Authorities 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.