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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The loneliness of Delhi’s only African elephant asks troubling questions of human pride

This anthropocentric worldview — where the most magnificent animals are uprooted from their homes and habitats to be turned into playthings of human needs — is fortunately on its way out.

By: Editorial |
Updated: November 23, 2021 9:22:04 am
The only other African elephant in India lives far away in Mysuru.

In 1998, a young elephant, at home in the vast Savannah grasslands of Zimbabwe, set off on a journey he hadn’t asked for. By the fiat of humans, he had been turned from elephant to emissary — a gift from the African nation to the Indian president. Here, in these arid climes, he was given a name, Shankar, and a home, an enclosure at the Delhi Zoo. He was not alone at first, but the female elephant who had accompanied him on that long journey died a few years later. It is hard for the African elephant, untamed and solitary by nature, to get along with Asian elephants or respond to human commands. The only other African elephant in India lives far away in Mysuru. And so, in this strange land, all that remained for Shankar was a long, stubborn loneliness.

For centuries, emperors and imperialists have turned animals into a currency of power, or tokens of benevolence. The East India Company’s reign in India saw elephants make arduous voyages to Britain. After Independence, a nation without economic heft turned elephants into symbols of soft power. Under Nehru, baby elephants were dispatched as “messengers of affection from the children of India” to several countries. For designing an ash tray for Air India, the Spanish artist Salvador Dali asked for — and got — an elephant for his garden in Barcelona.

This anthropocentric worldview — where the most magnificent animals are uprooted from their homes and habitats to be turned into playthings of human needs — is fortunately on its way out. In 2005, the Indian government banned the gifting of wild animals for diplomacy. The Delhi Zoo has stopped accepting such “gifts”. Prodded by online petitions against Shankar’s “solitary confinement”, it is now looking to import a mate for Shankar, or for a way to send him back home to Zimbabwe. Whether or not they succeed, the loneliness of Delhi’s only African elephant will continue to ask troubling questions of the cost sentient beings pay for human pride.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2021 under the title ‘The great lonely heart’.

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