Friday, August 26, 2011

Riding Bare-back

I've told you how much I love elephants. My interactions with them include some of my favorite memories of life here in India. Although it is admittedly controversial, there is something magical about mixing an elephant with the urban landscape. Seeing an elephant squeeze between a city bus and a line of bicycle rickshaws... there just aren't many places in the world where you can witness such a scene.
My fascination with these giant mammals recently led me on a little investigation. How many of them were kept in New Delhi? Where did they live and who took care of them? Pachyderms are not easy to keep healthy. What did they eat and how did the get enough water? 

Here are some quick facts about my Asian elephant friends... They are an endangered species. There is an estimated 26,000 of them currently living in south Asia. They weigh up to five tons and can be 3 meters tall and 6 meters long. Asian elephants spend about 16 hours each and every day eating. They eat 200-300 kilos of fodder a day and drink as much as 100 liters (that's 25 gallons) of water per day. Did I mention baths?  They need to bathe at least twice a day. (I have a few friends in that category)...

Champa, who was gracious enough to let me ride her bare-back, is 35 years old. She's a sweetheart who weighs about 3 tons and will probably live to be between 60 and 70 years, provided her Mahout (driver & keeper) takes good care of her.

There are two big problems for the few elephants who remain in the city of New Delhi. Finding enough water that is actually safe to drink, and mistreatment by the men who care for them. There's evidence of  repeated beatings, and malnutrition. The Mahouts care for their elephants in ways that have been passed down to them by previous generations. Many of the same families have been caring for elephants since the time of the Mughal Emperors. It's a cultural phenomenon. And elephants are expensive to keep. It costs a lot rupees for mahouts to provide a proper diet and routine medical care.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately) the business is booming. Elephants are all the rage at weddings, birthday parties, and even baby showers. Elephants are the living manifestation of the Hindu god, Ganesha. He's the remover of obstacles and a bringer of good luck. Definitely in demand these days.

With education and the support from NGO's like the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Protection Society of India, and to a lesser degree, the Indian government, there is some hope. Despite some abuse and neglect, the seven elephants I've had the fortune to observe, work hard, but seem happy. They are able to roam freely when "off duty" and have access, during monsoon, to cleaner waters.

Indians love their elephants at least as much as I do - for both the religious and cultural legacies they represent. The government needs to work harder to create a safer urban haven and allow the animals access to cleaner, more abundant water during the drier summer and winter seasons.
I recently took some friends on a bareback, urban safari... It's definitely a unique experience to be around them in such an odd, natural setting. For me, elephants are a joy to be near. But this won't last long unless something is done so they can more safely co-exist in the concrete world that surrounds them. Based on a recent census, there are now probably less than twenty elephants living and working in the National Capital Region. That's apparently down from forty just a few short years ago...

Namaste, Y'all.

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