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Elephant domestication: Need of hour or death knell?

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Elephant domestication: Need of hour or death knell?

Clause 27 allows any person with a valid ownership certificate to sell an elephant to a person or institution for a religious or any other purpose. The “any other purpose” appears to have a limitless meaning...

Elephant domestication: Need of hour or death knell?

Clause 27 allows any person with a valid ownership certificate to sell an elephant to a person or institution for a religious or any other purpose. The any other purpose appears to have a limitless meaning, thereby potentially increasing the demand for illegal capture of these animals in the wild, followed by cruel training

Avantika Tripathi

Will Wildlife Protection Amendment Bill-2021 be a saviour or will it spell doom for country’s elephants? The question has become all the more pertinent especially when Lok Sabha has cleared the Wildlife Protection Amendment Bill that not only seeks to enable control of invasive alien species but also allows transfer or transportation of live elephants by its owner. The bill was enough to spark unending altercations among animal rights organizations that called it no less than ‘a death knell for the country’s elephants’ and the forestersexperts who called it ‘need of the hour’. TreeTake delved deep into the controversy, interacted with the experts and animal right organizations in order to find out whether the amended Wildlife Protection Act would be a boon or a bane for our elephants.

The Bill

The Wildlife Protection Amendment Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 3, 2022. The Bill, which makes amendments to the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Union environment ministry in December 2021. As per the amendment that was made to Section 43, elephants that were so far a part of Schedule I and were bracketed among the endangered species, have been permitted  to be used for ‘religious or any other purpose’. “No person having in his possession captive animal, animal article, trophy or uncured trophy in respect of which he has a certificate of ownership, shall transfer by way of sale or offer for sale or by any other mode of consideration of commercial nature, such animal or article or trophy or uncured trophy,” reads Section 43 of the Wildlife Protection Amendment Bill, 2021. The bill further states that transfer, acquiring and receiving of a live captive elephant is permissible under the existing legal provision, with the prior approval of the Chief Wildlife Warden. However, such transfer, acquisition and receiving of an elephant should not involve any commercial transaction.

“The amended Act states that transfer and transport of captive elephants for religious and other purposes is permitted subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by the Central government. This is the situation that exists in the present law also, though the use of the word ‘religious’ seems to have been added due to the recommendation of the Standing Committee headed by Jairam Ramesh. The Bill of 2021 did not use the word ‘religious’. Notwithstanding this, the decision to not open up commercial trade in live elephants is a positive development. It is pertinent to point out that the Bill of 2021 specifically allowed commercial trade in ‘live elephants’ whereas the Bill passed in 2022 refers to transfer (non-commercial) and transport of ‘captive elephants,’” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer, in a critique of the Bill passed. “Unfortunately, the wrong practice of the standing committee assuming the role of the National Board for Wildlife which is seen at the central level will be replicated at the state level also with the state board made defunct and the standing committee with select members taking all decisions on national parks and sanctuaries,” Dutta added. Some experts have also flagged that there is an exception made for conservation breeding centres which can be misused.

Darkness falls on elephants

The bill, however, drew strong repercussions from the animal right organizations. Among others, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was perhaps first to register protest against the passing of the bill. “Darkness falls on elephants in India as Parliament passes problematic clauses in Wild life Protection Amendment Bill,” reads the press note which PETA shot soon after the bill was cleared in Lok Sabha to register its protest. According to the press statement, the animal right organization states that darkness has fallen on elephants of the nation as this representative of Lord Ganesh is no longer sufficiently protected from wild capture and enslavement.

PETA further stated that with Lok Sabha passing the Bill in this form, elephants, a Schedule I animal who should be afforded the highest level of protection, would now be permitted to be commercially traded and exploited, something that had been globally condemned. “The Bill under Clause 27 will allow any person with a valid ownership certificate to sell an elephant to a person or institution for a religious or any another purpose. The “any other purpose” appears to have a limitless meaning, thereby potentially increasing the demand for illegal capture of these animals in the wild, followed by cruel training in kraals—small, dark wooden enclosures—through which elephants are jabbed with ankushes (hooked iron weapons) and hit with sticks in order to break their spirits,” the statement further read.

Khushboo Gupta, Director of Advocacy Projects PETA India stated: “At a time when countries, citizens, and the honourable courts of justice around the world are increasingly making decisions against keeping intelligent animals in captivity, this amendment in law sends our country back to the Dark Ages.” Earlier, in its letter to Prime Minister Modi, PETA India had appealed to withdraw Clause 27, as it would encourage the illegal capture and commercial trade of elephants in India, defeating conservation efforts in their natural habitat. PETA has also warned that the amendment may increase cruelty to elephants in captivity and promote institutionalised corruption, as illegitimate ownership certificates would be used to conduct trade.

PETA is perhaps not the only one to oppose the bill. The animal right activists and animal lovers have been left equally shocked. Shrikant Chandola, retired Chief Wildlife Warden UPUK said: “Tuskers can now be acquired by any private or religious institution for religious or any ‘other purpose’. This ‘other purpose’ term is broad and vague and needs to be defined and limited. The law has now created a legally sanctioned right to ‘use’ an elephant,” he said. He said the amendment was worrisome, especially in a country where law breakers were a step ahead of law makers. Other than making changes in the act, the government must draft strong guidelines in order to regulate the domestication of elephants.

“Existing Act specifically prohibits trade in wild animals including captive and wild elephants. But an exception has been carved out in the amendment by excluding live elephants from the general prohibition contained in Section 43. The implication of the same is that the commercial sale and purchase is no longer prohibited under the Act. The amendment will legalise elephant trade for the first time in fifty years,” Meghalaya MP Agatha K Sangma, NPP, pointed out.

Black Day for elephant lovers

March 11, 2018 was a ‘Black Day’ for elephant lovers in Kerala. Hundreds of people poured into a piece of land right in the middle of Thrissur city where the body of Thiruvambadi Sivasundar, the majestic beauty who stole the hearts of thousands of people during temple festivals, was kept for public viewing. Many wept, hugging and kissing the jumbo’s tusk. People used to come for Thrissur Pooram just to have a glimpse of the elegant posture the legendary elephant struck as he stood amidst a sea of humanity. It was hard for them to believe that Sivasundar would not be there to carry the Thiruvambadi deity’s idol for that year’s Thrissur Pooram, on April 25. Sivasundar, who used to carry the Thiruvambadi deity’s idol for the past 15 years, died after fighting impaction for 67 days. A massive hard ball of dung was found in the intestine of the 46-year-old elephant during post-mortem. It was clogged up in the intestine. On the same day, another elephant, Kannamath Devadathan, was found dead in the compound where he was tethered in Kollam district. He was only 28. After five days, on March 16, yet another jumbo, 55-year-old Mangalamkunnu Krishnan Kutty, collapsed and died in Palakkad. Kodumon Deepu, a 52-year-old elephant, that was allegedly blind, died near Konni elephant camp on February 27. He too suffered from impaction. The reason for the death of 56-year-old Vayalassery Kesavan was also severe constipation. February 2018 was a cruel month for elephants in the South as six captive elephants died during the month. The other elephants that breathed their last in February were 52-year-old Chandrika in Kumily, 22-year-old Neyyattinkara Kannan in Thiruvananthapuram, 48-year-old Cheliparambil Vinayakan in Mupliyam and 17-year-old Kunnamkulam Sivan in Kunnamkulam.

Strict regulations a must

Lack of proper care, brutal torture and flouting of elephant management rules lead to the sad plight of captive elephants. Experts pointed out that strict guidelines were required to ensure elephants in captivity were provided ample food and water. Manilal Valliyatte, former co-opted member of Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), pointed out: “Captive elephants are not provided with balanced diet. Elephants eat a lot of variety leaves, grass, roots, wood bark, berries and fruits in the wild. But in captivity, its diet is a human choice. There are many myths and beliefs involved in it. We decide that elephant likes palm leaves, jaggery and coconut. Of course, wild elephants eat sugarcane, but not in the concentrated form as jaggery. We perceive that what we like will be the favourite food of elephants too.” The biological make-up of an elephant is such that the stomach merely stores the food. The process of digestion takes place in the intestine. “But when the food is so fibrous, it cannot pass through the narrow passages of the intestine. So, the stomach gets clogged up and infected, ultimately resulting in death,” explains Sangita Iyer, founder and president of the Voice for Asian Elephants Society. “Elephants also need a daily intake of 150-200 litres of water, necessary to soften the food. But in captivity and during the festivals, they are deprived of water in order to prevent them from urinating or excreting in the temple precincts. This leads to acute dehydration in elephants,” said Iyer, who had produced and directed Gods in Shackles, a widely acclaimed and touching documentary on the plight of captive elephants. Wild elephants walk at least 18-20 km a day while grazing. But captive elephants have no physical activity. Exercise is necessary, not only to digest the food, but also to balance their massive bodies.

Impaction main cause of death in captive tuskers

According to experts, impaction is the main cause of death among captive elephants. TP Sethumadhavan, former Director of Entrepreneurship of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (KVASU), pointed out: “The erratic management and feeding practices coupled with severe stress are the main villains. Impaction is a multi-factorial disease manifestation wherein the animal cannot pass dung for 2-3 months together, which sometimes even causes rupture of intestine, dehydration and death.” Elephants are slow eaters, which require a lot of roughages like palm leaves. In many cases, mahouts feed palm leaves in bulk along with the central hard portion. Scarcity of palm leaves forces them to feed coconut leaves too. Hard portion of these roughages can obstruct the eight-meter-long intestinal tract of elephants. Climatic variation coupled with summer heat and stress of work would aggravate the situation, pointed out Dr Sethumadhavan. “Impaction is comparatively rare in elephants in zoological parks, especially in the US, European countries, Canada, etc., where elephants are fed with hay, which is easily digestible and may not cause obstruction to the intestine. During my recent visit to the Disney Animal World at Orlando in the US, veterinarians and zookeepers told me that impaction is not at all prevalent in these elephants,” said Dr Sethumadhavan, also visiting a scientist at Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Though impaction is common among captive elephants, unfortunately not much research has been done in this area here. “In order to control the loss of elephants due to impaction, interventions in feeding and management practices have to be done in accordance with captive elephant management rules applicable. In the long run, scientists need to think of reducing the use of coarse fibre and incorporating green fodder and roughages so as to reduce the digestive disturbances. Research work in this area is comparatively scarce and needs to be augmented. Rather than concentrating more on treatment and musth (heat) control, veterinarians must work towards assuring sustainable feeding and management protocols among captive elephants,” said Dr Sethumadhavan.

Elephant domestication, need of the hour

Other than those who strongly opposed the bill, there were many foresters who strongly backed the bill and called domestication of elephants, ‘a need of the hour’. “I may sound harsh but domestication of elephant is perhaps the only way out to save the animal. Not only domestication, I must say that government should rope in other means in order to keep a check on the fast increasing population of elephants that has its own consequences, which only we as a forester can foresee,” said RS Bhadauriya, IFS (retired), Ex-Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, UP and Ex Chief Wild Life Warded UP.

Bhadauriya said excess of anything was bad and the one liner went with elephants too. “Wild life management is dynamic process, therefore marching ahead and turning back as and when required are inherent characteristics of  proper management process. In 1972 when wildlife protection act was introduced, then there was a need to protect the animal. But now, the case is different, hence I believe that the government should take step accordingly,” said Bhadauriya. He added that the population of elephants had been on the rise. And the increased population, especially of elephants is the reason of all worries. “Others may not be aware of the fact, but elephant is perhaps the only animal that also destroys a forest in a bid to satiate its hunger. Other than this, it also adds to man animal conflicts,” he added. “I have no hesitation in saying that elephant population has become a problem all over its range, with the result that most of the time the staff of state forest departments remain engaged in mitigating and solving conflict problems, relegating other important forestry works, and even then, receiving brick backs from public, politicians, press and the self-proclaimed wild life enthusiasts,” he added.

As per the date with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, some 1,578 people died of elephant attacks in India between 2019-20 and 2021-22, with the maximum number of deaths in Odisha, Bhupender Yadav, Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, told the Lok Sabha July 18 2022. Odisha recorded 322 of the total 1,578 deaths by elephant attacks in the past three years. Other than Odisha, other states included in the state-wise data shared by the minister were — Jharkhand (291 cases), West Bengal (240), Assam (229), Chhattisgarh (183), Tamil Nadu (132), Karnataka (69), Kerala (57), Meghalaya (12), Andhra Pradesh (10), Uttar Pradesh (7), Tripura (5), Arunachal Pradesh (1) and Maharashtra (1).

Only solution to the problem

Hence, Bhadauriya claimed there was a dire need of adequate elephant management system in India and the steps being taken by the government were completely justified. “Not only keeping in zoos but the government should also think of exporting elephants during various animal exchange programmes in order to regulate the population of elephants,” he added. Besides, he has also approached the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF), demanded lifting of ban from elephant catching, also known as ‘mela shikaar’ and ‘Khedda’, which is also a dying art.

“No doubt we have excelled in preserving elephants as a result of which, the elephant population in the country is set to cross the mark of 30,000 (according to MoEF). But, having belonged to the generation of forest officers who has devoted his life for the protection of wildlife, I believe that now it is time to think and re-think whether our forests are ready to handle such a huge population of elephants. I think it is time to take some positive measures that can not only check the fast-increasing population of elephants, but also minimise man-elephant conflicts,” reads the letter penned down by Bhadauria, who has field experience of managing forests and wild life for over 35 years in UP Forest department and about 24 years as volunteer forester post retirement in 1996 till date. He said, the wild elephant population in the country had crossed the threshold limit. As a result, elephants often enter into the humanly populated areas in search of food, which results into man-elephant conflict.

500 persons & 100 elephants killed every year in man-animal conflict

As per the data, recently released by MoEF, at least 500 persons and 100 elephants are killed every year due to man-elephant conflict. “Indeed, the figure is depressing. And this is for the same reason, I believe that government should lift ban from elephant catching, which is the sole solution to the problem as castration of such huge creature is out of question,” said Bhadauriya while pointing out a probable solution to the problem. “For managing the sustainable population in wild, elephants should not be shot as a measure of culling. But they should be utilized by reverting back to former system of capture, training, taming and reopening private ownership, allowing riding in zoos, and also allowing its export abroad for zoos where there is great demand for Asian elephant, because it trains better and quicker than African elephant,” Bhadauriya’s letter to the MoEF further read. He said elephant catching was last held in 1977. Other than making amendment to the Act, the government should re-think of introducing elephant catching in order to manage the population of elephants.

UPs last elephant catching operation

Mahendra Singh, another forester who headed UP’s last elephant catching operation in UP in 1977, said the man-elephant conflict was the most burning issue in present times and the amendment in the Wild life Protection Act was perhaps a way to keep a check on the increasing population of the elephant. “I strongly believe that the government should assess the carrying capacity of a forest area. And, should allow elephant capture in the areas that are overpopulated in order to maintain a check and balance Also, it should find out the demand for elephants in different sectors in order to accommodate the elephants captured from the forest areas,” said Mahendra Singh, the then wildlife warden, forest department, Lucknow, UP. The then wildlife warden posted in Lucknow, who was assigned the task of capturing elephants, added that operation ‘catch’ was still fresh in his old memory. “I remember the last time when we were told by the government that we needed to catch around 30 elephants for an animal exchange programme. It was then we began searching for the tribe that knows elephant catching well,” recollected Singh. However, that was the last operation to be witnessed within the limits of UP. Officials with the forest department said capturing elephant in UP got banned in 1977 after Indian elephants were included in Schedule I category of Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which strictly prohibited capturing of wild elephants.

UPs lone elephant catcher

UP’s lone elephant catcher Kamaal Sheikh too echoed the same sentiments, saying lifting ban from the elephant catching (which was imposed in 1977 under Wildlife Protection Act 1972), would not only keep a check on the increasing population of elephants but would also revive over-3000-year-old art of elephant catching in India. “I am sure, the government would give a thought to it, which in return would keep the population under control and revive the dying art of Mela Shikaar,” said Kamaal Sheikh, the man in his late fifties, who is well versed with the rare art of elephant catching. Sheikh, who originally hails from Gauripur town of Dhubri district in Assam, says India is among those few countries where the art of capturing or domesticating elephants traces back to more-than-3000-years. “And we are among those few who are carrying the legacy forward and are still well versed with the technique of capturing elephant. Unfortunately, nothing is being done on the government’s part to revive this dying art. Barring me, all others who were brought to UP in 1977 elephant catching operation, are dead now,” lamented Sheikh. Kamaal Sheikh, one of the two elephant catchers who was brought to UP, said: “Operation catch was not easy. It lasted almost two years in which we captured around 24 elephants,” Sheikh further said. The elephant catcher however strongly believes that lifting ban from elephant catching could not only revive the dying art (that is also a part of ancient India) but will also curb the fast increasing population of elephants that is resulting into increased man-elephant conflict cases. Once captured, elephants can be put to various uses, the elephant catcher suggested on a firm note.

How is an elephant captured?

Kamaal Sheikh, the elephant catcher, who is also known as phundis in Assam, says catching an elephant is not a child’s play, but an art that is on the verge of extinction. In Assam and other states of North East where elephant population is in abundance, prior to 1977, elephant catching for domesticating purposes was a tradition. “And we used to be the one, engaged in capturing elephants. It was my ancestral profession,” said Sheikh. How is it done? The elephant catcher said in the process, a trained ‘phundi’ (catcher) used to chase the herd of elephants on an elephant, with one end of a thick rope tied from the elephant’s stomach and other end of the rope is used to lasso the elephant, especially the baby elephant. “Once lassoed, the catcher tries to reduce the rope gradually as he continues to chase the elephant. The entire process is not as easy as it seems, as many times the mother elephant turns violent,” he added. He said the art was more than 3000 years old because many kings and rulers were fond of domesticating elephants as a part of their military. 

Doomed just ahead of World elephant Day on Aug 12

This amendment in this month is specially subduing as International Elephant Day is celebrated on August 12. World Elephant Day was first celebrated on August 12, 2012 with the initiative of Canadian filmmaker Patricia Sims and the society of elephant conservation in Thailand ‘Elephant Reintroduction Foundation of Thailand’. The day aims to bring together individuals to raise voices against issues threatening the survival of elephants and work together towards the conservation of the species. According to worldelephantday.org: “There is a need to work together on this critical global issue which demands cooperation across borders and political lines.” As per a report on the website, the population of elephants has declined by 62 per cent over the last decade and it may get extinct by the end of the next decade. The price of ivory, banned internationally in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has risen three times. Studies have shown that the life span of an elephant reduces under captivity as it suffers from depression and trauma. Moreover, the shrinking of wild space due to the development of infrastructures like highways and railways is threatening their survival as elephants are losing habitats and many times encroach on human settlements leading to man-animal conflicts.

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