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The cry of the elephants

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

We may have 26,000 elephants today – but this is all that is left of a several lakh population, which is decreasing annually. Today, we have only about a thousand tuskers. The worst part?  3,500 elephants are in captivity.

An elephant is emotionally, exactly like a human. Its intelligence is as great as ours and the extra sensory perception is perhaps much greater. Such an animal can be subdued with whips, chains, blinding and starvation, but the spirit remains wild. The Tamil Nadu kraals are famous for its beatings – an elephant is placed in a tight enclosure and is beaten for months till it can barely stand. If it recovers – it is chained for life and sold to a temple, or a professional beggar.

Films on the temple elephants of Kerala and the Rajasthan fort of Amer will tell us that most of the elephants climbing the Amer Fort daily, in the desert heat, with tourists on their backs, are blind. Every night their mahouts, burn their feet with welding machines so that their bones are exposed. The elephants shown in the film died in three years– all of them young or middle aged.

There are over 550 elephants in private ownership in Kerala. In fact the state has a ritual – when an elephant comes into musth, it is tied with heavy chains for months. After the musth, it is thrashed for 48 hours with heavy sticks, by four-six mahouts together, before the chains are taken off. Many elephants have died of the beatings, yet no mahout has ever been jailed. In fact, a woman, who was known for her vicious treatment of wild elephants in Assam, was actually awarded for her work. The fact that her husband was in the environment ministry, at the time when a secret film showing her beating an elephant to death was exposed, kept her from any punishment. No temple has ever had its elephants confiscated, even when it kills more than half of them. At the moment there is one elephant that has had its face beaten in by its mahout. When I spoke to the Chief Wildlife Warden about her, his answer was that they had rescued one elephant some months ago and they could not keep doing this. This is the story in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu temples too which have 40 elephants each. Most of them have tuberculosis, but they are kept to earn money from tourists, festivals, and begging. No forest officers, or doctors, are trained in elephant management or elephant medicine.

Temples aren’t the only culprits. Delhi had 23 elephants rented out daily, to advertise products by walking the streets with heavy wooden banners on their sides. Of these, only six remain. The rest were mowed down by vehicles. The six were ordered to be removed from Delhi four years ago. The Chief Wildlife Warden won’t do so because the owners earn money and will do “anything” to stop the elephants from being moved. Two elephants were struck by a truck some years ago. One was killed. The other broke her legs and ribs. The owner abandoned her and ran away. She was taken at private expense to an elephant sanctuary in Mathura and nursed back to health, where the owner then claimed her back, even though he had no ownership papers and should have been in jail.

Circuses have been forbidden to keep elephants. Yet several keep them. Zoos too have been banned from keeping elephants, but 64 still remain in state zoos. The single government rescue centre, made by Haryana twenty years ago, lies empty, because the government will not provide funds. The Maharajas of Kuchnahipurand Talukdars keep elephants and rent them out for weddings and elections.

Recent investigations have found that the people who hold the elephants captive do so illegally. A sample of 1,545 elephants, covering 13 different states and six different management regimes, has shown that only 44 per cent of captive elephants have ownership certificates, and only 48 per cent of these have been implanted with microchips (Baskaran et al, 2011). This is corroborated by the findings of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI).

I have not understood how any of these groups, or individuals, can keep elephants. When the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, was passed it clearly said that only elephants that were already owned could stay with their owners. But the elephants in custody now are all young. They were not even born in 1972. How can they be allowed to be kept? But for that we need to understand the fence eating the grass –the forest department.

In this dark, dark scenario there are a few rays of light. The Sonpur Mela in Bihar has been banned from selling elephants. While it may have no effect on the illegal trade, now poachers, buyers and sellers will have to be even more secretive.

The second may go down in the history of elephant welfare, and also be the turning point for animals in India. The High Court of Uttarakhand, under his Lordship Justice Rajiv Sharma, has passed two landmark judgments-

  1. Conferred personhood on all non-human animals in Uttarakhand; not just alleviating them from the status of being ‘property’ but also affording them rights.
  2. Prohibited the commercial use of elephants in the state

However, it is not just the elephants in captivity that suffer cruelty; those in the wild are not safe either. Reports of brutal attacks on elephants that wander into human settlements are on the rise. Illegally installed high voltage electric fences, irresponsibly laid railway lines in forest areas, and elephant corridors, are all contributing to diminishing their population. In the last ten years more than 500 elephants have been killed, simply because the train would not slow down on seeing a herd crossing the track. Nor do the railways listen to advice on how to handle the crossings – developing underpasses, installation of animal detection systems, getting rid of steep embankments, continuous whistling and slowing down in recognised elephant corridors.

This is a major crisis. 26,000 today, from 30,000 last year, means they will be gone in twenty years.

The report Gaja, submitted by the Elephant Task Force constituted by the MOEF, has recommended that elephants be phased out of all commercial use. At least 20 rescue & rehabilitation centres must be established, and the elephants in private ownership must be re-homed. Sustainable development plans must take into consideration the natural habitats. There are 101 identified elephant corridors. None have been secured by the government. We have fragmented their habitat, and allowed illegal villages who deny them any right of way. We even had an environment minister who stated that elephants must be killed as revenge for every human that is hurt by them.

India prides itself on its compassion. In actuality we show none to any beings, including our own species. When the elephant finally goes, we will lose over 100 varieties of trees and bushes whose seeds are spread by its dung. God knows what else we will lose – apart from our souls.

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