There are animals. And then, there are elephants. These noble animals, whose form reflects the colour of an approaching storm cloud, elicit much wonder. They are large, mighty, yet gentle. While we use science to unravel the complexity of that ever-swaying trunk, will there be a time when we can fully understand their joys and sorrows? It is a tragedy that despite their majesty, many people value elephants based on the length of their tusks and the strength of their back.
Approximately 60% of the world's population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) trundle across India's finest forests, with numbers ranging between 26,390 and 30,770. However, the illegal trade in elephants and their parts (for ivory, meat and leather) threatens to silence their footfall.
An animal that is deified is plucked from its natural surroundings and subdued, so that people may kneel before it and exclaim, "Here is our God!"
In India, Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (protection) Act 1972 prohibits the hunting of and trade in elephants for commercial use. Exceptions have been made for those elephants that were in captivity before 25 January 1987, under strictly regulated conditions. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists Asian elephants on Appendix I, affording them international protection.
A report by India's Elephant Task Force put the number of captive elephants in India at 3500. Government-held elephants may be found in forest camps, zoological parks and state-run religious organizations. Privately held elephants are often used in circuses as performance animals, for travel/begging, for display and processions in religious organizations as well as for performing tasks that require intensive labour. A 2010 report by Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) and the Asian Nature Conservation Fund (ANCF) found that most elephants held in private ownership are acquired through unlawful means and fuel a thriving illegal trade, with Bihar's Sonepur Mela as the hub. The pulse of an elephant herd throbs in the bonds between its members. And yet, in Assam and other parts of the Northeast, calves are snatched from their mothers and brought to Sonepur, where they are sold to private individuals. It would be remiss to ignore the irony wherein an animal that is deified by a majority of the land is plucked from its natural surroundings and subdued, so that people may kneel before it and exclaim, "Here is our God!"
Photo credit: Frank Loftus/HSI
Their physical and biological requirements make elephant-rearing an expensive affair. However, the financial burden of keeping an elephant is offset by owners who give nary a thought to their welfare. These social animals are usually shackled in isolation; they may be denied access to adequate food and water. They are made to walk long distances on hot tar roads which, apart from causing debilitating injuries, also puts them at the risk of dehydration and exhaustion. The saddles (howdahs) that are placed on elephants to ferry people are exceedingly heavy and strain their backs. The ropes used to secure the howdahs chafe against their skin, causing immense pain. These are just some of the abuses elephants face in captivity.
In 2015, Delhi officials seized 487kg of ivory. This points to a thriving network of ivory smugglers as well as a growing demand for elephant parts...
The nefarious nature of the illegal trade in captive elephants is heightened by the possibility that it serves as a front for the ivory trade. While the aesthetic appeal of ivory artefacts is a matter of personal taste, (Stephen Alter likened an ivory mat to "cheap white plastic"), the fact remains that elephants are killed for ivory, which is in fact composed of dentine -- a substance that is also present in other mammalian teeth. As per the report by CUPA and ANCF, the tusks of captive elephants are trimmed regularly, and the ivory thus obtained is sold in the black market. Such harvesting of ivory also violates India's wildlife laws.
Photo Credit: By U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, the problem of poaching wild elephants for ivory continues. In 2015, Delhi officials seized 487kg of ivory. This points to a thriving network of ivory smugglers as well as a growing demand for elephant parts, both in India and abroad. Only male Asian elephants have tusks and hence, poaching has led to a skewed gender ratio which can have adverse impacts on the genetic health of the population.
As individuals, each one of us must exercise our choice to say "no" to activities that encourage trade in elephants and their parts.
An obvious way to fight the insidious trade in elephants and their parts is to not indulge in it. As individuals, each one of us must exercise our choice to say "no" to activities that encourage trade in elephants and their parts. This includes the use of elephants in processions, rides as well as the sale of ornaments and other artefacts made from ivory, elephant hair etc. Humane Society International also encourages people to sign the Don't Buy Wild pledge and learn how to avoid the destructive wildlife trade.
Meanwhile, the regulatory authorities must ensure the enforcement of laws that prevent killing of elephants for ivory. As for captive elephants, trade between individuals as well as inter-state trade must be strictly monitored. Last year, the state government of Bihar banned the trade and transportation of elephants within and across its borders. Registration of captive elephants and other relevant ownership details must be recorded and stored in a national database. Any anomaly in ownership must result in a quick seizure. In addition, there must be adequate rehabilitation facilities for seized animals.
World Environment Day was observed this week, and there is no better way to celebrate it than to #jointheherd by reiterating our commitment to elephant protection through firm action. For it is unthinkable to even imagine the words, "And then there were elephants."
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