The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC) has recommended in a report that elephant rides for tourists at the Amer Palace Fort and Haathi Gaon be withdrawn in a phased manner keeping in mind the health condition of the animals.
The report, filed on directions from the Supreme Court, recommends the use of electric vehicles for rides in these locations. At present, over 90 elephants are used for these rides.
“In a phased manner, the elephant rides in Amer Fort may be withdrawn and switched over to other modes of transportation like electric or battery operated vehicles. The declining trend of tourists on elephant rides and ageing animals are indicators for changes,” says the report, titled ‘Health Investigation Report of Captive Elephants in Amer and Haathi Gaon in Jaipur’
“The owners of the elephants also may be rehabilitated suitably in such situations. New addition of elephants for rides should be completely banned,” it notes.
Ride operators however, say that they ensure care for the elephants and that closing down the rides would be unfair to mahouts. “How is it fair for this report to say that the elephant rides should be done away with,” asked Abdul Aziz, president of the Haathi Malik Vikas Samiti.
“More than 20,000 people from our community of mahouts owe their livelihoods to these elephant rides. Moreover, several other people from the tourism industry also benefit from the rides. If they are closed, how will we survive?”.
The Supreme Court, while hearing a petition by the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre and others, had on March 6 last year directed the MoEFCC to send a team comprising veterinary doctors to examine and take the the necessary steps to restore the health of the elephants at Amer Fort and Haathi Gaon, and submit a report regarding their medical condition.
The court had also said that CEO of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Dr. Manilal Valliyate may accompany the team.
The report, provided to mediapersons by PETA, was prepared after the team carried out an inspection between July 22 and 25, 2020 — when elephant rides were suspended due to the Coronavirus-driven lockdown.
“These landmark scientific and humane recommendations mean that the days of using aging, ailing elephants as toys for tourists are numbered,” Valliyate said in a statement released by PETA.
The ministry’s report highlights several health issues among the 98 animals the team inspected.
It said that of the 98 elephants, 22 were suffering from eye problems like corneal opacity and cataract, among other illnesses. While the damage was irreversible in some cases, in others, the condition was just emerging, the report noted.
It stated that 42 captive elephants were suffering from foot ailments, either in the form of mild nail cracks, nail compression or overgrown nails. A few elephants had flat footpads due to erosion from walking on concrete roads, it said.
In Haathi Gaon, the report said, there was a possibilty of a spillover of pathogenic organisms between livestock and elephants.
“Veterinary hospital run by Animal Husbandry Department in Haathi Gaon caters to the need of livestock also. There is no separate road for livestock and elephants and both are sharing a common road. Possibility of spillover and spill back of pathogenic organisms between livestock and elephants is there. Therefore, existing veterinary hospital should be exclusively maintained for elephants,” the report mentioned.
The team has recommended that no livestock or pet animal should be allowed in Haathi Gaon and that facilities in the existing veterinary hospital should be improved and laboratory facilities should be created.
“Three elephants were positive for TB serodiagnosis. However, these elephants were negative in PCR. It indicates that these elephants were exposed to MTBC organisms or suffering from a latent TB infection. During the investigation, no active cases of TB in elephants were found. However, the committee recommends tuberculosis screening for elephants and caretakers twice a year during,” says the report.
Aziz however, maintains that the animals are treated like “family members”.
“Our families have been handling elephants since the times of the kings. The NGOs say that elephant rides result in animal cruelty. We take care of the elephants like they are family members. We spend lakhs of rupees on their upkeep and food, while these NGOs themselves run on donations. How can they take care of our elephants? Since the matter is in court, we have trust on the judiciary and will abide by its end verdict when it is pronounced,”
In 2018, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) had said in a report that 10 elephants of Haathi Gaon, had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. The report had also found back then that 19 elephants were blind in either one eye or both, while all had foot problems.