Elephants, the largest living land animal, are one of the most unique-looking animals because of their elongated nose called “trunks” and large-floppy ears. Their bulky physique standing on columnar legs is as voluminous as that of Rhinoceros or Hippopotamus and these huge-headed mammals are greyish to brown in color with sparse and coarse body hair.
An adult elephant (family: Elephantidae) weighs up to 5,500 kg. More than two-thirds of an elephant’s day may be spent feeding on grasses, but it also eats large amounts of tree bark, roots, leaves, and small stems. Cultivated crops such as bananas, rice, and sugarcane are their favorite foods. In the wild, they may consume 350 pounds of food each day and spend 18 to 20 hours foraging and eating. Elephants need to eat an average of 150 kg per day to survive. They require about 68.4 to 98.8 L (18 to 26 gal.) of water daily but may consume up to 152 L (40 gal.). An adult male elephant can drink up to 212 L (55 gal.)
The leading theory says that after tectonic forces caused India to crash into Asia between 55 and 35 million years ago, the ancestors of these mammals walked in from Africa, Southeast Asia, and northern Asia. Wild elephants in Nepal are often migratory visitors from Bengal, India. Most of the wild populations are found in small fragmented groups with little chance of being viable in the long term.
These animals used to be a status symbol of wealthy owners in past and used as the main means of transport and big hunting game. Sadly they are now limited to forest excursion rides and entertaining visitors at various parks and reserves in Nepal. They are one of the tourism magnets in Nepal plus a mode to attract funding that helps protect wilderness areas.
Domesticated elephants have long been associated with religious beliefs and practices mainly by Hindus. Hindus have an elephant-headed god, Ganesh, who grants boon very easily to his devotees.
Elephants are keystone species that play an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of ecosystems. When these forest elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation that help maintain forest ecosystems for other species too. They are also important ecosystem engineers who create pathways in dense forests that allow passage for other animals too.
Current Status of Elephants in Nepal
Humans and elephants have shared environments for thousands of years and a quarter of the world’s Asian elephant population are held in captivity. There is currently a total of 208 captive elephants in Nepal alone and 94 of them are tamed under Nepal Government at various National Parks.
Up until the 1960s, the elephant population was largely located in the lowland forest area in Southern Nepal but rapidly rising human populations saw mass resettlement and land clearance which has had a devastating effect on their numbers. According to the latest data published, there are approximately 200 to 250 wild elephants in Nepal. Of them, 15-20 are in the Jhapa district, 17 in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, 8 in Sindhuli District, and 45-50 at the Parsa and Chitwan National Parks. It was found that the elephant population in Nepal has been increasing since 2000. The highest count of elephants was found in Bardia National Park (113) and the lowest animal counted (8) in Sindhuli.
However, within the boundaries of the Royal Bardiya National Park, where a significant population increase has been recorded, rising from 25 elephants in the early ’90s to over 50 individuals a decade later. There is no elephant poaching recorded in Nepal after 2014 but every year 2-3 elephants are killed in Human-Elephant-Conflict (HEC). The destruction of dense forests has also led to the shrinking of the habitat of the Asian elephant in Nepal.
HEC is increasing every day with the rise in the number of elephants in Nepal. Elephants kill 10-12 people and 2-3 elephants are killed in retaliation every year plus humans lose a large number of properties, agricultural crops, and stored grains in the process.
Besides the residential elephants, people were also facing the HEC from the migratory ones. As many as 120-130 elephants in search of food and shelter enter eastern Nepal through the plains of Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. While 40-45 of them through Laljhadi-Mohana corridor of Kanchanpur district and Basanta corridor of Kailali district enter far western Nepal.
Elephants at National Parks
Elephants are kept at tourism venues to offer entertainment such as rides, shows, elephant bathing, feeding, selfies, and observation. Elephant tourism has become a major financial windfall for businessmen at the Chitwan National Park in Saurah. Visitors to the area often mention their desire to ‘see elephants’ both in wild and captive settings. Tourism vendors must keep up the appearance of happy animals in a peaceful environment in order to maintain a steady flow of income.
Elephant’s Habitat Conservation
Nepal’s success in its wildlife conservation efforts can be attributed to the fact that 23% of the area in Nepal is protected by the government as National Parks, reserves, and conservation areas. The Nepalese government has recognized the importance of elephant conservation and has established five protected reserves and breeding centers that play a vital role to maintain and grow the elephant count.
Protecting elephant habitat, Monitoring their numbers and poaching rates, and Threats to elephant habitat in Nepal are some of the steps that are being followed to protect these species.
All endangered species including elephants are prohibited to be hunted in Nepal.
Life of Mahout (Before/After The Ban of Elephant-Rides at National Parks)
A mahout is a person who drives and looks after the elephant. Traditionally, the role of a mahout is passed down patrilineally along with ownership of a family’s elephants.
Many mahouts take up the job because they cannot find alternative employment also they believe becoming a Mahout will be an easy job. Because of that, an elephant that is used for jungle safari will have at least four different mahouts during its lifetime.
Elephants suffer from poor living conditions and they are forced to carry people on their backs and similarly, Mahouts suffer low pay for a high-risk job. Both elephant and Mahout have to suffer many injuries for a little financial security. There is a lack of comprehensive training for mahouts, and any training given is only a month-long. And the lack of comprehensive training put mahouts plus the tourists at serious risk of unseen accidents.
Despite these difficult situations, mahouts were happy to earn from the elephant rides at National Parks because their daily lifestyle depended on it.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit tourism worldwide at the beginning of 2020, which pushed already suffering mahouts to their wit’s end. Their daily income dropped to zero while expenses kept increasing making it difficult to sustain when there was no work. Many mahouts sold their elephants to Indian buyers when and if their asking price was met. The selling of elephants in a foreign market was an illegal trade of wildlife according to the Animal Rights Activists and concerns. Therefore, as a solution, mahout pledged Nepal Government bought their animals or take care of them if the trade was in fact illegal.
Mahouts revived their livelihood during the end of 2020 when tourism was supposedly back on its feet and National Parks started seeing tourists after a long time that year. But this was momentary, and the country went into a second lockdown on March 24, 2020. The whole of 2020 was a disaster for tourism entrepreneurs and mahouts and everyone throughout the country.
The number of elephant camps in Chitwan and Nawalparasi has grown significantly in recent years to meet the rapidly growing demand of foreigners and Nepali thrill-seekers. In such a scenario, Nepal Government has to seek alternative employment solutions to Elephant ride because this ban can cost Mahouts serious livelihood. Nepal is in dire need to introduce and enforce new guidelines that ensure the safety of these beautiful animals, deploy Mahouts with adequate training to promote Nepal’s wildlife tourism. A complete ban on anything is not a solution.
- Featured Photo: A Mahout taking his elephant to Rapti river for a bath at Chitwan National Park. by Priti Thapa