact with each other. There are chances that the pet elephants may spread diseases like septicemia, jaundice and anthrax. Wild tuskers are known to be regular 'visitors' to the camps whenever there are female elephants around. The possibility of these tuskers contracting diseases cannot be ruled out.

Protection and conservation of a forest and its wildlife is the topmost priority and responsibility of the forest department, more so in the tiger project, sanctuaries and natural parks. Looking after tame elephants is just an additional work for the department. When the British were ruling India, they were after our valuable wood, just as they were after other things. But there were no trucks and cranes to transport the logs, and they inevitably looked towards to get their job done. And tribal mahouts who could tame the beasts.

The same elephant camps remain in the forests but without all those activities. Apart from sending a couple of dozen of elephants to the Mysore Dasara festivities, there is nothing much is happening in the camp. In this context too, looking after tame elephants becomes a burden to the RFO, foresters and guards who are supposed to guard the forest the first thing.

There is another problem as well. Elephants in a zoo are on a systematic diet and have regular medical check-ups. Shifting to camps will drastically alter their routine. Moreover, the emotional attachment an elephant develops towards its mahout, the kavadi and their families is hard to be replaced by strangers in a new environment.

Ambiguity in the order
Also, the order is not clear on whether the mahouts and the kavadis go with the elephants out to the camps. Also there are doubts on  whether they get the same salary and perks they drew at the zoos and most importantly, what happens to their families in such a situation. Then again, what happens to the African elephants after their Asian cousins are removed from the premises?
Most of the wildlife experts and environmental activists are unanimous in their opinion that the Zoo Authority order is not only unscientific but also unnecessary.
(Translated by B S Srivani)

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