A ban on elephant safaris that has left no one wiser

There seems to be a mammoth confusion regarding the operation of elephant safaris or rides across the state. A ban is in place, but it is being enforced only in Idukki district and, even in Idukki, elephant owners are in no mood to relent.

The High Court, in an interim order on September 5, has banned the rides in Idukki district. Chief Wildlife Warden Surendrakumar said that using elephants not registered under the Performing Animals (Registration) Rules, 2001, for touristy rides was illegal even without the latest High Court stricture.

The CWW also said that the ban, which draws its authority from the 2001 rules, was applicable across the state. "No elephant without the performing animals registration can be used for tourism purposes whether it be in Idukki or Kollam or Pathanamthitta," he added. It is the Captive Elephant Monitoring Committee headed by the district collector that is supposed to enforce the order.

If the order is implemented strictly in spirit, it would effectively end elephant safaris in Kerala as it is said that virtually all captive elephants in the state have not taken such a registration. Intriguingly, no other district monitoring committee except Idukki's has received any complaints of illegal safaris.

Complaint against Collector

Animal Welfare Board member M N Jayachandran, who had secured the verdict against the jumbo rides, has complained to the CWW on Monday that the Idukki district collector, too, was not doing enough to implement the High Court order. The CWW had in the last week of August issued an order that said that "no elephant is to be transported for a period more than 15 days at a stretch outside its registered district.

Jayachandran's complaint is that many elephants used for illegal safaris in Idukki are registered outside the district and that they had been in Idukki for months. He wants the CWW to take stringent action against the illegal safaris that keep other-district elephants beyond the prescribed 15-day period and confiscate the elephants.

Idukki collector H Dineshan said that he had taken all steps to prevent elephant rides in the eleven safari centres that have been identified all over the district. In fact, the Collector had issued a ban on July 27 this year, long before the High Court verdict. He had found that none of the elephants in the safaris had a performing animals registration.

Minister's request, Collector's dilemma

Forest minister K Raju then asked Dineshan to reconsider his decision. Jayachandran went to court saying that the minister was trying to intervene on behalf of elephant owners. "The minister was only asking whether it was possible to lift the ban. I told him that it would be unlawful and he understood," the Collector said.

The Collector, however, said that he was helpless about turning back or confiscating other-district elephants that have overstayed. "How do I know that they are from other districts when they have no documents," Dinedhan asked. Jayachandran insists that such elephants should be confiscated by the state.

The district collector first clamped a ban (in July) after realising that a safari elephant without registration could be problematic. "Last year, a mahout killed by an elephant used for rides was not even paid money. The mahout hailed from Kodagu in Karnataka, and his wife and child came to see me. If these elephants had the registration, the family of the deceased could have secured Rs 10 lakh as compensation," the Collector said. "I imposed the ban because I found none of these elephant owners possessed any valid documents," he added.

Catch-22 for jumbo owners

Interestingly, elephant owners say that they are not against registering elephants under the Performing Animals Rules. "The problem is, we can register only if we have ownership certificates," said P Sasi Kumar, the general secretary of Elephant Owners' Federation. It is said that nearly 500 of the 521 captive elephants in the state do not have an ownership certificate.

Sasi Kumar said that the owners have time and again pleaded with the Forest Department to provide them with at least provisional ownership certificates. "We had even submitted money for the purpose," he said. According to him, the very people who now want elephants without performing animals registration to be banned were the ones who had gone to court in 2014 against the move to grant ownership certificates. "They first refuse ownership certificates, and now they have banned us, saying we have no registration. We are given no choice," Sasi said.

Illegal certificate

A herd of elephants cross a road that passes through the flooded Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam, India, July 12, 2017. Picture taken July 12, 2017. Reuters

Animal activists had termed as "unlawful" the decision of the Forest Department to introduce renewal of elephant ownership certificates in 2014, a requirement it has not implemented for over a decade. Their main contention was that the form or questionnaire to be filled for the issue of renewed Ownership certificate for Elephants did not conform to the form prepared under the Declaration of Wildlife Stock Rule 2003. Meaning, some essential questions were omitted.

For instance, the form did not have any question regarding the surrender of the original ownership certificate, which was issued for the elephants before November 1, 2003.

The other charge was that the circular issued did not encourage the online submission of the application for the renewal of ownership certificate of an elephant. Inviting applications by post would enable manipulation and corruption; it was said.

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