The state’s captive elephant population has seen a 30 percent decline over the past decade. A recent case brought to light irregularities that indicate how this might have happened
Live elephants are a rather unlikely “commodity” for trafficking, but a recent case in Assam has blown the lid off what appears to be a long-running racket in the smuggling of elephants.
Between June 12 and 14, Ranjana Gupta, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam, issued the official orders to transport four juvenile elephants – Joytara, Babulal, Rupsing and Rani – from the state to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where they were required for temple festivities. The annual Rath Yatra was scheduled for July 4, and on that day, the city would see a colourful procession, of which caparisoned and painted elephants were a traditional highlight.
Two of the elephants were microchipped on June 13, and were issued ownership certificates on the same day. The microchip number of Rupsingh, a male sub-adult, is 000770A96E, and the name of the owner is Piyal Moran of Lakhipathar in Tinsukia district. The microchip number of Rani, a sub-adult female, is 000770AB16, and she is owned by Joginath Pegu of Laika village in Tinsukia district.
The initial plan was to transport the four elephants on a passenger train from Tinsukia to Ahmedabad, a distance slightly over 3,100 kms. The plan was to cover the distance between 96 and 100 hours.
Soon the Assam Forest Department landed in a serious crisis over the transportation issue. Media and animal rights activists launched a massive campaign against the decision to transport the four elephants amidst the then ongoing heat-wave in North India.
Animal rights activists started raising questions about the well-being of the pachyderms in transit. The long journey may be highly risky for the four elephants, they said.
Firstly, the elephants had no prior exposure to the dry and hot weather of North India. Secondly, the pachyderms may not be able to cope up with the speed of the long-distance trains. All the trains navigate at an average speed of over 100 km per hour.
Thirdly, there was a fear that the panicky elephants (if sent in a semi-open coach) may try to touch the live wires of the electric lines over the railway tracks with their trunks, and may get electrocuted.
Fourthly, the veterinary doctors and attendants may not find enough time during the transit to attend to the immediate needs of the elephants, and especially arranging drinking water.
On an average, an elephant drinks more than 200 litres of water, and needs more than 1,000 litres for its daily bath. Arranging food was also a challenge.
Amidst the pressure of the media and animal rights activists, it was obvious that there was a huge grey area about the responsibility of the well-being of the four elephants while in transit. The animal rights activists questioned as to who was going to be responsible if one of the elephants had died during the course of the journey?
Two cases – one PIL and another instant Writ Petition were filed in the Gauhati High Court against the decision. Avinava Prayash, a Guwahati-based NGO, represented by its Secretary, Urmi Mala Das and Nandini Baruah, founder of ‘Purr Paws Foundation’, filed the PIL. Sangita Iyer, an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) filed the instant writ-petition to stop the transportation of the elephants till the weather is conducive.
In addition to the legal hassles, the Assam Forest Department on June 27 took the decision to temporarily postpone the transportation of the four elephants because of the report by the Veterinary Experts Committee. The veterinary experts had said as elephants have very weak thermo-regulatory system, owing to the presence of minimal sweat glands, there was every possibility of the animals suffering heatstroke while in transit.
Under pressure, the Assam Forest Department temporarily stopped the transportation of the four elephants to Ahmedabad, but by then other questions had surfaced.
Elephants caught from the wild
There is a strong allegation that two of the four juvenile elephants – Rupsing and Rani – are not captive born, and were caught from the wild by the wildlife smugglers of Upper Assam.
Rupsing still has an unhealed bullet injury on his left foreleg. The bullet injury is a strong indicator that the elephant was shot in the leg by elephant trappers in the jungle. Animal rights activists said Rupsing and Rani were caught from the wild in January 2018, and subsequently were trained and domesticated. Both the elephants are about six to seven years old.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 has very strict rules when it comes to capturing of wild animals, which it defines as hunting under Section 2(16) of the act. As a Schedule I animal, Section 9 of the Act prohibits the capture of elephants from the wild.
As per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, capture of wild elephant is grossly illegal. It is a non-compoundable offence, punishable with three to seven years imprisonment, and a fine of not less than Rs 10,000. Animal rights activists alleged that the Assam Forest Department violated the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by according out-of-turn “captive” status to the two sub-adult elephants, which they say were caught from the wild. What, they ask, was the Assam Forest Department’s “compulsion” to accord out-of-turn “captive” status to the two sub-adult elephants caught from the wild?
Tatkal arrangement for transfer
The Assam Forest Department granted permission to transport the four elephants to Gujarat in a tearing hurry. The pace was uncharacteristic of the department, and indeed of the government machinery in general.
While the NOC from the Gujarat Forest Department for the elephant Joytara was issued (Letter no. WLP/26/B/1020/2019-20, dated 12/06/2019), the Assam Forest Department granted permission (Office order no. 396) for transportation the same day.
Similarly, the NOC from Gujarat government was issued for male juvenile elephant Babulal on June 12, and the Assam forest department granted permission (Office order no. 397) for transportation the same day. The NOC from Gujarat came on June 13, and the Assam forest department granted permission (Office order no. 401) to transport Rupsing on the same day. Rupsing was microchipped that very day.
Wasn’t the Assam Forest Department aware that Rupsing had an unhealed bullet injury on its left foreleg? Did it not enquire into how the juvenile elephant got a bullet injury in the leg?
The fourth elephant, Rani was granted permission for transportation on June 14, and the NOC from the Gujarat Forest Department was issued the same day. The female juvenile elephant had also been microchipped on June 13.
The speed with which the elephants were being despatched to Ahmedabad suggest that a very powerful politician had placed a request.
Project Elephant Division kept in the dark
While the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forest closely monitors trans-location of elephants, the Assam Forest Department apparently kept New Delhi in the dark about transportation of four elephants to Gujarat.
Ranjana Gupta, in her office orders nos. 396, 397, 401 and 402, marked copies to almost everyone. But she did not mark a copy to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and especially the Project Elephant Division.
The Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forest, during the last few years, has been critical about trans-location of animals from Assam to other states, and especially to temples, where the life of elephants is generally quite miserable.
In January 2014, S.K. Khanduri, Inspector General of Forests Wildlife Ministry of Environment and Forest, had directed Assam Forest Department to initiate immediate steps to stop transportation of elephants from Assam.
Khanduri had reacted on the basis of a complaint filed by Suparna Ganguly, president and trustee of CUPA and WRRC, Bangalore.
Ganguly, who was an Ex-Task Force Member of the Ministry of Environment and Forest for elephants, had drawn the attention of the ministry that an elephant was being trans-located from Assam to a temple in Kerala. The elephant was being taken from Chanddhora in Lakhimpur district to Sri Padmanava Swami Temple in Kerala in an open truck. All its legs and neck were tied up. There was no provision for food and water on the truck.
The transit permit was issued in the name of one A. Kutti Pillai of Kerala. He revealed that the elephant was to be donated to the temple on behalf of a union minister.
Earlier, C. Murti, Assistant Inspector General of Forest (PE) on November 7, 2013 had issued a memorandum (F.No.2-31/2013/PE) saying that it had come to their notice that no-objection certificates were issued for transporting elephants for religious purposes.
The memorandum said the Ministry is of the view that issuing of NOCs in the garb of religious purpose would be in violation of Section 43 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Murti categorically directed all the Chief Wildlife Wardens that provisions of Section 43 of WLPA should be followed in letter and spirit.
The officials of the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forest have always been of the opinion that elephants of Assam, which are its heritage and pride, have the most heinous, cruel and abject life in various temples across India.
The Project Elephant Division maintains records of all captive elephants across India, and it was the duty of the Assam Forest Department to keep them updated about the move to transport four juvenile elephants to Gujarat.
Did the Assam Forest Department try to hide it because Rupsing and Rani were caught from the wild, and their names did not feature in the list of 905 captive elephants as on December 30, 2018?
Assam Forest Department officials are totally tight-lipped. Ranjana Gupta and other senior officials declined comment. So did Ravi Capoor, the Additional Chief Secretary, who is in-charge of the Department of Environment and Forest Department. Even the Assam Forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya did not make any statement on the issue.
The shady middleman
The role of a shady middleman made the entire debate on elephant transport to the Jagannath Temple in Gujarat murkier. This man from Tinsukia, who trades in elephants, was also present at the office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) when a delegation from the Jagannath Temple visited Guwahati to enquire about the progress of the elephant transportation.
Earlier, he was responsible for selling a large number of elephants from Assam in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
A report compiled by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) showed that as many as 167 were transported from Assam between 2005 and 2008 to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As per the record, 77 elephants were transported in 2006 from Assam, the highest in the conservation history of the state.
Similarly, 59 elephants were transported in 2007 from Assam. And, almost all the elephants transported in 2006 and 2007 were sent to Bihar. During the same period, 34 elephants from Assam were transported to Uttar Pradesh.
If the four juvenile elephants were being transferred to Ahmedabad against any sum of money or other consideration, it was in violation of Section 43 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
As per Section 43(1) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, no person having in his control or possession a captive animal in respect of which he has a certificate of ownership, shall transfer such captive animal by any mode of consideration of commercial nature.
And as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, everyone connected to the case may be imprisoned for seven years.
Assam Elephants sold in Sonepur Fair in Bihar
Enquiries revealed that most of these elephants which were transported from Assam to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were for sale at the infamous Sonepur Fair. Sonepur Fair is held on Kartik Poornima in the month of November- December in Sonepur in Bihar on the confluence of river Ganges and Gandak. It has its origins during ancient times.
The Sonepur Fair is said to have existed even when Chandragupta Maurya (340 – 297 BCE) was king. He used to buy elephants and horses across the river Ganges. The biggest attraction of the fair was the Haathi Bazaar where elephants used to be lined up for sale.
Most of the elephants sold in the Sonepur Fair in more recent times had buyers from other states, mostly Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
The Sonepur Fair has been admired as the best bazaar for purchasing live elephants for temples in Kerala, especially for full grown tuskers. The Assam elephants were also acquired by local landlords of Kerala and kept them as status symbols.
Though the open sale of elephants in the fair stopped in 2008, even now, there are reports of trading of elephants, during the Sonepur Fair. Now, the trade takes place in a private space beyond the realms of the infamous Haati Bazaar, and the suppliers – people like the Tinsukia man – carry on their business.
TRAFFIC, a leading NGO working globally on trade in wild animals and plants had surveyed and documented some of the elephants at the Sonepur Fair, and had found that the handlers did not possess proper documents.
30 percent decline in Assam’s captive elephant population
Official records show that 212 elephants were transported out of Assam between 2005 and 2016. There is no information on the return and present status of the elephants which were transported from Assam.
Animal rights activists are worried about the 30 percent decline in captive elephant population during the last one decade in Assam.
According to reports of the Assam Forest Department available with East Wind, it has come to light that there has been a sharp decline in the captive elephant population in the state.
A document Elephants in Assam, prepared by the Assam Forest Department, showed that the captive elephant population till December 2008 was 1,303 in Assam.
Surprisingly, as per the department’s report on December 2018 to the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forest showed that the captive population came down to only 905 elephants.
The report was submitted on December 30, 2018 by D.P. Bankhwal, the then Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam to the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forest.
As per the 2008 report, Doomdooma Division had captive elephant population of 268, the highest in the state. Unfortunately, the population in Doomdooma came down to only 61 elephants in 2018.
In 2008, the Golaghat Division had 177 captive elephants. And, the population came down to only 80 elephants in 2018.
In Sibsagar Division, there were 100 captive elephants in 2008, and the population reduced to 76 in 2018.
Similarly, there were 58 captive elephants in Karimganj Division in 2008. The population was reduced to only 25 elephants in 2018.
While there are reports of many births of captive elephants between 2008 and 2018, it is surprising as to how the population could decline by 30 percent in Assam. Moreover, juvenile elephants are caught from the wild and are shown as captive born by the wildlife smugglers. There ought to have been an overall increase in numbers. What accounts for the fall in numbers?
The state forest department has not cited any reason for the decline in the captive elephant population.
“This is a serious issue,” Dilip Nath, a well-known animal activist said. He added that illegal trade of elephants is the main reason for the decline of the population of captive population in Assam.
“We have reports that several elephants were transported outside Assam with fake documents,” Nath said, adding that people of Assam will have to join hands to save the last surviving elephant populations both captive and wild.
The writer is Editor in Chief of Northeast Now