Religious leaders in India are being presented with an massive task: managing the weight of obese elephants kept in temples.
In parts of India, elephants are kept in temples for religious reasons – taking part in ceremonies and festivals.
Efforts are on in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu to get these over-pampered tusked animals to slim down, officials have said.
Almost all the elephants kept in temples in the state have been found to be obese.
Accordingly, officials are temple officials are reconfiguring the diets of their temple elephants on the advice of veterinary surgeons.
“The female temple elephant – 15 year-old Parvathi – is overweight by 500kg and efforts are on to reduce it,” said Pon Jayaraman, executive officer of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple said.
Another elephant in the Kallazagar Temple weighs 700kg more than the optimum for its age, according to Ravindran, the “Mahout” – or custodian – of the 48-year-old female elephant -Madhuravalli.
But veterinary surgeons point out that obesity and captivity go hand in hand.
Elephants eat up to 200 different varieties of food in the jungle, including fruits, flowers, roots and branches, but in captivity their diets often lack variety.
The experts also point out that the elephants in the wilderness are never exposed to foods such as rice, millets, salt and jaggery (an unrefined sugar set into blocks).
Temple authorities say that a near natural environment has been created for the elephants. But this is strongly disputed by animal rights activists.
Many of the temple elephants throughout India – including 37 in the state of Tamil Nadu – are living in appalling conditions, studies have shown.
Superstitions add to the discomfort of the elephants.
For example, astrologers suggest feeding elephants will ward off evil.
The reasonable option, according to Dr AJT John Singh, former director the Wildlife Institute of India, would be for several temples to join together to buy a patch of land with natural cover, water and food so that the animals can wander and be brought to the temple on festive occasions.
Activists have long pointed out that keeping an elephant in a temple itself is abuse and a gross violation of animal rights.
Elephants in captivity are becoming too inbred, so a German researcher has amassed a sperm bank of wild elephant semen for zoos to draw on. There’s just one small problem – sperm is not a commodity bull elephants give up lightly.
Zoos across the world are facing a growing crisis – the dwindling gene pool of their elephants. In fact, one rather drained male called Jackson has sired many of the captive calves born in the United States in the last ten years.
That’s why, every couple of years, Thomas Hildebrandt of Berlin’s Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) takes to the South African skies in a helicopter over the savannah, searching for bulls.
Once a potentially fertile specimen has been identified, the helicopter swoops down and Hildebrandt fires a narcotic dart to stun the animal.
There then follows a simple five-minute procedure, known as electro-ejaculation.
“It’s an established medical method for paraplegic men which has been used for 25 or 30 years, though it’s rarely performed on wild animals,” Hildebrandt said.
“A probe is inserted about three or four centimetres into the lower intestine, near the gonadal nerve centre,” he explained.
“This is then stimulated with a 5 to 15 volt charge that causes a contraction of the entire reproductive tract, which leads to the sperm being forced out.”
The biggest challenge in this somewhat eye-watering procedure is the powerful anaesthetic in the dart. This happens to trigger a muscle contraction that causes the elephant’s 1.5 metre long penis to retract into its cavity.
This, according to the elephant insemination experts, takes some teasing out.
“The problem is, in order to extract the sperm hygienically, we have to get the tip out and clean it,” explains Hildebrandt. Once this is achieved and the sperm is safely collected, it is immediately frozen, and later thawed out and tested for various elephant diseases.
This is all part of Project Frozen Dumbo, a project started two years ago to collect sperm for banks stored at the Beauval Zoo near St. Aignan in central France, and the International Conservation Centre in Pittsburgh Zoo in the US.
There’s only one snag – no elephant has yet been successfully inseminated with sperm that has previously been frozen.
“But we’re close to it, we’re very, very optimistic,” said Hildebrandt.
“There are many problems. Sperm are very fragile cells. Because they move, the entire propulsion system in the cells has to be preserved during the thawing out process, and can’t be damaged by ice crystals.”
Currently it costs roughly €100,000 to obtain, transport and quarantine three litres of elephant sperm, theoretically enough to impregnate 65 elephant cows. One ejaculation is roughly 100 ml, exactly enough to fill a standard champagne glass, so a number of bulls have to be treated.
This potentially makes the Project Frozen Dumbo much less expensive or traumatic for the animals than to transport them from zoo to zoo to mate. But first it has to work, Hildebrandt admitted.
“The most important thing in this project is success,” he said. “If we can’t show that this investment and all this work results in babies, then no-one will support the research.”
This is the moving moment a grieving herd of elephants said their goodbyes to a little calf who tragically died of a serious heart defect. Baby Lola was due to be the world’s first elephant to have heart surgery to remove a blood clot.
But the three-month-old calf sadly passed away on Saturday during a preliminary CT scan. Keepers at Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich decided to return the baby’s body to the elephant enclosure so mum Panang, 22, could grieve in peace.
The rest of the herd then took it in turns to nuzzle the animal’s lifeless body. Lola’s death will come as a blow to the staff at the zoo, who had all been charmed by the baby elephant.
Speaking last week, zoo director Andreas Knieriem said: “The specialists say that this very difficult operation is Lola’s only hope, so we must do it. We have all fallen for her.”
Elephants never forget, according to the saying – and these ones will always remember when Briton Paul Barton serenaded them with Beethoven. Mr Barton, 50, dragged his piano up a mountain in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to help raise money for injured and blind elephants.
He said: ‘It was a 50th birthday present to myself. My wife and I have been working with blind elephants for many years, and I thought it might be something they would enjoy to listen to.
‘I sat down and thought,what do you play to an elephant? You only get a short time, so I started trawling through my books and then Slow Movement 2 from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata just stuck.
‘I had to drag the piano up a mountain – I have a really bad back, but I wanted to make the effort so I could feel like I had undergone a personal challenge.’ Yorkshire-born Paul now hopes to put on a concert with the elephants to raise funds for an electric fence for the sanctuary where they live.