When India hosted the United Nation’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar last week, the environment ministry tabled a watershed proposal, listing the highly endangered Great Indian Bustard, the Bengal Florican and the Asian elephant in Appendix I of the convention. This affords these species the utmost protection.

The convention is an international cooperation mechanism committed to conserving all migratory wild species. It reflects the realisation that animals do not recognise international borders and acknowledges the need to protect their natural migration pathways.

The leadership shown by India in tabling the proposal is laudatory. Despite the odds, India has managed to hold its elephant population stable. The number of elephants in the country in 2017 was around 27,000. However, an integral part of the proposal to conserve the Asian elephant has been overlooked by all reports – the status of elephants in captivity.

Gaps in the proposal

The proposal note identifies “habitat loss, fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, poaching and illegal trade of elephants” as some of the main challenges that confront Asian elephants and calls for immediate prohibition on capturing wild elephants.

While this focus on wild elephants is very welcome, it might also distract general attention from the plight of captive elephants in India. In reality, the distinction between wild and captive elephants is erroneous: all elephants belong in nature.

As per the latest figures, close to 2,500 elephants in India are kept in captivity. The majority – close to 1,687 – are with private individuals, and the remaining with zoos, circuses and temples. What are close to 1,700 elephants doing in captivity in the hands of private owners?

Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, no wild animal can be taken from the wild. But when the law was enacted, an exception was created for elephants that were in captivity at that time. Ownership certificates were permitted only for those in captivity to regularise their possession. It was never intended to be an ongoing mechanism. However, this has been misused over the decades to capture fresh elephants and issue new ownership certificates.

The law stands at an absurd crossroad today. Of the several hundred animals protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, only the elephant, a National Heritage Animal, with the highest protection under Schedule I, can be legally owned by a private individual.

The Convention on Migratory Species listing of the Asian Elephant charges a fresh duty on member states “to prohibit the taking of animals” except for “scientific purposes”, “propagation of survival” of the species, and to accommodate the needs of “traditional subsistence users”. None of these tests would allow the commercial uses of parading, processions and riding that elephants are being subjected to by private owners in India.

Elephants at Bihar's annual cattle fair, Sonepur Mela. Credit: AFP

Man versus wild

Indian government agencies have repeatedly red flagged the criminal nexus between the illegal capture of elephants in Assam – sent for open trade at the Sonepur Mela in Bihar – and the growing demand for private ownership of captive elephants across the country. The concerted action proposed by India at the Convention for Migratory Species acknowledges the illegal trade as a serious threat to the elephant population and calls for its immediate dismantling by a “systemic global campaign and public education”.

The biggest danger of captivity is the falsity of the narrative. The deceptive appearance of an amicable relationship of trust between the mahout and the elephant conceals horrors of the worse kinds of unimaginable tortures.

These animals are still captured from the wild using the archaic 19th-century practice of mela shikar using fandis, specially trained mahouts, and kunkis, trained female elephants that lure male ones. India’s proposal at the convention recognises that elephants are social and intelligent beings. It is their very emotional intelligence that is used against them by beating their sense of self out of them as they transition into a lifetime of obeisance out of a constant fear of pain and torture.

For example, for the past 15 years activists have been highlighting the plight of the begging and wandering elephants in Ludhiana, who are paraded on hot scorching tarred roads and sleep under a flyover. The pressure of their weight on hard surfaces cracks their nails and leads to immense pain and foot rot, something that always goes unnoticed.

Over a 100 elephants are used daily for taking tourists up the winding uphill road to Amer Fort outside Jaipur. Two separate Animal Welfare Board of India inspections have emphasised the need to immediately remove and rehabilitate the very sick and old elephants, many blind and suffering from tuberculosis, which is a zoonotic disease. No action has been taken.

To make matters worse, a health camp organised to treat the Amer elephants was canceled at the last minute as recently as January by the Forest Department, despite both national and international experts and veterinarians gathered at huge costs. This is an example of how strong opposition from elephant private owner lobbies make any kind of welfare work next to impossible.

The situation is even more abysmal in Goa where ten captive elephants used for tourist rides, despite having been seized by the Forest Department, remain in the custody and possession of private owners as there are no alternative sanctuaries. These elephants are being loaned for grand beach wedding processions with complete impunity.

Captivity entails a lifetime of cruelty and torture for the animals. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

The examples are numerous. Captivity is a lifetime of cruelty and torture that needs to be nipped in the bud by closing all avenues for acquiring fresh elephants from the wild.

Future dialogue

A very important parallel discussion within the Convention for Migratory Species corridors on animal culture and social complexity has the potential to change how we look at conservation in the near future. A team of experts is arguing that conservation must go beyond numbers also to protect the culture of species in question, refocusing the entire philosophy of conservation to the individual animal.

This gradual alignment of conservation efforts with the animal rights argument – that elephants are sentient, social, complex intelligent beings – can create new policy pathways to phase out fresh captivity of live elephants and also create government schemes to rehabilitate already captured elephants back into nature.

In a recent landmark order, the Delhi High Court, rejecting the claim of a mahout to regain “possession” of elephant Lakshmi, recognised that only the “jungle is the natural habitat of an elephant” which cannot be entrusted as a “slave” to the mahout and relegated to a life of “an uncomfortable environment against her rights and interests”.

In stating that the interest of Lakshmi is “best served in a forest”, the court has underlined the main purpose of local and domestic law to recognise an inherent natural right of the elephant to live as a free, social animal, in the wild.

Alok Hisarwala is an animal rights lawyer.