Assam-based activist writes to Supreme Court; demands transparency on elephant transfer to Vantara

Vehicle carrying cow elephant Pratima and her calf had been stopped in Assam en route to the Reliance Zoo in Jamnagar, as reported by DTE

A wildlife activist from Assam has expressed grave concerns about the lack of transparency of a Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) in allowing movements of elephants from Northeast India to Vantara, the zoo owned by the Reliance Group in Jamnagar Gujarat. The activist has based his observations on Down to Earth (DTE)’s recent exclusive story regarding the transfer of a cow elephant and her calf from Tripura to Vantara.

DTE had reported on May 5 about the injured and abused cow elephant, named Pratima, and her calf being detained in Assam by the state forest department while on their way to Vantara.

Several rules appeared to have been violated in the transfer. The Tripura Forest Department itself confirmed Pratima to have been pregnant during the transfer, even its papers were being scrutinised.

Wildlife activist Rohit Choudhury, hailing from Bokakhat near Kaziranga National Park, expressed grave concerns about the decision taken by the HPC to transfer Pratima and her calf to Gujarat in a letter to Justice (Retired) Deepak Verma, the HPC chairperson, following DTE’s report:

I write with deep concern that the current elephant transfer, despite the emergency and good faith, has been in haste by not tapping into existing networks of care within the Northeast. The HPC has not considered alternate, local options for treatment that would have avoided an arduous 3,000-kilometre (km) journey during the peak of the summer for a severely unfit elephant who is still nursing her calf.  

He alleged that the said transfer is potentially in breach of the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA) of 1972 and Captive Elephant (Transfer and Transport) Rules, 2024.

The India chapter of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and local animal rights activists had alleged that the elephant Pratima and her calf were illegally kept in the Kailashahar subdivision of Tripura’s Unakoti district.

Only pachyderms with valid ownership certificates and genetic mapping can be transferred, according to elephant transfer rules. Choudhury termed Pratima and calf’s transfer as egregious in the absence of ownership papers and DNA mapping. “This legal procedure [having valid papers] is required to curb the illegal trade in elephants, and it cannot simply be voided by the orders of HPC,” added the letter.

He further added that an elephant’s illegal custodian cannot surrender or gift the animal under Section 50 of the WLPA. The seizure, case property and custody orders for need to be scrutinised for a legal transfer. “On what basis did the Chief Wildlife Warden of Tripura determine that only Jamnagar, a destination 3,000 km away, can treat the elephant?” the wildlife activist asked.

The letter to the HPC also raised the concern that medical treatment of elephants cannot become a route through which the animals are permanently moved out of their natural habitat in the Northeast.

“The noble trust entrusted to this Committee, of rescuing elephants in need, is being misunderstood — largely because of the secrecy surrounding its proceedings — leading to fears across the region that at this rate all elephants from the Northeast will be taken to Jamnagar,” the letter stated.

Choudhury stated that 25-30 elephants are being prepared for the next transfer to Jamnagar. He requested that HPC should transparently deal with the transfer requests by making its proceedings public. The HPC was also requested to coopt experts from Northeastern India and identify rescue and rehabilitation centres in the region. The activist requested the HPC not to allow removal of elephants from their natural habitat as a rule.

Meanwhile, Tripura wildlife officials told DTE that Central Zoo Authority guidelines prohibit transfers of pregnant elephants.

“It was confirmed by Vantara veterinarians that the injured elephant was pregnant. However, we do not have adequate facilities to care for the animal. Therefore, as per the HPC’s orders the elephants were sent to Vantara in Gujarat,” said the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) of Tripura, RK Shyamal.

The CWW, also a member of the HPC, further added that Pratima and her calf’s ownership papers were being scrutinised by the forest department.

“The elephants did have ownership certificates which might have expired. Our department is scrutinising the papers. These elephants are microchipped and for verification, we have sent their DNA samples to Dehradun’s Wildlife Institute of India,” Shyamal added.

The elephants were owned by Zaharuddin, a resident of Kailashahar in Unakoti. He used Pratima for illegal wood logging in Tripura and adjoining states such as Mizoram.

How it all began

“Zaharuddin was bedridden with cancer. So his son, Akbaruddin, came to own these elephants. We found out that the elephants were used even when their mahout (elephant handler) licenses had expired,” Kuntala Sinha, general secretary of Kailashahar-based non-profit Go Green and Help Stray Animal Organization, told DTE.

The non-profit is involved in animal rescues. Sinha received a video from a local youth which showed that Pratima and her calf were badly injured.

She approached Tripura’s forest as well as animal resources development departments, telling them about Pratima and her calf’s plight.

“These government departments did not pay any heed to my repeated requests. On April 14, I did a live broadcast on social media, which was shared by several others, including posts on X [formerly Twitter]. I have been following Vantara’s page on Instagram and I liked what they were doing. I sent them a message and later corresponded with them over email. By April 17, there was a team of veterinary doctors from Vantara in Kailashahar.”

Sinha said she had also approached Member of Lok Sabha, Maneka Gandhi, with the video. “Gandhi also told the forest department to seize the elephant immediately. However, it was only after an order from the Tripura High Court that the elephant was secured by the forest department. The owners resisted the rescue. It was only forest officials and local police got involved that the elephant could be rescued,” Sinha told DTE.

Paramita Sen, an Agartala-based lawyer who approached the court seeking the elephant’s rescue, told DTE. “The elephant was not able to sit or sleep. The vets said that she didn’t sleep for the last one year because of the critical condition of her legs. We don’t have that support system in our state. She was also pregnant. So, her immediate rescue was needed, else her foetus was also at risk,” Sen said.

The Vantara team treated the elephant for 10 days so that she could be transferred from the state. “The veterinary staff worked around the clock to revive Pratima’s bodily functions in an area close to my house in Kailashahar. We are getting updates that the elephant and her calf are in quarantine and they are receiving all the care they needed,” Sinha said.

Read An elephant cow and her calf being transported from Assam to Jamnagar is once again raising several questions

However, it is not just Pratima and her calf who were abused and kept illegally in Kailashahar, according to Sinha. “She has a young sub-adult daughter aged about five to six years. On May 12, I saw another video of her roaming around in the neighbouring forests. I suspect that the daughter was subjected to torture and was later released by her captors fearing action from the forest department. I have approached the forest department but no action has been taken to rescue her,” added Sinha.

Sen maintains that captors in Tripura are illegally breeding injured and old elephants like Pratima so that they can be traded with other captors.

Tripura has about 64 captive elephants, according to forest officials. According to Sen, the Kailashahar subdivision constitutes 40 per cent of these animals – highest in the state.

Sinha however says that these figures could easily be disputed as many elephants are kept illegally and made to work in the timber industry in Mizoram and Nagaland.

Wither accountability?

The issue of captive elephants and their transfers to Vantara, however, has not gone down too well with India’s leading conservationists. According to Prerna Singh Bindra, an environmental journalist and conservationist who also was a member of the National Board of Wildlife, the central question on these transfers is the issue of accountability.

“Vantara may have, for the moment, what is touted as the ‘best facilities’. I say ‘for the moment’ because it is a private enterprise which we cannot hold accountable, unlike a government institution. What action can a citizen take if—God forbid—any such private facility mistreats its animals or cannot look after them due to changed circumstances?” she told DTE.

Bindra added: “It is touted as a rescue and rehabilitation centre. What do you mean by rehabilitation centre? I would think rehabilitation means you would, following scientific protocol, release that animal back to the wild, which has not come across as the aim of the centre.”  

According to Bindra, the state seemed to be facilitating the indulgence for a private collection. “If the owners of the centre love wildlife and are keen on conservation, the best way forward is to support conserving animals in the wild, protect wild habitats and engage with governments in doing this,” she said.

“We have been witness to the state putting its entire machinery to facilitate the transfers of elephants for the centre. Sick and pregnant elephants as well as young calves have been carted across the country in extreme heat— this is horrifically cruel. Not only is this an eyewash but why doesn’t the government set up treatment facilities when it knows we have elephants in captivity?” questioned the conservationist.

She also wondered whether the government had no money to take care of the animals under its care as elephants were being moved to Vantara.

“There have been repeated concerns of wild animals being transported to this facility. Yet, it continues. And we claim that we worship elephants,” Bindra said.

Source link

Most Popular

To Top