New Delhi: Forced to beg, stand for hours on end, and walk barefoot on hot macadam; smuggled; isolated; even killed in road accidents—the lot of the elephant belies not just its size (how do you smuggle something that weighs around 3 tonnes and can be as tall as 10ft), but also the almost universal respect it evokes in India.
Thus far this year, two elephants have died in circuses in West Bengal and Gujarat. At least two elephants have died in temples in South India. One elephant died due to abuse by the begging mafia in Maharashtra. Three elephants died in Kerala and around 240 incidents of pachyderms running amok in public places due to performance stress amid crowds have been reported. In a horrific road accident, one elephant died on a highway near Delhi.
“Many more deaths may have occurred due to negligence, abuse and torture of these animals, which we are unaware of,” says Suparna Baksi-Ganguly, chairperson of Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), a non-governmental organization working for the welfare and management of captive elephants.
It is in this background that two events scheduled for November have to be seen. One is the first International Elephant Congress and Ministerial Meet (E 50:50) on 14-19 November. “Elephants, the largest terrestrial mammal that shares our planet with us, are a global flagship for biodiversity conservation. Three species of elephants are found distributed across 50 countries today. Regardless of geopolitical boundaries, elephants across the world face common threats of poaching, habitat loss and conflicts with people,” says a ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) statement, touting the E 50:50 meet as “a pioneering conference of 50 countries that harbour wild populations of elephants”.
The second event, which will coincide with the summit where scientists, researchers, conservation practitioners and policymakers from across the world will gather in New Delhi to discuss elephant science and conservation, is the famous Sonepur Mela in Bihar that begins on 17 November and lasts for a month. Pachyderms will be on display and illegally traded at the fair.
Indeed, all trade in elephants is illegal, which is why they shouldn’t be part of what is often described as Asia’s biggest cattle fair. Yet, as with most things in India, there are ways to get around the ban.
“The Wildlife Protection Act prohibits commercial trade in live elephants and ivory. But there’s a rider—elephants can be gifted or donated provided the donor has proven his capability of taking care of the animal. The provision in the Act is misused by those who use it as a cover for trade in the species,” says Abrar Ahmed, an expert on illegal wildlife trade associated with TRAFFIC India/WWF India, who visited the Sonepur Mela last year.
A thriving trade
According to Ahmed, none of the owners displaying their elephants at the Sonepur Mela last year admitted the animals were for sale, but his enquiries revealed that they could be had for anything between Rs.3 lakh and Rs.4 lakh.
Interestingly, Ahmed couldn’t identify the origin of the elephants on display, especially the calves. He had no idea whether they had been captured from the wild or passed on from one owner to another.
TRAFFIC India officials and elephant conservationists insist there is a thriving trade in live elephants in India.
Assam and Arunchal Pradesh are the hunting grounds, they add, where sub-adults and calves are caught.
Sonepur is the meeting ground, says Ahmed.
And the animals are even smuggled to Myanmar.
Papers are forged, and identities of elephants often changed.
Under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, no one can keep or acquire an elephant without an ownership certificate issued by the chief wildlife warden (CWLW) of the state, and if a person transfers an elephant from one state to another, the concerned CWLW has to be informed within 30 days.
But then, the treatment of these so-called domesticated animals shouldn’t really come as a surprise in a country that doesn’t know what to do with its wild elephants and where human-elephant conflict has become common because of the relentless pace at which wildlife habitat is being devoured by the march of development. The elephant in India continues to suffer in the wild and captivity, though being an intrinsic part of the country’s history, culture and religion.
In February 1992, the government of India launched Project Elephant, a conservation initiative on the lines of Project Tiger for the conservation and welfare of elephants in the country, but nothing much has changed on the ground. Every year, about 400 people and 100 elephants die because of human-elephant conflicts. Every year, elephants get killed by trains running through forest areas.
Experts estimate the wild population of elephants in India at between 26,000 and 28,000, while that of captive elephants is between 3,400 and 3,600. “India is home to 60% of all of Asia’s wild elephants and about 20% captive elephants,” environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan said in her message to E 50: 50.
In February 2010, the government constituted a task force on Project Elephant to provide detailed recommendations to upgrade the project and bring in more effective conservation and management of wild as well as captive elephants in India. The report title Gajah was submitted in August 2010. “But there has not been much progress in implementation,” says R. Sukumar, an elephant expert from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and a member of the task force.
The only recommendations accepted have been the declaration of the species as the National Heritage Animal and organizing the forthcoming International Elephant Congress. More pressing needs such as landscape level conservation and human-elephant conflict remains neglected.
“It is inevitable that some wild elephants will be coming into captivity because of serious conflicts with people, therefore it is essential that we pay adequate attention to the use and welfare of elephants in captivity,” says Sukumar.
The task force listed these following areas for immediate conflict mitigation measures: Sonitpur, Majuli (Assam), Rani, Hassan (Karnataka), Keonjhar/Sundargarh (Orissa), Tirupattur (Tamil Nadu), Sariakela/Kharsawan, Rom-Musabari (Jharkhand), Raigarh/Jashpur (Chhattisgarh) and southern West Bengal.
But India is still obsessed with the tiger. Project Elephant remains without a director since May this year, and the last steering committee constituted in November 2012 hasn’t yet met.
The Prime Minister’s office rejected the proposal to set up a National Elephant Conservation Authority along the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) that would have safeguarded elephant habitats from developmental pressure. Over 40% of elephant reserves are not under protected area (read National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuary) or reserve forest status.
A wildlife conservationist, who prefers to remain anonymous, questioned the sanctity of the “National Heritage Animal”’. “Why does Sonepur continue to exist? An elephant is not an ant; how does live elephant transportation take place without collusion?”.
“Though elephants—both wild and captive—have been give the status of Schedule I animal under the Wildlife Protection Act, the usage of these animals has gone unchecked,” says the task force report. “The result,” it says, “is that the legal status of elephants in captivity falls somewhere in between the Wildlife Act and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act, which gives rise to tremendous abuse and misuse.”
And Baksi-Ganguly of CUPA says nothing has been done.
“There has been no attempt to discontinue elephant exhibition in circuses; states have not been directed to withhold permissions for displaying privately held elephants in commercial events and functions. There has been no tightening of extending NOCs (no-objection certificates) or travel permits for elephants to go from one state to another, when it is known that they are on their way for trade or commercial participation in crowded city functions. Further, there has been no attempt to confiscate elephants in dire conditions though the forest department has the power to act in such cases.”
The Global Elephant Charter, signed by eminent field biologists, scientists, conservationists and scholars of elephant-human relations, states: “Science and traditional wisdom provide ample knowledge to identify and protect the interests of elephants. This Charter recognises that elephants exhibit remarkable physical vigour, unusual social complexity and significant cognitive abilities. Furthermore, it acknowledges that elephants are complex, self-aware individuals, possessing distinct histories, personalities and interests, and that they are capable of physical and mental suffering.”
In April this year, a documentary film, An Apology to Elephants, revealed how captive elephants are subjected to abuse and ill-treatment. The film showed the painful training process, psychological trauma and physical damage done by living conditions in some zoos and circuses across the globe. In Delhi, elephants continue to walk on burning tarmac with cracked and blistered feet to serve their owners. Wildlife SOS, an animal rescue organization, said recent enforcement by the Delhi government has made some elephant owners’ shift to neighbouring states and to tourist resorts in Uttarakhand.
“If people could be made aware of the basic needs of elephants, which are difficult to maintain in captivity, the demand for them would slowly fade out, and if the government would refuse to permit such ownerships where such needs cannot be fulfilled, the natural and logical solution to the whole problem can be resolved,” says Ganguly.
In 2009, the Central Zoo Authority of India banned elephants from being part of zoos or circuses in the country. Unfortunately, the authority did not lay down rehabilitation measures for these giants. The task force categorized private elephants as circus elephants belonging to commercial companies, tourist elephants belonging to tourist operators, say, for example, in Jaipur; elephants used for rides or to solicit alms by wandering mendicants (for example, Punjab, Jaipur, Mumbai, Goa, Delhi and Pune); and elephants in religious trusts and institutions such as temple, church and mosque elephants used in festivals.
A report titled Traveling And Begging Elephants of India by CUPA and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) says that elephants kept chiefly to generate income by travelling and begging are generally found far from their natural distribution range and are forced to live unnatural lifestyles. States such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab do not have any wild elephants, but they have a sizeable number of captive elephants. Such elephants, usually in an acute state of hunger and exhaustion due to long working days, accept any food, however alien it may be to their natural diet. This includes food waste such as vegetable peels, left-over portions of junk and oily, sweet and spicy food.
Although there is a clear interest and respect for the animal from ordinary people, they lack an understanding of the needs of an elephant, leading to an unnatural and unhealthy regime for the animal. In Kerala, most temple elephants die due to constipation, from an overdose of banana and palm leaves fed by devotees.
Temple elephants are among the worst off.
A study, Captive Elephants of Karnataka: An Investigation into the Population Status, Management and Welfare Significance, by ANCF, CUPA and the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, states: “Despite the reverence accorded to them, temple elephants are the most abused.”
“Elephants are exposed to long hours of unnatural behaviour, which are blessing and seeking alms several times a day, standing still for long periods of time on concrete, asphalt or other hard flooring. Most temple elephants suffer from lack of space, isolation and have no arrangements for exercise, bathing, free ranging or interactions. Further, the temple authorities do not anticipate the effects of these faulty management practices that can endanger the life of the mahout, the public and the elephants.”
Members of the elephant task force say that the future of wild elephants rests centrally on how best we secure their habitats and the enforcement of the recommendations. This will be again debated at the Elephant Congress. Meanwhile, at least a few elephants will be changing hands at Sonepur.