Indian conservationist group Wildlife SOS has come up with an innovative solution to help elephants cope with northern Uttar Pradesh's chilly winters – by knitting jumbo jumpers for them.
The NGO is working with village women to knit the giant jumpers for the elephants housed at its local conservation centre in the holy town of Mathura. Some of the jumpers are knitted by women in far flung towns and brought to the centre for the final fit-outs.
Uttar Pradesh experiences scorching summers, but winter temperatures drop to as low as 5-6 degrees Celsius with chilly winds sweeping across open swathes of land.
''We are doing it for these animals, these elephants. When humans are feeling so cold in this winter – these are poor animals, they must be feeling very cold so we are making sweaters for them,'' said Navarti, a local villager who added finishing touches to a recently-knit jumper.
Navarti and the other knitters are wives of former Kalandars, bear handlers, many of whom are now unemployed since the practice was outlawed in 1972.
Kamini Chander, a consultant with Wildlife SOS, is spearheading the programme to train the village women to knit jumpers, which began earlier this year, she said.
Each jumper requires nearly four kilograms of wool to be knitted by 6-7 women over a period of two to three weeks.
Kamini said clothing the elephants has not been a smooth process, with many of the animals refusing to wear the jumpers.
''Maya gets very ticklish wearing a sweater, so when we tried putting the sweater on her, she absolutely refused to wear it, she actually tried to throw it off. So then, if she doesn't like it, obviously we would not force it on her. She loves it so she wears it,'' said Kamini, just after putting a brand-new sweater on Maya the elephant.
Some of the original jumpers also had sleeves, which were even more difficult to make the animals wear, Kamini said. So far, three jumpers have been completed as ''pilots'' and they are yet to decide if they will produce more.
Hundreds of elephants across India are held in captivity to perform touristic as well as religious rituals at forts, palaces and large temples. They are often ill-treated and abused by unschooled mahouts and owners.
SOS's elephant conservation and care centre was established in 2010 and currently houses 21elephants that have been rescued from illegal captivity, poachers, traffickers, and circuses where they were frequently abused.
The centre also holds training workshops to teach mahouts, or elephant trainers, more humane methods to treat elephants.
''The traditional method that's been used in India for a long time to manage elephants, unfortunately, uses a lot of pain, negative reinforcement and fear and intimidation to make elephants follow discipline. That is a problem, whereas elephants are extremely intelligent animals, they are emotional, they are social animals, they live in herds, so when you pluck an elephant out of a herd, it is like kidnapping a child and then you beat the hell out of the elephant, you inflict a lot of cruelty and pain and fear and intimidation to discipline it,'' said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS.
SOS plans to expand its operations to accommodate nearly 50 elephants in the future and is looking for patrons to help share some of the costs – adding that it costs nearly Rs60,000 for the upkeep of just one elephant at the shelter.
India holds 50 to 60 per cent of all of Asia's wild elephant population.