Seven years ago a young veterinarian invited 12 tuskers to his marriage feast. The elephants gratefully accepted the offer and made the marriage the talk of the town.
But were these tuskers endowed with human intellect, they would have considered the invite an insult. And the less diplomatic among them would have even brusquely turned down the request.
For thinking jumbos the vet’s act might have felt like an outrageous snub; a 20-something lad parading his mate to a group of 40-plus adult males who had never had a female partner in their lives.
Captive elephants in the state are a sad and lonely lot. Of the 702 captives in the state, only 118 are females, less than 17 per cent of the total captive population. And of the 118, more than 60 per cent have crossed the reproductive age.
The jumbos lead such a loveless existence that there is no record of a pregnancy as a result of a union between two captive elephants in the state.
In the last four years two female elephants delivered, one in Kollam and another in Kottayam, but both had conceived in Assam. “First of all there is no opportunity for elephants to mate in Kerala,” said Dr Easa, an elephant behaviour scientist. “And even if such an opportunity is created, there are no females of fertile age,” he added. It seems a dead end.
Opportunities for mating have long been killed by overwork. “For mating to happen females should be on heat but too much stress suppresses the production of estrogen in females,” said Dr Eashwaran, a leading veterinarian. Females, considered less dangerous because they won’t be possessed by ‘musth’ and are free of tusks, are used for heavy tasks like timber logging. “So even if a male elephant is near, it does not mean that the female will get interested,” Dr Easwaran added.
Further, the female sets near-impossible standards for her partner. The reproductive process is immensely draining for the female; the pregnancy lasts for nearly two years and another five to six years are invested in rearing the calf.
“After having made such a huge emotional and physical investment, she wants the best genes to be passed on. Natural selection will come into play and the female would pick only the most potent of males to bear her calf,” said Dr Arun Zachariah, a forest department veterinarian.
But the alpha males are busy sashaying on temple grounds, dandies without a cause. “They are perennially in male-only surroundings and whenever they are in ‘musth’ they are left with no choice but to let loose their beastly energy on other tuskers or on humans,” said Dr Easa. Private owners are interested only in tuskers as they are the biggest draws in festivals and fetch handsome returns.
“Even if they have a female, the owners are not going to risk a pregnancy because they will have to provide costly care for at least two years for an idle elephant,” said Jayachandran, secretary of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Idukki.
The curse of aborted love seems to be insidiously manifesting itself. “The elephant population is coming down in the state. In the last five years, at least 120 captive elephants have died. We are finding it hard to get elephants for festivals,” said Sasi, secretary of the Elephant Owners’ Federation.
Allowing elephants to fall for each other looks like the only option left. “We are willing to support any breeding policy that the government comes up with,” Sasi said.
Dr Easa suggests a policy on the lines of the one followed in forest camps in Tamil Nadu. “These camps are a fine approximation of a natural habitat. There elephants move like a herd and have a social life.
They have the freedom to graze as they like and their natural instincts are not smothered,” Dr Easa said. “We could set up such camps in places like Muthanga and Kodanad and take our captive elephants to these areas during their lean period, the time when they are free of festival and other commitments,” he added.
Just like in humans, togetherness can stoke romance in elephants too. In 2005, when captive elephants in Tamil Nadu were allowed to graze freely in the Muthumala camp for 41 days, four females were found pregnant.