By K.P.M. Basheer
The foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) that has afflicted domestic cattle in southern States is looking to threaten an unexpected sector — Kerala’s flourishing elephant rental business.
The rental business’ high season has just opened and elephant owners are flush with bookings. In the case of certain top-end elephants with high brand value, the booking is for four or five months in advance. But the FMD outbreak in the State over a month ago left thousands of cattle infected. Though the airborne viral infection affects domestic cattle mostly, sheep, pigs, wild and captive animals are also susceptible.
Already, three captive elephants in Thrissur district have been diagnosed with the epidemic. “Captive elephants, too, are susceptible to the disease though they are not hoofed,” says Nameer P.O., Associate Professor of Wildlife at the Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur. “The disease is usually not fatal, but the secondary infection sometimes leads to death.” FMD in elephants has been reported from Thailand and Myanmar before, he noted. The viral infection — which spreads through contact with infected animals, farm tools, clothes and humans tending to the affected animals — causes painful blisters in the hoofs and mouths of animals.
Since elephants are mostly rented out for ‘ezhunnellippu’ (for parading with statues of deities mounted on the elephant back) at temple festivals, they need to work for several hours.
“During the ezhunnellippu, the elephant is made to stand at the same spot for two or three hours together even as the ‘chenda melam’ (drum beats) goes on,” Vinod Kumar, a mahout said. “If struck with the FMD, the animal will not be able to tolerate this and can go crazy.”
Punnathurkotta, the elephant house owned by Guruvayur temple, closed the centre to visitors as soon as one of its 60 elephants showed symptoms of FMD. It also closed advance booking of elephants for festival work for a few weeks, but reopened a couple of days ago for ‘very important’ festivals.
A Guruvayur Devaswom official pointed out that during the busy season, seven or eight elephants are rented out for the ezhunnellippu. “We take extreme care while taking our elephants out, and if one catches the disease, others too might be affected.”
There are around 500 captive elephants in Kerala, most of which are rented out for ‘festival work’ and occasionally for logging. More....