Sonepur is a small town in the State of Bihar in eastern India. Every year, in November or December, the town holds its annual Mela, a fair held at the confluence of the Ganges and Gandak rivers. The Sonepur Mela is Asia’s largest cattle fair, the main attraction being the trading of livestock such as horses, bullocks, buffaloes, camels, dogs, and birds. Elephants are also a special attraction at the Mela and some of the largest numbers are traded here.
Since 2001, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has offered an elephant health camp at the Mela, conducted in association with the Department of Environment and Forests, Bihar, and with financial support from various organizations. In 2014, AES was pleased to support this effort. The number of elephants being brought to the Mela reflects the overall diminishing number of Asian elephants. Until the late 1980s, as many as 800-1,000 elephants would be brought to the Mela for trading and display. Since 2001, the number has been under 100 and the last five years the number has held steady around 40 elephants. More stringent regulations on elephant ownership and transit may also contribute to this decline in attendance.
WTI deworms all elephants at the Mela and offers other medicines and treatments, such as foot care, as needed. The average age of the mahouts in attendance was 40.89 including the eldest at 70 with around 50 years of experience and the youngest at 22 with already 10 years of experience. All mahouts have handled more than one elephant in their career, with around 63% of them handling between 5 and 20 elephants. On the average, elephants get a new mahout every three years; not a sufficient length of time for good bonding between the elephant and mahout per WTI. The mahouts spend from 6 to 24 hours daily with their elephants, a good third of them spending the entire day with their elephant. The Mela affords WTI the important opportunity to introduce mahouts and owners to western medicines and husbandry procedures. And the data collected is helpful in assessing and tracking the elephants that are changing ownership during this annual fair.