New cash cow for Rajasthan tourism

Pachyderms face harsh weather in Jaipur

A woman watches as a mahout gives bath to an elephant in Haathi Gaon on the outskirts of Jaipur. Photo Courtesy: Anchit Natha

Laxmi is in a hurry to go to the pond as the mercury slowly rises and hovers around 44-degree Celsius. The 25-year-old elephant is thrilled as she enters the pond to beat the heat in Haathi Gaon (Elephant village) on the outskirts of Jaipur. As the scorching sun continues to beat down in summer, she refuses to leave the pond even after spending hours in water.

She leaves the pond after sunset and that too only after much goading by her caretaker Munnu. 

Laxmi is not alone. Most of the elephants, including Meera and Shakuntala, wish to spend long hours inside the pond to overcome the heat. Elephants occupy most part of the pond during summers. 

Mahouts also spend time cleaning them with scrubbers and soap. They take anywhere between two and four hours to give a bath to elephants.

Haathi Gaon, India’s first elephant village, was launched in 2010 to provide shelter to more than 100 elephants and their mahouts. The 305-hectare area near Amber Fort, which is famous for elephant rides, has natural park-like shelter for jumbos with a green cover. The government wants to attract tourists and has many features to impress visitors.

Elephants are used to thrill tourists, but their upkeep is really pathetic. In an attempt to improve conditions at the village, the government transferred the management of Haathi Gaon from the tourism department to the forest department. The government hired a consultant to prepare an Rs 8-crore action plan to improve the condition of the elephant village. 

The shelter for elephants has been scrubbed and painted with jungle images to give it a look of a natural habitat and green cover has been improved. A well-equipped veterinary hospital has come up and sewage system has been redone. The guesthouse is also coming up for tourists.

After taking charge, the forest department set up an elephant welfare society and started collecting entry fee for the village. The proceeds will be used for maintenance and development.

“The elephant rides have already started on specially made tracks. A domestic tourist has to pay Rs 50 for entry, while a foreigner will be charged Rs 300,” forest official in-charge of Haathi Gaon Vijay Prakash Gupta said. 

The village has now been turned into another tourist attraction with developmental works being done by the Jaipur Development Authority (JDA) and the forest department. The JDA has spent Rs 3.85 crore on the makeover, which includes Ranthambore style of paintings and frescos.

Out of 110 elephants in Rajasthan, Haathi Gaon has 58 females and five males housed in 21 thans (shelters). Each then has three elephants. The elephants are taken care of by their mahouts. At least two mahouts look after an elephant from morning till evening. Most of the mahouts continue to carry forward the tradition. 

To track elephants’ movements, they have been collared with a microchip.

The authorities spend over Rs 2,300 daily on an elephant. “We wake up at 5 am and ready elephants for Amber ride. An elephant drinks 250 litres of water a day in summer and consumes 10 kg flour every day. Its daily intake includes jawaar kakdi, hara chana, Rajma, watermelon and thick chapatis,” says, Abdul Rashid Khan a 7th generation haathi owner and mahout. 

Attempts have been made to make the village look like a natural habitat. But water shortage has hit the plans badly. “The forest department is trying hard but still there is a shortage of drinking water,” added Abdul Rashid Khan, president of Haathi Malik Vikas Samiti. 

However, the forest department claims that for the mahouts and their families, water ATM has been installed. “We are also in talks with PHE department for a direct drinking pipeline for elephants. We have been successful in making them understand that an elephant too needs clean drinking water like humans,” Chief Wildlife Warden G V Reddy told DH

“We are trying to manage Haathi Gaon on the lines of Nahargarh Biological Park. The completed work includes landscaping, plantation, deepening of water bodies, and adding more sheds for elephants,” Reddy added. 

As efforts continue aggressively to market elephant safari, conservationists have been demanding a ban on it.

However, tourism enthusiasts say that an elephant is a Wildlife Schedule I animal and it also has an historic importance in Rajasthan which tourists must know. They say the village is a hub for research and should be developed.

“I had heard much about Haathi Gaon so I visited the village. It’s a research laboratory which tells you a lot about elephants. But the place needs more greenery and concrete should be avoided. It should also have a library or a small museum focusing on elephants,” a traveller and cultural enthusiast Damini Gaur said. 

Elephants are part of Jaipur’s rich legacy and the then Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh paid attention to take care of the elephants and mahouts and the city has a mohalla (colony) for mahouts known as Pheel Khana and mohulla of mahouts, situated at Ghat Gate Bazaar in the walled city.

In the famous book “India’s Elephants: A Cultural Legacy”, Jaipur-based author on culture and tourism Tripti Pandey, brings out the connection of Rajasthan and elephants since 16th century which, according to her, is quite evident by the paintings during the time of Maharaja Karan Singh II, now placed at Jaipur’s city palace.  

Sharing her views, Pandey said,”We must revive the elephant festival to celebrate our legacy. The aim behind Jaipur’s elephant festival which was curated by me and a friend was to inculcate a sense of pride. Only tourism can give a boost to elephants and also their maintenance will improve. The legacy of elephants also deserves a separate museum which will emerge as a centre for researchers and it will be another feather in the cap of Incredible India. Visitors need to know centuries-old practices of humans and elephants. The history of Rajasthan is incomplete without knowing elephant as a part of our rich legacy,” she added.  

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New cash cow for Rajasthan tourism

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