Trade in elephants continues unabated despite slowdown

Trade in elephants continues unabated despite slowdown

Sonepur, Bihar: Even in these troubled times, an elephant could be a great investment, claim those peddling this endangered animal.

“I bought him from Assam for Rs9 lakh last year... I am looking to sell him for Rs25 lakh this year," says Sugreev Singh, a landowner from Siwan in north Bihar, pointing at a seven-year-old bull, Madan. Some people have offered Rs20 lakh already, claims Singh, but he can’t legitimately sell Madan because buying and selling of elephants has been banned under the Wildlife Protection Act.

But since the ban was imposed in 2003, those involved in the trade devised an ingenious way of bypassing the law. “I’ll give you a daan-patra (deed of gift) saying that I have given you my elephant as a gift as I’m unable to take care of it any more," says Singh, who’s never owned an elephant before. “Then, you could pay me the agreed price in cash."

The demand emanates mostly from south India, especially from temples in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, according to experts. “Now, I hear even mosques and churches have started keeping elephants because of the donations they bring in," says S. S. Bist, managing director of West Bengal Forest Development Corp. and earlier director of Project Elephant, a Union government-funded scheme aimed at helping protect elephants.

Kerala alone was found to have some 800 captive elephants when a census was done in 2000. “This, I believe, has gone up to 900 now," says Bist. Because the capture of elephants has been banned, temples in the southern states buy elephants at the annual Sonepur cattle fair. Most of the elephants sold at Sonepur are out-of-job loggers from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where logging stopped following a Supreme Court order in 1996.

Some 1,500 elephants are estimated to have lost their jobs, and unless used in illegal logging, their owners either send them out to beg or sell them to buyers from Bihar, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. “There have been instances of people giving away their elephants free of cost or at dirt-cheap prices," says Jacob Cheeran, a Thrissur-based elephant expert.

Though most temples that can afford them already own elephants, demand for new pachyderms is driven by high mortality of the animals in captivity. “They are made to unlearn what they know and relearn a lot of things and, very often, all this is too much for the north-east elephant, already traumatized by the frequent change of hands," says Bist.

Buyers come from Jaipur, Delhi and Nepal as well. “In north India, they can earn up to Rs10,000 a day for being present at political rallies," says Bist. The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party, that has the elephant as its symbol, has led to an increased demand for elephants in Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh, say some of the owners at the fair.

Transfer of ownership and movement of elephants from one state to another are restricted with permission needed from the chief wildlife warden of the state under section 42 of the Wildlife Protection Act.

But B.N. Jha, Bihar’s chief wildlife warden, admits these restrictions have had limited success in containing the illegal trade in elephants. “I am under tremendous pressure to restart issuing transit permits… (but) the laxities in the law defeat our attempt to be strict," says Jha.

Elephant peddlers, however, complain that their business is on the decline because of the restrictions on transfer of ownership. “Till some years ago, hundreds of elephants used to come here, but the number is steadily decreasing," says Surendra Nath Singh, whose seven-year-old Ram Kali was among the 66-odd elephants on display at the Sonepur fair this year.

But it’s going to take many more years to stamp out the illegal trade in elephants. Though there are some restrictions now, it isn’t difficult to flout them, says Cheeran. “After all, elephants don’t vote."