Why are Arunachal elephants being sent to a temple trust Gujarat?
Representational image Credit: Representational image

Guwahati: Despite opposition from various wildlife organisations and Moran Students’ Union, 20 elephants were transported out of Arunachal Pradesh’s Namsai District on Friday morning. 

A Supreme Court-appointed High-Powered Committee (HPC) allowed the transfer of elephants to the Radha Krishna Temple Elephant Trust in Jamnagar supported by Reliance Industries Limited. 

Interestingly, the committee was formed after a slew of petitions were filed in various courts challenging such transfers to Jamnagar.

According to forest department officials from Arunachal Pradesh, the transport of the elephants was as per the orders of a HPC to deal with the transfer or import or procurement of any wild animals by any zoo or rehabilitation in the country.

During the wee hours of Friday, members of the Moran Students’ Union noticed a large convoy of cars and trucks carrying elephants coming from the Namsai District of Arunachal Pradesh near Dirok. 

The convoy was stopped by Tinsukia police and Doomdooma Forest Department for a check near Rupahi on the Bypass road. “We were returning from Rati Bihu celebrations of our community when we noticed the large fleet of trucks and other vehicles with these elephants. We followed the convoy till it came to a halt on the bypass where police and forest officials were checking the documents,” Sanjib Moran, an executive member of the Central Committee told EastMojo.

“We noticed that all the vehicles had Gujarat registration. We counted around 49 vehicles along with ambulances and escort vehicles. The police gave them protection and they left the area at about 3:30 AM,” Moran added. 

The student leader further added that these elephants might have belonged to Assam. “Some big companies have been buying and transporting elephants illegally from our areas claiming them to be from Arunachal Pradesh. Elephants are a part of Assam’s ecosystem. We do not want these elephants to be shipped to other states,” Moran said.  

The jumbo fleet

The Divisional Forest Officer, Doomdooma, R.S. Bharti, who was also present during the checking at Bypass Road, however, maintained the elephants came from Arunachal Pradesh’s Namsai forest division. “First, these elephants are not from Assam but from Arunachal Pradesh. We were there to check under the instructions of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam. We found that these elephants were sent to Radha Krishna Temple Elephant Trust in Jamnagar, Gujarat as per the orders of HPC. The Assam government has nothing to do with this. As the convoy passes through various forest divisions, they may be checked by the local forest officers to see if everything is in order. We found that the papers were in order,” Bharti told EastMojo

The forest official further added that there were 20 elephants transported from the Namsai district, accompanied by 49 vehicles consisting of officials of the Animal Welfare Board of India, veterinary doctors, staff from the Temple Trust, six ambulances and water tankers.  

According to Arunachal Pradesh’s Chief Wildlife Warden, N. Tam, as per the orders of HPC, 20 elephants from Arunachal Pradesh and three elephants from Tripura will be moved to Radha Krishna Temple Elephant Trust in Jamnagar. “All the papers of these elephants are in order. They have been microchipped in accordance with the law,” Tam told EastMojo.

Tripura Forest Officials, on the other hand, said that three elephants would be shipped as per HPC’s order. “There are 24 privately-owned captive elephants in the state. We recently organised a Gajaraj Mela, in which three owners reached out to the forest department and then appealed before the HPC to allow them to ship their elephants to the temple facility. These elephant owners could not care for the animals due to the financial impact of COVID-19,” the official told EastMojo

A spokesperson for Reliance Industries Limited in Ahmedabad said such transfers were completely legitimate as the Radhe Krishna Temple Elephant Trust is a charitable organisation. “Due to the impact of COVID, many elephant owners have not been able to care for these animals. Reliance supports this trust which cares for the animals,” the spokesperson told EastMojo

The legal route for relocation

On March 4, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice Krishna Murari increased the jurisdiction and powers of a high-powered committee led by its former judge, Justice Deepak Verma, to conduct necessary checks and undertake fact-finding exercises concerning the import, transfer, procurement, rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals, including those in captivity, across India. The jurisdiction of the committee was earlier restricted to Tripura and Gujarat following a Tripura High Court order. 

At present, the Chief Wildlife Wardens of the states are members of the committee along with the Director General of Forests, the Project head of the Elephant Division (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change) and the Member Secretary (Central Zoo Authority of India).

The Apex court had ordered that they can consider the request for approval, dispute or grievance, concerning transfer or import into India or procurement or welfare of wild animals by any rescue or rehabilitation centre or zoo, by taking assistance and co-operation whenever needed from all departments and authorities across India. 

According to the Forest officials of Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, elephant owners from these states approached the HPC requesting their transfers to the Jamnagar-based Radhe Krishna Temple Elephant Trust.

Earlier, in November 2022, the Tripura High Court bench led by Chief Justice Indrajit Mohanty directed the Project head of the Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to issue necessary directions for all Chief WildLife Wardens on taking necessary steps to end the capturing of wild elephants in forests. 

A local advocate from Agartala filed a petition demanding a ban on the transfer of elephants from northeast India to Radhe Krishna Temple Elephant Trust. Similarly, another petition challenged transfers of the elephants from Karnataka to the Jamnagar Trust in Karnataka High Court which finally reached the Supreme Court. When the Apex court found that there was a High Powered Committee already dealing with these concerns in Tripura and Gujarat, the court extended the committee’s jurisdiction to all the states. 

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Wildlife activists in Assam say that the arid Jamnagar district is not an ideal habitat for Asiatic elephants. “The act of transporting these elephants during this heat wave is cruel. Assam has the largest population of captive elephants in the country because these elephants live close to their forest habits in free range. The High-Power Committee should revisit its order to transfer these animals from northeast India to Gujarat,” Mridu Paban Phukan, a senior wildlife activist and conservationist told EastMojo.

According to a Census conducted by MoEFCC, there are 2,675 captive elephants across the country, of which Assam has 905 elephants. 

(With inputs from Mrinal Banik)

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