‘Bringing 1,000 elephants to Jamnagar makes no sense’: Raman Sukumar

Elephant ecologist on concerns surrounding the new Rules on captive elephant transfer, the emergence of zoos such as Anant Ambani’s Vantara, and more.

Published : Mar 28, 2024 19:23 IST - 9 MINS READ

Prof. Raman Sukumar

Prof. Raman Sukumar | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH

On March 14, the captive elephant’s future came to be governed by new Rules—Captive Elephant (Transfer or Transport) Rules, 2024—that regulate their transfer from one State to another. One of the conditions is that owners must submit that they are no longer in a position to maintain the animal and that it must be assured of better upkeep than its present circumstances.

Under the new Rules, the Chief Wildlife Warden of a State can permit the transport of captive elephants within the State or between States. The Rules are ambiguous in terms of what adequate facilities entail, how the animals will be transported, and over what distance. Will the new measures help elephants get a suitable home at the forest department’s facilities (a more conducive environment) if a private owner is incapable of caring for them? Conversely, will this abet the illegal trade of this Scheduled I species, as some conservationists fear?

To understand the implications of the new Rules, Frontline spoke to Raman Sukumar, the country’s leading elephant ecologist, an architect of Project Elephant, former chair of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group, the author of several books and scientific papers, and member of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife. Sukumar, who is currently an honorary professor at the Indian Institute of Science, also expressed his concerns about the rehabilitation centre that everyone is talking about: Anant Ambani’s “Vantara”, a 3,000-acre area in Jamnagar, Gujarat, that will house hundreds of animals, including 200 elephants (reportedly, soon to be 1,000) and exotic species such as jaguars.

What are your biggest concerns around that the Captive Elephant (Transfer or Transport) Rules, 2024? How will these new Rules impact the transfer of elephants to private zoos, for instance?

The Rules seem to have become contentious because there are fears that they may promote the illegal trade of elephants, including unauthorised captures from wild populations. Regarding the transfer of elephants, the Rules make it mandatory for Chief Wildlife Wardens of the source and recipient States to issue certificates that the transfer is genuine and necessary, and the animals ought to have been registered with the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden.

A genetic database of all captive elephants in the country is being created at the Wildlife Institute of India. Genetic profiling is expensive and may be time consuming in contributing to the certification.

On paper, the safeguards should be able to sufficiently curb illegal trade, but obviously any law is only as good as its implementation. My main concern would be the large-scale transfer of the captive elephant population from their places of origin to other regions of the country where their conservation role would be questionable. This would include elephants in so-called religious institutions or facilities merely for exhibiting them.

Elephants lined up at the annual “Aanayoottu” feast at a temple in Thrissur, Kerala. K.K. NAJEEB

Elephants lined up at the annual “Aanayoottu” feast at a temple in Thrissur, Kerala. K.K. NAJEEB | Photo Credit: K.K. NAJEEB

Anant Ambani’s rehabilitation centre in Jamnagar, Gujarat, has come under criticism for everything from the unsuitability of the habitat for elephants to the distance they have had to travel. What are your views on the facility?

My knowledge of Vantara is based entirely on what I have read in the media about their collection of various animals and the facilities they have created at Jamnagar for this rescue/rehabilitation centre or zoo. I shall stick to their collection of elephants, which is now said to exceed 200 and is reportedly moving to a target of 1,000.

When you consider that India has about 2,600 captive elephants, Vantara’s target, if true, would represent 40 per cent of the country’s captive population.

By all accounts, Vantara has created top-class facilities (temperature-controlled housing, hospitals, and veterinary care) for the upkeep of elephants in captivity. Some even say this exceeds any elephant care facility in the world. The first reaction would be to ask, “What’s wrong with creating a facility that caters to the welfare of large numbers of sick, injured, diseased, or abused elephants”?

First, Jamnagar in the western extremity of the country is outside the historical range of the elephant unless you go back to Harappan times. The weather in summer is simply unsuited to Asian elephants, while temperature-controlled housing for hundreds of elephants would consume enormous amounts of energy.

Second, transporting elephants across long distances is fraught with its own problems. I recall there were controversies some years ago about taking elephants from the north-east to Gujarat across the northern plains during peak summer when temperatures routinely exceed 40°C.

The role of the captive elephant in contemporary India goes much beyond that of being a creature merely to be cared for or exhibited to the public for its iconic or sacred status. Captive elephants can play an important part in the management of our forests and protected areas. Well-trained kumki elephants are great assets or even indispensable in the mitigation of conflicts between wild elephants and people, a phenomenon that is only increasing over time.

The ideal conditions to maintain captive elephants are those available at forest camps where they have access to their natural habitats. The elephant camps in States such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Assam represent the ideal situation, even if they are now facing challenges and problems (for instance, damage to forests by captive elephants, erosion of traditional skills in elephant husbandry, and so on).

Biological research on elephants is also more scientifically authentic in these conditions. More importantly, forest camp elephants are repositories of indigenous knowledge systems of elephants: the biggest contribution of the Oscar-winning The Elephant Whisperers was to emphasise the deep bonds between tribal people and elephants, often ignored or even derided.

With the enormous financial resources available, Vantara could potentially have been a game changer for captive and perhaps even wild elephants in the country if they had adopted a more all-encompassing vision. To me, bringing 200 or 1,000 elephants to Jamnagar makes no sense.

They can certainly keep some elephants, perhaps in the few tens, but beyond that number, even with the best facilities, they would face huge challenges in the social management of elephants. I have seen how zoos in the West or even temples in Kerala have struggled with managing bull elephants in musth.

How would hundreds of elephants at a single location contribute to the overall conservation of the species in the country? Vantara could have developed a more regionally distributed system of captive elephant facilities either on their own or in partnership with other institutions, including temples and forest departments, to improve the conditions for our heritage animal.

Where possible, captive elephant management could have been integrated with the management of wild elephant populations and their habitats, which should be the ultimate goal.

A mahout bathes an elephant at a temple in Kochi, Kerala.

A mahout bathes an elephant at a temple in Kochi, Kerala. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

You have said domesticated elephants “need to earn their livelihood”. Could you explain?

The 4,000-year history of elephant-human engagement in India has been a relationship of contrasts: the capture of very large numbers by kings for use in armies, the deification of the animal in Buddhism and Hinduism, the slaughter of bulls for ivory, the conflicts with agriculture.

With the cessation of the direct role of the elephant in war by the late Mughal era, the captive elephant took on a new primary role in India and Burma during colonial rule, namely, as a draught animal to extract teak and other timber species from tropical forests.

With the enactment of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the systematic capture of elephants declined sharply in India. The ban on logging, imposed in 1996 by the Supreme Court, threw many “timber elephants” out of a job, especially in the north-east.

In southern States such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, captive elephants were largely kept in forest camps by the State Forest Department; thus, it was easier for them to assign a new role for these animals in wildlife tourism within national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

I must mention here that the timber elephants of Thailand went through a similar situation with the ban on logging in the country following the devastating floods of 1989. Most of these elephants were “out of work” and were forced to earn their living by begging on the streets of Bangkok or by welcoming guests to hotels in Chiang Mai.

Coming back to India, the use of elephants for taking tourists inside protected areas has also been discontinued in many States for various reasons. There is a demand for elephants from temples, but these institutions are not in a position, or are unwilling, to pay adequate attention to the animal’s welfare.

Keeping solitary female elephants in temples in Tamil Nadu is cruel as these are highly social creatures, while the parading of large numbers of bull elephants during festivals in Kerala is clearly undesirable.

The captive elephant in India thus faces a serious crisis of identity. This has resulted in the neglect of captive elephant welfare. A more comprehensive action plan is needed on how to deal with the over 2,600 elephants in captivity in the country and turn them into conservation assets.

We need to address what I would term the “four pillars” of captive elephant management: capture (scientific techniques), training (using more humane methods), husbandry (a range of issues relating to nutrition, veterinary care, and housing), and their use (what is required and acceptable in today’s world).

Also Read | Why the tiger-human conflict rages in Bandipur and Nagarahole

Is it not anachronistic to continue to capture wild elephants and domesticate them?

It would be anachronistic to continue to capture wild elephants with the sole purpose of “domesticating” them and put them to human use. I must add here that elephants have never been domesticated in the true sense of the term but, rather, have always been captured, trained, and maintained in captivity.

However, we have to face the reality that the wild elephant population of India has increased significantly in some regions over the past 40 to 50 years without [it] necessarily gaining more “undisturbed” space.

Indeed, in many regions they have lost natural habitat in recent decades: the massive deforestation in the Sonitpur region of Assam during the 1990s or the spread of mining in east-central States.

Conflicts between elephants and people have been steadily increasing in recent decades and have reached unacceptable levels in many places because of range expansion by elephants from natural lands to agricultural landscapes.

Both elephants and people suffer from these conflicts, with large numbers of elephants dying of unnatural causes and several hundred people getting killed each year by these animals. Decades of mitigation actions have largely failed.

Therefore, the capture of some elephants is inevitable and imperative until more long-lasting solutions to conflict are found. The selective capture of wild elephants, mostly male elephants, has been ongoing in some States. On the other hand, many States do not want the burden of taking care of more captive elephants or do not have sufficient capacity to do so.

Sadly, in post-Independence India, the elephant, a creature which has co-evolved with modern humans in the subcontinent and shared a special relationship, has not received adequate attention or resources for conservation as opposed to, say, the tiger.

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