Captive elephants are out of work in Sauraha and they don’t get enough to eatLocal authorities have allowed elephants to graze on the banks of the Rapti. But owners say authorities need to do more.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
The last few weeks have been tough for Rishi Tiwari. Feeding Ichchhakali and Begumkali, two of his elephants, has become difficult due to the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the contagious coronavirus.
Owners of elephants held captive to entertain tourists have been facing problems feeding them as tourism—their source of income— has dried up for the last several weeks due to the lockdown.
“The situation is more difficult than after the 2015 earthquake. I never faced such trouble feeding my elephants,” said Tiwari, who has been raising elephants for the past two decades. “We had never seen lockdown before. I thought this would not last long. Now, I can neither go out myself nor shops are open.”
According to Tiwari, a minimum of Rs 80,000 to Rs 100,000 is needed to feed an elephant for a month. On average, they eat 250 kg of fodder every month. An elephant also needs to be given 20 kg of paddy twice a day. But all of his stock of fodder has dried up already.
“The lockdown came as a shock. We cannot stock up quintals of paddy,” said Tiwari. “During normal times, villagers used to help with fodder and feed elephants. Now even they are locked inside.”
Over 70 captive elephants such as Ichchhakali, 37, and Begumkali, 41, living in the resort town famous for its jungle safaris have been struggling for food as the Covid-19 pandemic and measures being taken to contain the virus has curtailed tourism in the area.
Tiwari, who is also the president of United Elephant Cooperative Limited, a group of elephant, elephant owners are scrambling to feed elephants and keep them healthy because their source of income has dried up lately.
“Soon after news of the novel coronavirus started in China, tourist arrivals plummeted in Sauraha since the beginning of January,” Tiwari told the Post. “As tourist arrivals dropped, our business also shrank, and it became difficult to feed these animals. But whatever the situation, they need food.”
Since the country went into lockdown following the Covid-19 outbreak, there have been concerns about the health and wellbeing of these captive elephants as they continue to struggle without enough food and water and movement as even elephants are not allowed to leave their stables.
Local tourism entrepreneurs and animal rights groups such as Elephant Aid International, a US-based organisation, voiced concerns requesting that the elephants be freed and fed. Following the request, Chitwan National Park and other local authorities allowed the elephants to go out and graze on grassland areas on the banks of the Rapti.
“Tourism entrepreneurs complained that feeding elephants had become difficult in recent weeks. There were no staff to take care of elephants and these elephants could not be taken out,” said Prakash Upreti, information officer at the Chitwan National Park.
“They have requested that the elephants be allowed entry inside the park. We could not grant them the permission to do so as the park is also under lockdown,” he said. “The park authority allowed them to graze outside the park, and around community forests adjacent to the park.”
While elephants have long been used for safaris in Chitwan, their abuse has drawn criticism from international animal rights activists and tourists as well. Several studies have documented ill-treatment of elephants by the tourism sector over the years.
A survey called ‘An Elephant Is Not A Machine” conducted by Animal Nepal showed that the welfare of Sauraha-based captive elephants is significantly compromised. The study of 42 privately owned ‘safari elephants’ in Sauraha found out that conditions of these animals fall short in many areas—restricted movement, shelter conditions, nutrition, health and healthcare, safari management, as well as mahout welfare. The same study concluded that 82 percent of the surveyed elephants live under ‘unsuitable conditions’.
Allowing elephants to go outside for grazing and drinking water from the river can give little respite for elephants, according to Tiwari.
“Letting elephants out to graze and drink water around the periphery area of the park will help animals flex their muscles. They need to go out and relax,” said Tiwari.
“There are vast areas of grassland inside the park. A small section could be separated for these elephants.,” said Tiwari. “But that the animals are getting to come out is better than them staying locked up.”