Sonepur, Biahr: Seven-year-old Anarkali wants to splash around in the waters of the Gandak river a little longer as darkness descends on Sonepur. The female elephant has had a long day at the Hariharkshetra Mela, as the month-long Sonepur cattle fair is officially called. She has had to stand all day at her stall, with her legs shackled, as prospective buyers came by to inspect her, poking and prodding. Her mahout often prised open her mouth to let people have a close look at her bright pink palate, considered a sign of good health.
However, her plans of a long bath are cut short by her mahout, who stabs sharply into the back of her head with an ankush—a steel prod with two sharp ends, one straight and the other curved to look like a pirate’s grappling hook. Unhappy with her slow response, one of the mahout’s helpers on the ground hits her hind legs with a bamboo pole, sending Anarkali scurrying up the muddy slopes and back to her dusty enclosure.
Elephantine issue: Owner Mahendra Prasad with his elephant, mahout and a gunman at the fair in Bihar. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
These are common sights at the cattle fair, arguably the biggest in Asia. “The whole idea of such a fair is cruel,” says professor Jacob Cheeran, a Thrissur-based elephant expert and a veterinarian.
Though ankush is not banned, it should be used only in?situations?where?an elephant becomes uncontrollable.
According to Suparna Ganguly, honorary vice-president of Bangalore-based Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, or Cupa, under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, using any spiked stick or any other sharp tackle or equipment which causes or is likely to cause bruises, swellings, abrasions or severe pain to the animal is forbidden.
“However, due to the kind of unreasonable and inappropriate demands on the captive elephant, in terms of commands, making it stand for long hours without food or water, making it walk on crowded urban streets, makes it impossible for the mahouts to control an animal the size and weight of an elephant without inflicting torture on it,” says Ganguly.
An elephant has about 109 sensitive points on its body. “Jabbing these points can inflict severe pain on the animal. Most mahouts know these points,” says Ganguly. “By constant jabbing, the optic nerve can be impaired. Many elephants in Jaipur are blind due to this and the strong glare of the desert sun under which they are made to work,” she says. The cruelty to elephants does not stop with the use of ankush. At the stalls, these animals are shackled, sometimes on all four legs, with clamps that have spikes on the inside.
Lakhi Prasad, as the towering 9-footer is called, is tied with such shackles on his hind legs. “The use of spiked shackles is simply cruel and often causes deep wounds,” says R. Sukumar, chairman of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “We, in the south, don’t use them at all and use them (only) as exhibits when they are taken off elephants that come in from the north,” says Thrissur-based veterinarian Cheeran.
Such tools shouldn’t be required at all if the mahouts are properly trained. According to Madhulal Valliyate of UK-based non-governmental organization Elephant Family that runs a training programme for mahouts at Amber Fort in Jaipur, education and job security of the keepers could change attitudes.
The forest department, however, is indifferent to such practices. “We didn’t see any such spikes, did you?” asks Abhay Singh, a forester assigned to keep a tab on the condition of elephants at the fair. “The elephants are all owned by local strongmen or politicians and we dare not take a strong stand against them,” Singh says a little later, explaining his helplessness.
Camels, horses, dogs and birds are also among the worst sufferers. Since they do not enjoy the “endangered” status, no one cares for them. Many camels at the fair were seen with their nose reduced to a bloody, fly-infested pulp owing to merciless tugging at the ropes that had been pierced through their nostrils.
Every now and then, the horses are taken off to a make-shift race track flanked by curious onlookers and potential buyers, interspersed among whom are the owners’ henchmen, armed with whips and bamboo poles. Their job is to prod the horses as they go past to make them run faster.
“After all, the faster the horse runs, the higher the price it fetches,” says an unapologetic Awadhesh Rai, whose chestnut stallion is being ridden by his nephew. The spirited horse, frothing at the mouth, has already got a few hearty whacks.
Particularly shocking was the condition of dogs at a stuffy enclosure called the chiriyaghar (the bird house). Crammed into small cages, without food, water or shade, scores of puppies whine in fear even as more cages are brought in by a jeep. The vendors don’t have time to remove the puppies that haven’t survived the journey. At every stall are larger dogs of breeds such as Labradors, Alsatians, Dalmatians, Spitzes and Spaniels restrained firmly by chains so that they couldn’t snap at curious onlookers.
“We get them from breeders who can’t sell them because they miss the breed standard. Or else we get them from people who want to get rid of them,” says Raju, a vendor, pointing at a young Labrador with a maggot-infested wound in his right ear. “You can take him for Rs3,000, sir,” he says, as the dog cries in agony.
“For us, they are just maal (stuff). Do you expect us to keep them in first class?” says a middle-aged man who surfaces suddenly claiming to be the manager of the chiriyaghar. He refuses to give his name. “I don’t care for any press card and will throw you out if you dare to take pictures,” he thunders.
“It is imperative to have a group from the Animal Welfare Board of India to monitor and spread information on the Prevention of Cruelty Act and the Wildlife Protection Act at these animals fairs,” says Ganguly. “More importantly, some dedicated and knowledgeable officers of the forest and police department should be on patrol, exclusively to prevent illegal transactions, trade and cruelty to animals at both Sonepur and Pushkar (in Rajasthan) fairs.”
However, she says, the PCA Act is in the domain of the police, who are not remotely aware of their responsibilities towards a suffering animal.
Government officials, ranging from an additional director-general of police to a sub-divisional magistrate, who were assigned to manage the fair, couldn’t care less. “We will look into the matter,” was all that the fair in-charge and Sonepur’s sub-divisional magistrate Uma Kant Dubey said when informed about these atrocities.