Sanjay Bansal, 50, drives his Renault Duster across the ITO Bridge and goes down to the Yamuna banks to pray to Rupa, a 40-year-old elephant. The trader looks mesmerised as she chomps lazily at the sugarcanes he has brought with him. She picks up a Rs 100 note from him with the tip of her trunk and neatly puts it down for her mahout.
“Every Wednesday, I drive 30 km to reach here from my house in west Delhi. I have got the money but I still need God’s blessings. She is our Ganesha,” Bansal says as the sun is beginning to set, almost literally, at one of the last refuges for the pachyderms of Delhi.
Though their official location is Sangam Vihar in north Delhi’s Wazirabad, they are mostly kept at the riverbanks for grass and water.
Then there are many who hire these captive elephants for marriages, religious ceremonies, parties, promotions and lifting heavy stuff. Others simply take a fun ride for a few rupees.
But soon, these elephants may be seen only in the Delhi zoo.
A wildlife department search has revealed six of Delhi’s 14 last elephants, kept as part of a family-owned rental business , are missing. Three of them have been found dead. The department is considering confiscating three of the remaining eight because the keepers are mishandling them. This may leave only five in private hands, down from 22 in 2003.
This is the last group of pachyderms — from their teens to their late 50s —in Delhi.
The authorities had, in 2003, stopped issuing fresh permits, preventing private individuals from keeping elephants, a national heritage animal, under schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. But those who already owned these animals were allowed to keep them provided they adhere to wildlife rules: each one microchipped for officials to track and inspect. Breeding in captivity is a rare occurrence as it is.
Prerna Bindra, former member, standing committee, National Board for Wildlife, says, “If there are violations in the way elephants were being handled, the law should run its course. In that case, the department may confiscate the animals.” For forest officials, elephants are the best transport for a better view and safety from creatures such as snakes during patrolling.
In panic, owners, a cluster of five closely-related families at Sangam Vihar, have already started diversifying. Zakir Ali (25) comes from a family that has had elephants for generations. “Keeping elephants is our ‘shauk’ and not a ‘pesha’. We’re relying more on camels and horses to make money because of strict wildlife rules and the costs involved,” he says. His two elephants —Heera and Laxmi, both 35 years old — eat six quintals of sugarcane every day.
“Ours is the last generation of mahouts in Delhi. Wages are low. There are dangers involved. It’s not a respected profession. But ours is a symbiotic relationship. We cut grass to feed them. We sleep under their shadow,” says Abdul Rahim, as he dusts an elephant with a piece of cloth.
Till 2009, these elephants were kept along the banks of the Yamuna. Because of construction during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, they had to be moved to a crammed habitat in Sangam Vihar. Animal rights groups have been asking for the rescue and rehabilitation of exploited elephants held in captivity.
Rahim denies that the elephants are being ill-treated. “We care for them more than our own children. The allegations are baseless. You cannot confine elephants,” he says, adding, “We have built a tank that can store 1,500 litres of water. We get them ‘kans’ grass that is good for their digestion. We make really thick rotis for them. We wash them a lot in a day because heat troubles them a lot.”
Complaints of ill-treatment got the wildlife department to conduct an inspection, which revealed six elephants were missing. Delhi’s chief wildlife warden AK Shukla says, “Only we’re to blame. Amid a breakneck pace of urbanisation, we did not think of these animals.”
There are no dirt tracks in Delhi. The concrete roads harm their foot pads. Their movement is restricted because they are considered a potential hazard amid high-speed traffic. “Elephants will never be comfortable in captivity or in an urban environment. It is in their natural habitats, the forests, that Delhiites need to see to appreciate elephants,” says Bindra.