The freak accident recently on Noida Expressway, in which a speeding truck killed one of Delhi’s captive elephants and injured another, has put the focus on the condition of elephants in captivity and whether is it advisable to keep these animals in a place like Delhi, which has extreme weather conditions, huge traffic volume and population.
According to conservation experts and mahouts, Delhi’s captive elephant population is on the decline. Eighteen elephants — a majority of them female — were registered with the Delhi Wildlife and Forests Department.
Officials and NGOs said with efforts being made to phase out the practice of keeping elephants in captivity, even this number may dwindle soon.
“The number of captive elephants has gone down as many were shifted to places such as Jaipur and Ghaziabad. The ones in Delhi are kept along the banks of the Yamuna, at ITO and Wazirabad,” said P V Singh, Wild life Inspector of the Delhi Department of Forests and Wildlife.
“In 2001, there were 40 elephants in Delhi, and now just 18 are left. While some died, others were moved to UP and other regions, especially during the Commonwealth Games when encroachment along the Yamuna near ITO were removed,” said Dr N V K Ashraf of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
Delhi’s elephant population is governed by the guidelines for care management of captive elephants, brought in by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2008. Elephant species is protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, and, accordingly, the selling and buying of elephants are prohibited. The Act also prohibits the capture of wild elephants.
But experts say these rules are often flouted. “Though open selling of an elephant is illegal, people find ways to get around the law. They show the sale as a loan of an elephant and, sometimes, as a transfer of ownership. They are still illegally captured and trained,” said Dr Ashraf.
“Delhi is not elephant range. They require a more humid climate, good rainfall, and access to plenty of water and vegetation. In Delhi, elephants develop cracks on their feet due to walking on hot roads, the food provided to them is unsuitable for them and there is no access to fresh water as the Yamuna is polluted,” he said.
According to a report prepared by the WTI in 2011 — after an health camp for Delhi’s captive elephants — lack of proper housing, being kept tethered for most part of the year and provision of inadequate water were found to be some of the major issues faced by Delhi’s captive elephants.
“Due to the pace of urbanisation in Delhi, removal of encroachment along the Yamuna, restrictions imposed on elephant movement between states within the NCR, and the frequent scrutiny of ownership details, elephant owners are finding it difficult to maintain the pachyderms in the Capital,” said the report.
“Delhi has a high traffic volume. If an elephant runs amok, the situation can become unpredictable. Besides there is no food here for elephants. We want the business of keeping elephants in captivity phased out, but we are yet to draw up a plan for this. But never allow elephants from outside Delhi to enter the state,” said PV Singh.
“Elephants are social creatures. In captivity, they don’t have enough space to move about and are kept tethered. In the wild, they travel for six months at time. In captivity, they also have no contact with other elephants. Captive elephants cannot be called domesticated. An animal cannot be called domesticated unless humans can control its reproduction. With elephants this is not possible, “ said Dr Ashraf.