India's useful elephants -- now they provide fuel too

Lord Krishna's temple at Guru Vayoor, in India's southwestern state of Kerala , has an elephant-sized problem.

The temple has a stable of 38 elephants, which are used to carry god Krishna in a chariot through the dusty streets of the town. The event is popular, attracting half a million people at least twice a year. But the cleanup definitely is not.

Temple authorities faced a centuries-old snag -- what to do with the masses of elephant dung. Help has come from an unexpected quarter.

The Village Industries Commission has stepped in with a community biogas plant, costing $10,000. Fed with elephant dung, the plant provides cooking gas and lights the homes of families of temple employees.

The gas plant, according to scientists, has a digester -- specially designed for elephant dung -- that ferments the stuff, then collects and diverts the gas it produces. There is no trace of smell or smoke. And what is even more important for the housewife, the resulting gas can cook a meal in half the time needed when using coal or petroleum gas.

According to Govindan Nair, director of the commission for Kerala, such gas plants will be set up near Hindu temples in southern India.

There are 300 elephants in the region that can provide adequate gas for lighting homes and cooking meals. Besides, they can earn their keep. Each elephant costs about $300 a month for feed and care. Badly kept elephants and ill-nourished animals are a common sight in the south -- the temples do not earn enough to maintain them.

The Krishna temple in Kerala earns about $4 million a year. Local residents say the elephant gas is a gift from Lord Krishna. But efforts by Village Industries Commission to set up other such units in India have not yet made a spectacular breakthrough. Barely 60,000 units have been set up, in sharp contrast to an estimated 7 million family-sized biogas units in China.

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