London, May 4: Garlanded with gold and carrying a Hindu deity on his back, Babu the elephant, like many others in the country, is the centre point of religious ceremonies conducted across the Indian state of Kerala. After 45 years of life and sheer hard work, the large animal is fast approaching retirement - and, like many of the 650 working elephants in the state, there have always been fears for his future.
It takes about 340 pounds to maintain elephants, which seems like a great expense when the average monthly wage is only 50 pounds. Many owners cannot afford to look after their beasts when they finally stop working. But help is at hand, for India's first retirement home for elderly elephants opens next month inside a tranquil forest at Kottur, outside the state capital Trivandrum, where the colossal beasts can spend their twilight years in dignity.
Paid for by the state government, the home will buy old elephants for a nominal sum from owners who cannot or will not look after them properly.
"We want them to enjoy their last years after being such good workers without worrying where their next meal will come from," the Telegraph quoted V.S. Verghese, Kerala's chief wildlife warden who is in charge of the scheme, as saying.
"They'll get special treats like big slabs of rice, a course sugar called jaggery, and honey. And vets will be on hand," he added.
The home will consist of 1,000 acres of woodland where each of the elephants can roam freely, as well as having its own personal pen. There, they will be fed, watered, bathed and massaged with large pumice stones and coconut husks by dedicated mahouts (elephant grooms) to keep their blood circulation healthy.
The mahouts will also mix special Ayurvedic tonics from local herbs, which can be consumed as pills or rubbed into their skin as a balm. Elephants, including Babu, suffer greatly from allergies.
Verghese describes the home as "like a wildlife sanctuary", with plenty of trees, reeds and bamboo where the elephants can forage. The surrounding countryside is mostly rubber plantations and eucalyptus forests.