Madras HC thinks it is time to end domestication, taming of elephants

In states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, they are given to temples for religious festivals, marriage ceremonies, opening of businesses and for tourist activities. The animal is often ill-treated

Festivals like Thrissur Pooram in Kerala are incomplete without the presence of captive elephants, which are specially decorated for the occasion.

The Madras High Court recently made crucial ‘observations’ that could be the precursor to a complete ban on elephants being domesticated or taken into captivity, except by forest officials in case of injury or disability to the animal.

The High Court acted on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist Rangarajan Narasimhan against ill-treatment meted out to elephants in temples. Final order is expected on August 25.

Cruelty against the giants

It is no secret that India has a history of taming elephants. The World Animal Protection report refers to India as the “birthplace of taming elephants for use by humans.” The practice is prevalent mostly in Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Rajasthan. As per a 2018 report, there are about 4,000 captive elephants in India while the number of wild tuskers is approximately 27,000.

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In states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, elephants are given to temples for religious festivals besides marriage ceremonies and also for inauguration of shops and businesses. The pachyderms are often subjected to a lot of hardships as they walk long distances on tarred roads in the heat for hours together.

About three years back, Rajeshwari, a 42-year-old temple elephant in Tamil Nadu, died of multiple injuries. She endured the torture for 18 long years, often standing on stone floors for long hours to ‘bless’ devotees and perform rituals.

A few years before her death, Rajeshwari had a fall from an open truck when she broke her leg. Recently, she fractured her femur when medical supervisors tried to flip her using a heavy machine. She lay still for several days before passing away in sleep.

At many places, elephants are chained and saddled for tourist rides. Corporates hire them for advertisement and so do politicians for campaigning. At some places, they were found to be used even for begging by the roadside.

As per reports, more than 70 captive elephants died under “unnatural conditions” in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan between 2015 and 2017. In Kerala alone, 45 captive pachyderms died between 2018 and January 2021. Wildlife conservationists say that most tuskers die due to overwork, torture and even mismanagement.

Also read: Jallikattu: Inside the mind of a bull-tamer

Activist Rangarajan Narasimhan, who filed a PIL in Madras High Court against torture meted out to the beast, said that several temple elephants do not even have regular mahouts, which deprives the animals of a creating a bonding with humans and thus increases the possibility of the animal going berserk. Narasimhan told the court that at times the animals are pushed to live in small enclosures, which affects their growth badly.

To train the elephants, caretakers often beat them up, which causes them severe physical and psychological scars.

Rules for protection of elephants – domestic and wild

The Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MOEFF&CC) started ‘Project Elephant’ in 1992 for the wellbeing of both wild and captive elephants.

Provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972:

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, was amended in 2002 and banned the sale of captive elephants which were not registered with the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State. If an elephant is owned without being declared, the Forest Department has the authority to cease the elephant on the grounds of illegal ownership.

As reported by wildlifesos.org

Section 9 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 talks about the prohibition of hunting of the animals listed under Schedule I, II, III, IV. The elephant is a protected species under Schedule I. Hunting of elephants will invite heavy punishment and incarceration of up to 7 years.

Section 40 (2) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 prohibits the acquisition, possession and transfer of a captive elephant without the written permission of the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State.

Section 42 reinstates that the Ownership Certificate can be issued to the person who has the lawful authority of the captive animal listed under Schedule I and II.

Section 48(b) clearly states that no wild animal under Schedule I and II can be captured, sold, purchased, transferred and transported unless the Authorised Officer does not certify the lawful possession of the same.

Also read: How human hysteria in Pune exhausted a bison to death and the lessons learnt

Section 40 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, also talks about the mandatory issuance of Transit Permit (TP) by the State Forest Department when an elephant is being transported from one state to another. Additionally, TP has to be issued by each state from which the elephant will pass through including the state in which the elephant will be finally going to.

Is the law strong enough?

The Madras High Court would not have been at need to pass any order that prevents elephants from being domesticated or taken into captivity had the law been strong enough. There are loopholes that allows the violators to go about doing their job without fear of persecution. For example, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, makes the exception of live elephants being “gifted” or “inherited” to people, wherein the owner has 90 days to declare this “inheritance” to the Forest Department. This clause is misused by elephant owners involved in illegal trafficking and exploitation of elephants, which allows the trade to flourish.

Some differences in rules for treating wild and domestic elephants also allow violators to find loopholes in the system and mistreat the tuskers for profits. For example, when an elephant is owned illegally, the state forest department has the authority to order the immediate seizure of the animal and rehabilitate it to a recognised elephant camp for long-term care and treatment. However, when an elephant is legally owned and there are reports of ill-treatment and abuse, the forest officers would think of taking action only after inspection of the condition and a complete medical check up.

The Madras HC order

After listening to the PIL and a bunch of other petitions, Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu of the Madras High Court passed an order, directing the state forest department to say by August 25 the minimum physical activity that an elephant was required to undertake. The court also wants to know if natural surroundings can be created on large open places that belong to temples for elephants to move around freely and taken to temples only during festivities.

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