Assam elephnat

Guwahati: The tussle between the governments of Tamil Nadu and Assam over the alleged abuse of elephant Joymala, has brought into focus the prevailing lacunae over private ownership of elephants in India.

Joymala, who was leased by Assam to Tamil Nadu, is in the news after People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently released a video alleging that the elephant was being tortured and kept captive at the Andal temple in Srivalliputhur in Chennai.

Legal battles are underway at the High Courts of Madras and Gauhati, with both States making contrasting claims.

While the Assam government petitioned the Gauhati High Court for an order to bring the elephants back, the Tamil Nadu government, in a reply to a PIL filed by the Assam government, told the Madras High Court that it will not return the leased elephants.

A response in 2020 from the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to an application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act showed that the ownership of at least one out of every four captive elephants held by private individuals was not supported by the relevant documentation.

The MoEFCC has clarified that it’s illegal to hold elephants in captivity without ownership certificates.

While Tamil Nadu reportedly has only one elephant without an ownership certificate, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, Tripura and Madhya Pradesh account for 96% of elephants in captivity without ownership certificates.

“As per the RTI Act response, 694 out of 723 elephants in India that are privately owned and without documentation are in these States,” The Hindu quoted Antony Rubin, an animal welfare activist, as saying.

Activists allege that many elephants without documents have been captured in Assam, Tripura and other northeastern States.

They are sold at elephant markets, from where individuals traffic them illegally to other states.

Arunachal Pradesh, which has 109 elephants in captivity, has not released any data on whether these elephants have ownership certificates.

Data also shows that Assam is home to the highest number of elephants without any ownership certificates, with 335 out of 905 captive elephants not having any documents to prove ownership.

Rubin said it was illegal to buy or sell elephants in India.

Rules only allow for elephants to be exchanged or donated to temples or between private individuals.

However, without an ownership certificate, the keeping of any elephant in captivity by a private individual is illegal, as per the new amendments to the Wildlife Prevention Act.

“It’s a smuggling ring,” prominent animal rights activist and former Union Minister Maneka Gandhi told The Hindu.

Gandhi said elephants were illegally captured in the northeastern States and trafficked to different parts of the country.

“They are either sent to temples or used for begging, and when State Forest Departments try to act against the smugglers, they cross State borders and escape action,” Gandhi was quoted by The Hindu as saying.

According to ‘Elephant’ G. Rajendran, an advocate and activist, in many cases, one ownership certificate is used multiple times for different animals when they are transported within the country.

Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Biodiversity Conservation), and former head of TRAFFIC India, said the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, with the cooperation of State Forest Departments, needs to investigate these reports of trafficking in elephants, which has always been around. 

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