All six elephants found missing during a recent inspection in Delhi are feared dead, frantic searches and a wildlife department inquiry have revealed.
With this, the number of elephants — kept by 6-7 families in south Delhi’s Sangam Vihar for a living — has come down from 14 to 8.
This is the last group of elephants in Delhi as the authorities had stopped issuing fresh permits in 2003 to check their commercial use. At that time, there used to be 22 elephants, employed in circuses and hired for weddings and lifting work.
“All original permit-holding mahouts are dead. We spoke to their family members. We contacted people at locations where the six elephants could have been taken to. The information we’re getting suggests all those found missing are actually dead,” Delhi’s chief wildlife warden AK Shukla told HT.
Shukla denied that some of these elephants — all micro-chipped — may have been killed for their tusks. “The tusks belong to the keepers. Why would they kill the animals,” he said, adding, “We’re trying to get more details”.
Till 2009, these 14 elephants were kept along the banks of the Yamuna near ITO Bridge. Because of the construction during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, they had to be moved to a crammed habitat in Sangam Vihar.
Following complaints that elephants were being ill-treated, officials inspected the area around six weeks ago and found six missing. It was followed by a search in the outskirts of Delhi and a probe headed by Delhi’s conservator of forests Suneesh Buxy.
“We have cancelled the licences of the mahouts because they couldn’t explain the disappearances. We will take further action,” said Shukla.
Elephants - both wild and captive - have been given the status of Schedule I animal under the Wildlife Protection Act. Selling and buying of these animals are prohibited.
“In 2003, we invited a last, one-time decoration from all those who have been traditionally keeping elephants for a living. Only genuine keepers were allowed to continue. Since then, no more ownership certificates have been issued,” said Shukla.
Mahouts need a no-objection certificate to use elephants in circuses. Permission is needed to even move them from one town to another. Elephants from other states are allowed in Delhi but only if they travel with a circus.
“We want to phase out the business of using elephants for commercial purposes. Delhi has a high traffic volume, which is not fit for the movement of these animals. Also, there is not enough food and water for them here,” said another wildlife department official.