India has approximately 3,500 elephants living in captivity, of which up until 2016 just seven were registered to owners in Delhi.
Elephants are a national icon in India and they were put on Appendix I in the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act – meaning those who abuse them can be faced up to seven years in prison.
They number only around 22,000 in the wild, and the capture of wild elephants or breeding of the animals for captivity is illegal.
But thousands of existing captive elephants live in a legal grey area. Licences to keep them can be obtained from a state’s chief wildlife warden, and in 2016 the Supreme Court observed that the animals could be kept as long as owners are not “unkind to elephants”.
An elephant which had been missing for the last two months was rescued and its mahout was arrested by Delhi Police on late Tuesday night from east Delhi. It belongs to a family residing in Shakarpur. The mahout, Yusuf Ali was wanted by the police for preventing forest officials from confiscating his elephant and absconding with her into the forest. After a three-hour chase, Mr Ali, his two sons and Lakshmi evaded capture by wading across the Yamuna river, and they had not been located or heard since then.
An FIR was registered against the caretaker’s family for restraining government servant [forest department] from performing his duty. “The elephant was missing with the mahout since then and we were searching for him,” said a police officer.
“We launched a search operation on Tuesday to locate the elephant. Three teams comprising around 12 officials carried out combing operation in the areas along the banks of the Yamuna,” said Mr. Singh. Finally, they found the elephant and the mahout was arrested.
But now, Mr Ali has given a newspaper interview from his apartment hideout in which he says the elephant is still being taken care of by the family in a “large farmhouse” at an unidentified location to the east of the city, and has never left the greater Delhi region. Mr Ali said he had moved from house to house, staying with relatives, and repeatedly changed phones to avoid capture, but that he is now willing to let the courts decide Lakshmi’s future and accept their ruling. “It has been a very difficult time.”, he said.
“This is my elephant, and I have an emotional attachment with it. If the ruling goes in the wildlife department’s favour then I would have to give back the elephant. Until then, it is mine and maybe the court will hear my defence and understand it.”, he added.
Mr Ali alleges that he had arrived home to find his wife had been assaulted by the forestry officials, and he and his son only acted to intervene before taking Lakshmi away. The forest department denies this description of events.
Mr Ali’s youngest son insists that his father and his older brothers are taking good care of the animal. “We too have got attached to Lakshmi during all these years, and don’t want the police or the forest department to take it away,” he said.
Wildlife SOS (WSOS) is a conservation non-profit in India, established in 1995 with the primary objective of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in distress in the country, and preserving India’s natural heritage. It is currently one of the largest Wildlife Organisations in South Asia. They also offers a hotline for animal rescues in Delhi and was involved in rehabilitating one of the other Delhi elephants at its own facility in Haryana. Kartick Satyanarayan, the charity’s chief executive and co-founder, said that Delhi’s captive elephants were living in “horrific conditions” on the banks of the polluted Yamuna, and being overworked at social occasions and festivals across the city, as well as suffering from malnutrition.
“An elephant in captivity suffers endlessly and this was no different for Delhi’s captive elephants,” he said.