A gentle giant, Champa, stands in a secluded corner of the forest department nursery in Dhambola within Dungarpur district of Rajasthan. Despite exuding an aura of grandeur, the 50-year -old pachyderm mammal has endured an overwhelming period of affliction for nearly 18 months.
Champa's issues are multiplex. She presently resides in a land that perhaps vastly differs from the bustling streets of her youth. She is without a companion, a familiar company or surroundings and is currently enduring a lethal viral infection in addition to a painful joint condition that leaves her feeling helpless at times. So profound is her distress that at times she requires assistance from a JCB to lift her up, so as to prevent permanent limb damage that may hamper her standing ability.
To exacerbate matters, her identity has also been misrepresented by the unscrupulous owner attempting to vend her and creating fraudulent documents claiming her to be Roopa- a cow elephant from Uttar Pradesh deceased over a decade ago.
"Champa's transfer was executed illegally, without the necessary clearance from the concerned Chief Wildlife Warden, and in clear violation of protocol. To compound the illegal nature of this transfer, the microchip implemented on Champa's body was discovered to belong to Roopa, a different female jumbo that had expired twelve years prior. " Baiju Raj- the project incharge of Uttar Pradesh based organisation Wild Life SOS, told The Mooknayak.
The organization receives regular tip-offs on elephant trafficking, and in Champa's case too, someone informed them. Baiju had passed the information to the Rajasthan Forest Department which was promptly relayed, resulting in Champa's subsequent apprehension and her owners' detention during their cross-country trek from Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat in November 2021.
It was discerned that the owner had surgically attached the chip to Champa to conceal her true identity and facilitate her illegal transit to Gujarat. Baiju further added that the NOC had also been manipulated, as it was sanctioned for Roopa's movement and not meant for Champa. "Her name is Champa, not Roopa," Baiju emphasized. "The mahouts who were in charge of her told us that Roopa had died many years ago."
On November 18, 2021, Harish Singh Bayadi, the former ranger at Simalwada, detained Champa and arrested two mahaots Mukut Singh, a resident of Samastipur in Bihar, and Phool Singh Yadav for attempting to walk the elephant to Gujarat without proper papers.
"Champa was eventually rescued and brought to the nursery and living here since. Meanwhile the accused mahaots were released on bail in February 2022. The trial was held , however when the Dungarpur district court granted custody of Champa to her owner the forest department filed an appeal at the High Court, Jodhpur which has been hearing the custody case since a year now" SugnaRam Jat, the DFO told The Mooknayak.
The case for custody has been heard in court on 22 separate occasions, and due to her deteriorating medical condition, the forest department has been pushing for an early resolution. The Wildlife SOS organization, which already cares for 37 elephants, has been proposed as a suitable caregiver for Champa, but the final decision rests with the court. The case was last heard on Monday, May 1, with the next hearing scheduled for May 19. "The forest department is eager for a prompt decision on Champa's custody in order to ensure her continued care and well-being " Jat said.
Elephants have a typical life span of 65 to 70 years and Champa is currently 50 years old. If she receives proper care, she may live for another 20 years.
Unfortunately, Rajasthan does not have any elephant care facilities, and there are no wildlife veterinary experts readily available in southern Rajasthan. The department considered the possibility of shifting Champa to Udaipur's SajjanGarh Biological Park, but the space does not have a suitable enclosure for elephants.
Even when Champa or other wild animals fall ill, the forest department has to send blood, swab and stool samples to IVRI Bareilly.
Champa is presently experiencing the onset of Endotheliotropic Herpevirus (EEHV), a viral infection that can prove fatal if not tended to appropriately, Dr Gochalan, the veterinary expert from Wildlife SOS at Mathura told The Mooknayak. The expert who has been tending to Champa, says, as she is still in the early stages of the disease, there is hope for her recovery.
"The virus infection found in her blood samples, fortunately has not spread to other parts. It is crucial to move her to a better medical facility where she can receive adequate care and be isolated until the duration of her treatment" Dr. Gochalan emphasizes. He also states that it is important that the cow doesn't experience stress that may further accelerate her medical condition.
In addition to the EEHV, Champa also suffers from a debilitating joint condition- Arthritis, which causes immense discomfort and pain, hampering her ability to perform regular activities such as standing and moving. The ailment further exacerbates her physical distress, necessitating specialized care to keep her comfortable and alleviate her agony.
The forest department has been providing for Champa's care since she was brought to the nursery, including her food intake - which ranges from green fodder to sugarcanes, jaggery, wheat balls, barley, and even her favorite pipal leaves - as well as administering her medication , health supplements as prescribed by the vets, says DFO SugnaRam. The expenditure incurred on her upkeep and medication falls around 50 to 60 thousand rupees a month, says the officer.
Two mahouts - one sent by her owner and one from Wildlife SOS - take care of Champa by walking her daily in the morning and evening. She receives regular baths and is provided with proper food, ensuring her well-being.
Despite the continuous efforts of the forest department, there have been media reports and activists criticizing them, alleging apathy and negligence regarding the captive elephant. However, the department has been actively working towards Champa's well-being, providing her with proper care, medication, and diet, and actively seeking a suitable care facility for her. "We have been following the legal process for custody of the elephant. While criticism may be present, the department remains committed to ensuring the best possible care for Champa" the DFO reiterated.
However, despite receiving a diet which is typically appreciated by elephants, Champa does not appear to be content. The emotional and physical distress caused by her relocation, medical condition and fake identity may have adversely impacted her mental state, making her less interested in her diet and surroundings. Elephants have unique and complex social and emotional needs and require ample space, diverse diets, and social interactions to thrive.
Champa's captivity in an unusual environment with limited stimuli could be a concerning factor. Additionally, elephants may struggle with captivity, leading to several physical and psychological health issues, making it necessary for more humane care and protection, particularly in the context of the increasingly endangered elephant population worldwide.
The captivity and ill-treatment of elephants in India is a severe issue that has long been ignored. An India Today NE investigation in August 2022, revealed that nearly 1,000 elephants from Assam are being held captive in various states throughout the country, with most of them facing torture and ill-treatment by their handlers. Most of these elephants have been taken to southern states, where they are used in temple festivals, circuses, and other commercial events.
Elephants in India are often transferred from one owner to another through lease agreements that mention a transfer of care and not a change of ownership. The process of transferring an elephant requires several documents, including a no-objection certificate, a health certificate, DNA testing, and a transport permit. Unfortunately, local touts and government officials often work together to arrange these documents, allowing for the illegal trade of elephants to continue. Wildlife Crime Control Bureau's Regional Director, Chaturbuja Behera, has acknowledged the existence of such a nexus, which has facilitated the transfer of elephants across state borders and even outside the country.
The illegal trafficking of elephants in India involves complex gangs and networks, with some businessmen from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh settling in Assam to facilitate the transfer of elephants. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau's report notes that some groups also deal in coal, timber, and auctioned vehicles. This illegal trade has resulted in the sale of nearly 800 elephants between 1997 and 2002 to different parts of the country, leading to their continued exploitation and abuse.
Despite the clear prohibition of commercial sales of wild animals under Section 43 of the Wildlife Protection Act (amended in 2003), the illegal trade of elephants continues in India. Elephants, in particular, are in high demand in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, with Kerala alone having approximately 500 smuggled elephants as per a report by the Elsa Foundation.
Private individuals and temple authorities purchase these elephants through intermediaries or directly for commercial exploitation, in violation of the law. The demand for elephants has led to the illegal poaching and capture of wild elephants in northeastern states, further endangering their already vulnerable population. The continued exploitation of elephants for commercial gain is an issue that needs to be addressed sternly by the government, with stricter laws and stronger enforcement mechanisms to ensure their protection and well-being. It is imperative that we put an end to the illegal trade of elephants and take measures to rehabilitate and protect them as a vital part of our wildlife heritage.
It's a well-known fact that elephants are social and sentient creatures that exhibit emotions and are capable of feeling pain and joy. What may not be commonly known is that many captive elephants used for begging, riding, parades, weddings or processions have undergone horrific training methods to be "tamed." The abusive practices include repeated thrashings, starvation, prodding of bull-hooks, and heavy chains that restrict their movement. It creates an unending cycle of psychological abuse for the elephants that lasts a lifetime. Unfortunately, these elephants are subjected to ongoing neglect, disease, and emotional trauma during their captivity.
The use of wild elephants in tourist and entertainment industries has been a topic of concern in recent years. Central to this practice is the process of phajaan, which involves breaking the spirit of the elephant to make it submissive to its human handlers. This involves confining the calf to a small space without food and water, subjecting it to physical abuse until it becomes conditioned to obey its keeper's commands. However, this traumatic experience can result in chronic physical and psychological problems, including malnourishment, chronic foot infections, osteoarthritis, blindness, PTSD, and more. The threats to these captive elephants are multiple, and need to be urgently addressed to ensure their welfare.
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