Across the country, private elephant owners seek help to feed the gentle giants.

For 40 years, residents of Karnataka were accustomed to seeing the elephant owned by local religious mathematics lead the streets, giving blessings and receiving offerings of sugarcane, fruit, and grains. Since closing, however, the elephant has not come out. Running out of forage, the mahout issued an appeal asking the public to donate food for the aging of the pachyderm.

Across the country, private elephant owners are asking for help feeding their gentle giants, as their incomes have declined and food stocks have been depleted. And even as NGOs and state governments are responding with monetary and other aid, the Kerala government is leading the way, activists say the crisis exposes the plight of captive elephants whose well-being is all too often dependent on income from tourism or religious donations.

The worst are elephants owned by poor mahouts who cannot feed even themselves in the running of the bulls, says Alok Hisarwala, who manages the Campaign for Elephant Rights for the Organization (FIAPO). Most of the 2,500 elephants in captivity in the country are owned by individuals, not temples or zoos, he says. Covid tells us that we must rethink captivity, Hisarwala says, because captivity is often just for income.

Even before the shutdown, many private elephants were in a pathetic state and now, we expect their condition to worsen, adds Bengaluru animal rights lawyer Alwyn Sebastian. In Karnataka, he says, the incomes of devotees and loggers (who hire elephants to move logs) have dried up and fodder prices have increased. The state has 130 captive elephants, 33 of which are owned by religious trusts.

In response to a petition filed by Sebastian through the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, the Karnataka High Court recently ordered the forest department to carry out controls and take action. Karnataka needs to have a crisis management fund for privately owned elephants, Sebastian said.

Private elephants do not always receive the care that forest department elephants receive, acknowledged Karnataka's chief (wildlife) conservator, Sanjay Mohan. Attention often depends on donors. However, several groups have come forward to assist during the shutdown. If there is a problem for any elephant, we will move them to the forest department camps, he says.

In Tamil Nadu, Antony Rubin, an animal activist based in Chennai, has written to the state government as well as the Hindu Charitable and Religious Endowment Board to guarantee food and medical services for the state's 86 private elephants. The government should also allocate funds for mahouts, kavadis (assistants) and their families on par with construction workers and car drivers, Rubin says.

Taking care of elephants is not cheap. Haresh Babu, whose family has owned elephants for four generations in Tamil Nadu, recently released a video requesting donations. Spend Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 per month on food. His three elephants are rented for temple festivals and earn between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1-2 lakh a month, depending on the season. Since closing, its main source of income from the polymer and agriculture business has dried up. We have exhausted all of our savings, Babu said, adding that he expects the Tamil Nadu government to allocate funds as Kerala has.

Elephants are an important part of the Kerala temple festival season that has been canceled. Temple authorities in Thrissur and other cities have agreed to help the elephants. The state's disaster management authority has also ordered the animal husbandry board to set aside a considerable amount of Rs 5 rupees for pet food, including the more than 390 captive elephants.

In this order, we have all submitted our list [of requirements], said Krishna Prasad, president of the All Kerala Elephant Owners Association. Each elephant needs 3-4 kg of rice plus grams, legumes and brown sugar every day, about 5-7 kg, and larger animals need more, Prasad said. Also, these animals are like humans, he added. Some won't waste a single leaf, while others are picky eaters.

Elephants elsewhere are less fortunate. Jaipur's 103 private elephants are used by their owners to transport tourists to Amber Fort, despite accusations that some are old or have infections. Elephant owners obtained a government grant of Rs 9,000 per elephant for the blockade, but have said it is not close enough. Tourism is unlikely to restart soon.

For historical reasons, the elephant is the only wild animal that can be privately owned under the Wildlife Protection Act, Hisarwala notes. But even that exemption, he notes, requires the owner to establish that he can care for the elephant. Even under the law, that is the proof.

(With contributions from B K Lakshmikantha, Priya M Menon, Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar)