Elephant in Lucknow dies of grief

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Wed, 5 May 1999 14:52:52 -0700

Grief kills elephant in India

LUCKNOW, India (May 5, 1999 5:20 p.m. EDT) - Distressed by a
companion's death, Damini refused to move, to eat, to drink. For 24
days, zookeepers and veterinarians in India tried everything they
could think of to save an elephant who seemed determined to die.

Caretakers cooled her with a water spray and fans as she lay under a
makeshift tent they erected of fragrant medicinal grass in a zoo in
this northern Indian town. They tempted her with tons of sugar cane,
bananas and grass - her favorites. They even fed her intravenously.

Despite all their efforts, Damini died Wednesday in her enclosure -
loose gray skin hanging over her protruding bones, bed sores covering
much of her body.

"In the face of Damini's intense grief, all our treatment failed,"
said Dr. Utkarsh Shukla, veterinarian at the Prince of Wales Zoo in
Lucknow, about 350 miles southeast of New Delhi.

Zoo officials said Damini was 72. She came to the zoo last year,
after she was confiscated from owners who were illegally transporting
her. She was alone for five months until the arrival in September of
a pregnant younger elephant named Champakali.

Champakali came from Dudhwa National Park, 310 miles southeast of New
Delhi, where she had worked carrying around tourists. When she became
pregnant, apparently by a wild bull elephant, park officials decided
to send her to the zoo in Lucknow for a kind of maternity leave.

Zoo officials were worried about caring for Champakali, but, Shukla
said, "Damini took up the job instantaneously."

The two elephants "became inseparable in no time," said zookeeper
Kamaal, who goes by one name. Damini made herself available at all
hours for Champakali, who lapped up the attention.

According to elephant experts, such attachments commonly develop
among elephants, with older elephants serving as caretakers for
younger ones, especially in pregnancy.

"Elephants are very social animals. They can form very close bonds
with others in their social group," said Pat Thomas, curator of
mammals at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. "It's been pretty
well-documented that they do exhibit emotions that we would consider
grieving" when a calf or other elephant dies.

However, he said, an age-related medical problem should not be
discounted as well in the case of an elephant as old as Damini.

When Champakali died April 11 giving birth to a stillborn calf,
Damini seemed to shed tears, then showed little interest in food or
anything else, according to zoo officials.

For days, Damini stood still in her enclosure, barely nibbling at the
2 tons of sugar cane, bananas and grass heaped in front of her.

Her legs soon swelled up and eventually gave way. After that, Damini
lay still on her side, head and ears drooping, trunk curled. Tears
rolled down her eyes and the 4-ton elephant rapidly lost weight.

She simply lay "staring at the staff with her sad eyes, moist with
tears," Kamaal said.

A week ago, Damini completely stopped eating or drinking her usual
daily quota of 40 gallons of water, despite the 116 degree heat.

Alarmed, veterinarians pumped more than 25 gallons of glucose, saline
and vitamins through a vein in her ear.

On Wednesday, Damini died.

For the second time in a month, Kamaal dug a big pit to bury an elephant.

"It will take me some time to get over the death of my two loved
ones," he said.