For the past few days, the Facebook page of the animal NGO, Wildlife SOS, has been receiving various posts that feature photographs of four elephants. The posts also seek donations for The Precious Four and a number of visitors, mainly from overseas, have already pledged donations. The four elephants in question – called Pearl, Ruby, Goldie and Sylvie — belong to the Rambo Circus where they were called Anar, Saraswati, Nitya and Champa. On May 27, the Sangvi Police had confiscated 22 animals from the Rambo Circus following allegations of cruelty and unlawful performance acts made by several NGOs against the circus company. A complaint was filed by city-based ResQ Charitable Trust and Delhi-based Wildlife SOS to the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) authorities. The 22 animals that were confiscated included four elephants, three horses one pony and 14 dogs.
The confiscation was carried out as the circus had allegedly violated the Performing Animal Rule and the Act of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
While the use of wild as well as domestic animals in circus is cruel by all means as far as animal rights are concerned, the latest incident has raised questions on the procedure followed when cruelty against an animal is reported.
RIGHT TO CONFISCATE
On May 5, 2015, Bombay High Court had ordered the implementation of a letter of the Central Zoo Authority (dated December 19, 2014) that said Rambo Circus elephants were treated as “Private Elephants”, till the next hearing. Since the matter is sub judice till the next hearing on August 31, 2016, the confiscation of animals by any party is unlawful, alleges Sujith Dilip, Rambo Circus owner.
Sunil Ramanand, Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) clarified that police did not confiscate the animals, but it was carried out by Honorary Animal Welfare Board Officer (HAWO) Sunil Havaldare.
However, the duties of HAWO, as mentioned on the website of Animal Welfare Board of India, clearly mentions, “The HAWO should bring the incidents of cruelty to wild animals immediately to the notice of Wildlife Department. The HAWO is not authorized to collect any fines, penalties in any form from the offenders/others or to raid the premises/confiscate any animal. It will be considered an offence. If any HAWO is found to indulge in such practices, the Board will be constrained to initiate legal action against such illegal activities.”
Even Deputy Conservator of Forests Satyajeet Gujar clarified, “Our official was present for assistance. The Forest Department does not have the power per se to seize any animals.”
However, given the alleged ill-treatment of the animals by the circus management, the confiscation was justified, says Meher Mathrani, the animal welfare officer. “The circus had violated PCA Act, 1960, to a great extent. The vet’s examination showed the animals were not treated in the right manner. All the dogs had severe skin problems; their ears were full of innumerable big-size ticks. One of the dog’s leg had fractured and a broken pin was still in his leg. All the animals were malnourished. The dogs had fear-based aggression; the horses had wounds and so did the elephants. Besides, they were kept in restricted environment. I strongly feel no animals should be used in circus.”
THE RESCUED ANIMALS
Though the Facebook page photographs of the elephants show them finally living a “free life”, when The Indian Express reporter and photographer visited the ResQ centre situated ahead of Bavdhan, where the animals are currently put up, the elephants were found to be tied with chains and ropes. They were tied extremely close to each other, leaving no place for movement.
Justifying the situation, Neha Panchamiya, who runs ResQ, said, “The reason we have tied them currently is because two of them are in heat and are still getting adjusted to the new surroundings.”
As far as 14 dogs are concerned, they are also at ResQ, each one of them placed in separate kennels. Panchamiya said though the animals are currently at ResQ, it’s the Wildlife SOS which has legal custody of the elephants and the dogs would be given to PFA. The horses and the pony are currently with the NGO Animal Rahat.
Talking about the future course of action to be taken by Wildlife SOS, Riya Lopez, who is the Elephant Campaign Manager at Wildlife SOS, said the elephants would be transferred to a rescue centre in Haryana. “We have applied for the Transit Permit from the PCCF of Maharashtra so that we can transfer the elephants to our centre in Haryana. At the same time, we would require an NOC from the Haryana government to bring the elephants. The process will take some time. Last time, when we rescued a few elephants from a circus, it took almost three months for the paperwork,” she said.
However, the guidelines of Central Zoo Authority state, “All seized wild animals should be rehabilitated back in wild or in regular lifetime care facility/zoo/rescue centre depending upon the condition/suitability of the individuals within 30 days of the seizure after getting permission of the court dealing with the case.”
The Indian Express is in possession of a copy of the RTI reply which was in response to the query filed by Rambo Circus manager John Mathew in April 2015 and was addressed to Central Zoo Authority (CZA). The query was, “Is the Wildlife SOS Rescue Centre recognised by CZA?”. The reply says, “No such rescue centre exists”.
Another RTI reply also says that “The elephant rescue centre at Mathura is not recognised by the CZA.”
Incidentally, Wildlife SOS has kept 19 elephants there.
“This NGO is simply misusing the law and has got into this matter just to gain funds through donations from people across the world, especially those who are based abroad,” said Mathew.
Rambo Circus owner alleged, “Around 18-20 years ago, when the court had ordered seizure of wild animals like lions and tigers from circuses, six of my lions were seized but through a proper procedure. My licence was cancelled. They did panchnama and took my signature. This time, I was not given any paper. They simply took away my animals.”
He claimed that out of the four elephants, two had been on rest from the last 20 years due to old age. Likewise, three horses and six dogs did not use to perform and were on rest due to old age. “We were taking good care of them though they stopped performing years ago. I have a cupboard that is full of records related to my animals that includes details like diet chart, vaccinations, registration papers etc,” he said.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Pune collector Saurabh Rao said, “The incident took place with the orders of police and forest officials. If the matter is not yet resolved at their end, I will look into it.”
Meanwhile, Rambo Circus has filed a complaint to the online grievance cell of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change regarding the matter.