Opposition parties in Assam have joined wildlife and animal rights activists in opposing the bid to transport during the ongoing heatwave four juvenile elephants from the State to Gujarat for a religious procession.
Wildlife officials in Assam —allegedly under “tremendous political pressure” — have been preparing to send the four elephants on a six-month lease for adding grandeur to Ahmedabad’s Jagannath Temple. The elephants are scheduled to take part in the Rath Yatra scheduled on July 4.
“The government will come across as one that promotes cruelty to animals if it goes ahead with sending the elephants to Ahmedabad,” said Suprakash Talukdar, the CPI(M)’s central committee member.
“Many wildlife activists have opposed the decision of the State government. India is facing a severe heatwave at the moment. Roughly half of the country is struggling through its worst drought in six decades. These are extreme conditions for the elephants to travel,” Assam’s Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi said in his letter to Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Chang Prakash Javadekar on Thursday.
The elephants are expected to travel about 3,100 km from eastern Assam’s Tinsukia by railway wagons that animal rights activists said would be too hot under the summer sun for the animals to survive.
“In such a case, the elephants may suffer from acute skin infection and dehydration,” Mr. Gogoi said, pointing out that it was still unclear whether the elephants were captive or caught from the wild.
“And do the government rules allow transportation of wild animals for religious events?” he asked, seeking instruction to the Assam government for withdrawing the decision on the elephants as soon as possible.
Assam has had a tradition of catching juvenile or sub-adult elephants from the wild and using them extensively for logging and other heavy-duty work. The Supreme Court’s ban on felling in 1997 rendered many such elephants ‘jobless,’ forcing their owners to sell them off under the guise of a lease approved by the government.
“A lease is for six months, but they are invariably extended. This way, elephants sent on lease to other States for religious or other purposes have never been returned,” wildlife specialist Bibhab Talukdar said.
Records show that 40 domesticated elephants were transferred outside the State for specific periods between 2011 and 2015. But none of them were returned.
Vets against travel
Wildlife officials, declining to be quoted, said elephants in Assam or elsewhere in the northeast were not used to the extreme heat of northern, central or western India. “Gujarat could have easily procured elephants from neighbouring States such as Madhya Pradesh, where the elephants may be used to similar climatic conditions. But for some strange reasons, we were asked to send the elephants,” he said.
Veterinarians in the State, meanwhile, have declined to accompany the elephants to Ahmedabad and have even offered to resign if they were forced to travel. This has put the Forest Department in a fix.
“The veterinarians the government approached have expressed their unwillingness to be a party to any action that compromises the health and welfare of animals,” a departmental officer said.
The veterinarians have pointed out that it would be difficult to maintain a tolerable temperature for the elephants in closed or semi-closed metal wagons while travelling through areas experiencing a heatwave. They have not been assured of cooling and circulation of air in the wagons, and sprinkling too much water on the elephants could make them slip.
Experts have also expressed concern over the possibility of foot rot as the elephants would be defecating and urinating at the same place during the travel that would take four days.