Four captive elephants will undertake a perilous 70-hour journey from Assam to Gujarat to take part in a religious function in Ahmedabad. The Jagannath Temple in Ahmedabad which hosts the annual rath yatra, has sought these elephants to fill in for those that died last year.
While the date of travel remains unclear, sources from the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) have confirmed that they received an application on Tuesday to transport the four pachyderms from Tinsukia in Upper Assam to Ahmedabad, along with an advance of Rs 1,500.
The elephants will be taken in a VP coach (a closed non-AC wagon roughly the size of passenger coach usually used to transport goods) which will be attached to a passenger train. The NFR officials confirm that there will be provisions of water and a vet will be accompanying the animals on board.
This move, confirmed in a transit permit order issued by Assam’s Chief Conservator of Forest (Jorhat circle) Ranjan Kumar Das and signed by the Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Ranjana Gupta, has drawn the ire of wildlife activists across the state.
“Even when Assam hits 28-30 degrees, it is considered hot here. Plus, there is a lot of moisture in the air. North India, on the other hand, has dry hot weather and hits 45 degrees and upwards. These are extreme conditions for the elephant to travel,” said a Guwahati-based wildlife expert, who did not wish to be named.
Elephant is a Schedule 1 protected animal and as per the Environment and Forest Ministry, no elephant can be made to walk for more than 3 hours or 30 km at a stretch. Elephants are also not allowed to be transported for 6 hours at a stretch as per guidelines. While it is common for elephants to be transported by train, those transporting them have to follow the rulebook, which is provide a veterinarian on board, among others. Elephants are also prone to running amok in conditions of extreme heat, which is the case in Gujarat.
In the days preceding the move, the forest department reached out to several experts in the state to weigh their opinion regarding the move. Despite warnings and dissuasion, the government has given the green signal — a step, according to sources in the forest department, taken because the order had come from “highly-placed” people in the government.
“Even if they make it through the journey, what about the weather in Gujarat? Will they air-condition all of Ahmedabad for the elephants?” questioned the wildlife expert.
While the soaring temperatures of Northern India is the chief cause of worry, there is another aspect of the issue that must be looked into: the inter-state transfer of captive elephants.
According to forest officials, the four elephants are owned by individuals hailing from Upper Assam.
Caparisoned elephants are an integral part of the rath yatra in Ahmedabad which starts from the Jagannath temple in Jamalpur. However, temple trustee Mahendra Jha, told this paper that the new elephants may not participate in the current yatra. The temple lost three of its herd of 20 elephants last year due to age.
Temple sources said they had not received any written confirmation yet, calling it (the arrival of elephants) a “possibility.”
“It is true that we had demanded four elephants to be transported from Assam, for our temple. Last year, three elephants of our temple trust had died due to old age and we have 17 elephants left here. The four elephants will join them if and when they arrive in Ahmedabad,” said Mahendra Jha, trustee, Lord Jagannath Temple Trust, Ahmedabad.
Jha also said it is highly unlikely for the four elephants from Assam to join the Jagannath Yatra on upcoming July 4 in Ahmedabad.
In the past decade, there have been numerous instances of captive elephants disappearing from Assam. Most captive elephants have a high maintenance cost, which are increasingly leading the owners to get rid of them.
“An owner can seek permission to take an elephant to a different state in the interest of the elephant (to feed it, look after it), on the condition that he will bring it back within the stipulated time period. However, many times elephants have disappeared with no one keeping track,” said a forest department official, on the conditions of anonymity.
While the four elephants have reportedly been fitted with tracking microchips, activists are worried whether they will come back at all.
The entire operation might also run into legal trouble if the elephants have been transferred on lease and there is money involved in the same. It will then stand to violate Section 43(1) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 that states that “No person having in his possession captive animal, animal article, trophy or uncured trophy in respect of which he has a certificate of ownership shall transfer by way of sale or offer for sale or by any other mode of consideration of commercial nature, such animal or article or trophy or uncured trophy.”
“But in this case, there is no proof that this is a commercial transaction,” says a forest department official. On the other hand, the issue of ownership of captive elephants is a subject being discussed in the Supreme Court in the light of a public interest litigation filed by the Bengaluru-based Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in 2015.
“The government might have legal permission to do this but my main concern is this weather. Nobody would transport elephants in this weather — it is dangerous. True, they might have provisions to sprinkle water on them? But is that enough?” asked Honorary Wildlife Warden of Guwahati and wildlife conservationist Kaushik Barua.
Despite persistent efforts to reach out to them, both PCCF Gupta and CWW Das have been unavailable for comment.
“Even if the elephants are tamed and they arrive before July 4, they will not join the procession since they are not used to the ambience of the Yatra. They will first live in the temple premises for some time to get used to the climate and environment of a new city,” said Jha.
Elephants have always been an integral part of the Jagannath Yatra in Ahmedabad which covers a stretch of 18 kilometers in the old city area. The temple trustees expect over a million devotees to join the procession this year, which will be led by a herd of elephants.
Explaining the mythological significance of elephants in Lord Jagannath procession, Jha said, “In the yatra, the Lord Jagannath takes the form of Lord Ganesha who has an elephant head. Therefore, elephants are considered auspicious and integral part of Yatra every year.”
Officials of the Kankaria Zoo, which is near the Jagannath Temple, said that they have not received any order from the Forest Department of Assam regarding transfer of elephants to Ahmedabad.
“The elephants are not coming to the Kankaria Zoo since we have not received any written order for it. However, our team will be on spot if any animal during the procession loses calm. In the past, we have tranquilized seven elephants who went unruly during procession,” said RK Sahu, director, Kankaria Zoo.