CHENNAI: Dramatic scenes were witnessed on Friday at the private Elephant Care Facility (ECF) in Kurumbaram village in Marakanam, about 110 km south of Chennai, as forest department launched a pre-dawn operation for shifting three Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam elephants to newly-opened Trichy elephant rehabilitation and rescue centre following the Madras High Court order.
What took everyone by surprise was forest department's uncharacteristic urgency in carrying out the operation, which 'traumatised' the pachyderms, feel elephant experts. Authorities used force, heavy machinery and bullhooks allegedly to gain control over the jumbos before loading them on to the specially designed vehicles. The trauma and pain would have been minimised had the forest department took a couple of days to prepare the elephants mentally for transport.
It was a gruelling ten-hour operation, which began at around 3.30 am on Friday. A team of eight mahouts had arrived from Topslip in Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Firstly, elephant Indu (35) was loaded into the truck without much fuss, but the trouble started when elephants Sandhya (45) and Jayanthi (21) resisted translocation.
The photographic and video evidence shows the two elephants were beaten with sticks and mahouts were seen holding bullhooks, which are traditionally used to control the behavior of tough elephants by poking the sharp metal stick or hook in areas where elephants are extremely sensitive to touch like the feet, trunk, around the mouth or behind the ears.
When Sandhya was finally loaded into the vehicle at around 9 am, there were multiple injury marks on legs and upper body. Other elephant Jayanthi, which was the youngest of the three, did not heed any amount of harsh treatment and was finally pulled into the truck using long roped tied to JCB.
During the course of operation, media personnel were restricted from recording. AS Ramesh, ECF centre manager alleged that he was locked in the kitchen and was even threatened by forest officials for non-cooperation. "These three elephants have lived a chain-free life for the past three years. We treated them with the utmost care. There has been remarkable progress in their mental and physical conditioning, but they must be shattered with the kind of abuse that was inflicted upon. We pleaded forest officials to give us a week to prepare the elephants for translocation, but they were in no mood to listen."
Kundavi Devi, member, Captive Elephant Welfare Board, Cuddalore, who accompanied Sandhya to Trichy centre, said the elephant was heavily bleeding from the nose as she hit hard against the wooden logs inside the truck. "Forest department should not be proud of what they have done today." Kundavi, who travelled in forest ranger vehicle to Trichy, was
stopped at the grate of Trichy centre.
Meanwhile, sources told Express that Kanchi mutt had reached out to forest department expressing its willingness to take back the elephants and create a suitable facility for the elephants near the mutt.
Madras High Court had issued translocation order based on inspection reports, which highlighted few deficiencies in the upkeep of elephants at the centre.
Forest officials refute charges
Denying abuse charges, Chief Wildlife Warden Sanjay Srivastava told Express that only minimum force was used in the operation. "Only sticks and ropes were used. Elephants well-being remained our primary objective. Special trucks were deployed and well-trained mahouts, who are tribals, were called in for the operation."
Srivastava blamed ECF personnel for non-cooperation, which led to initial difficulties. "We were just implementing the High Court order." Meanwhile, Rakesh Kumar Jagenia, Conservator of Forests, Villupuram Circle, who was leading the operation on the ground, also refuted the allegation of bullhooks being used.
To a query on Kanchi mutt request, Srivastava said the department had originally asked the mutt to take back the elephants, but they did not respond. "Now, the court has ordered for translocation and if the mutt wants the elephants back they can appeal legally."
NGOs allege discrimination
TREE Foundation and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) have accused the forest department of adopting a discriminatory approach.
"There are at least 8-10 elephants in Tamil Nadu that are languishing in pain and seek immediate attention. Similar to Kanchi elephants, these elephants also do not stay at owners place. Why can't forest department shift them to Trichy centre first," asks Suparna Ganguly, president, WRRC.
They alleged that no notice or intimation of date or time was given to the owners of the elephants - Kanchi mutt - about translocation. A formal e-mail was received only at 11 am on Friday when the whole operation was coming to a close.
They refuted the allegations of collecting money from foreigners but accepted that donations were gratefully received while setting-up the facility, under the prescribed format of Government of India.
Facts in Brief
1. Ownership certificates were issued to the 3 female captive elephants - Sandhya (1999), Indu and Jayanthi (2001) in the name of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham as per Section 42 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
2. In 2016, based on the request from temple authorities, Forest Department granted permission to shift the jumbos to Elephant Care Facility of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) and TREE Foundation in Marakkanam for medical care and specialised treatment.
3. Since all the elephants were earlier housed in areas with hard flooring, they have developed abscesses, which need daily medical treatment and care.
4. Though the permission was granted initially for three months, multiple extensions were given as Kanchi Mutt expressed its inability to provide an appropriate environment and increased religious activities in the Kamakshiamman temple and they were unable to take care of the long term veterinary needs and space for their three elephants.
5. PCCF based on the report of the District Level Captive Elephant Welfare Committee and Member Convener, District Forest Officer, Villupuram dated July 17, 2017, permitted the housing of the 3 female elephants in the Marakknam facility for 3 months in the interest of the elephants.
6. On January 3, 2018, Kanchi temple authorities and the TREE Foundation were instructed to take action for translocating the elephants to the concerned temple as the extension period was over.
7. The necessary orders for transfer were issued as per the conditions detailed in Tamil Nadu Captive Elephant (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2011 notified in Gazette Notification.
8. On September 19, Madras High Court ordered the forest department to translocate the elephants within four weeks.
Who can possess a captive elephant?
Indian Elephants are protected under Schedule – I (Part - II) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and every person who possess any captive elephant should necessarily have the ownership certificate issued by the Chief Wildlife Warden under Section 42 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 after due declaration under Section 40 by the concerned individual and also the certificate of ownership is issued by the Chief Wildlife Warden after ensuring that the individual has adequate facilities for housing, maintenance and upkeep of the animal.
The Elephant Care Facility (ECF) is a sanctuary where these elephants will be able to live a chain-free life and experience the natural environment.
NGOs claimed they were spending Rs 3.40 lakh per month operating ECF. The Kanchi mutt would send Rs 50,000 per month towards maintenance. As per the order from Chief Wildlife Warden, the Kanchi mutt will have to pay the annual maintenance charges to the District Forest Officer, Trichy Division.