Indian Elephants in Trouble

Varnika Singh

Elephants, a keystone species, have long been a part of Indian culture and tradition, particularly in South India. More than 60% of wild Asian elephants are in India. The Indian Elephant has been listed in the Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Despite this – and although elephants are the National Heritage Animal of India and have been accorded the strongest possible protection under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 they are now at risk of commercialization. The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill 2022 was passed in the House of the People (Lok Sabha) of Indian Parliament on August 2, 2022. The amendment was primarily enacted with the aim of giving effect to India’s obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. However it also proposes to amend Section 43(2) by inserting a proviso that “the transfer or transport of a captive elephant for a religious or any other purpose by a person having a valid certificate of ownership shall be subject to such terms and conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government.

Consequently, thirteen animal protection organisations have urged Parliament to remove this exception that makes it possible for privately held elephants ownership to be transferred for “religious and any other” purposes.

However, on December 8, 2022, the bill  got passed from the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) and became an Act, paving the way for elephant trade. Not only does this new amendment Act commodify elephants, but it also contradicts the WPA’s objective and purpose, which is to provide for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants and for matters connected therewith or ancillary or incidental thereto with a view to ensuring the ecological and environmental security of the country.

The new proviso has created  a legal pathway to encourage the further commercialisation and transfer of elephants through the vague wording of “religious or any other purpose.” This goes against the fundamental object and purpose of the WPA. The term any other purpose could be used to transfer elephants for zoos, processions, or any other undefined purpose subject to conditions prescribed by the Central Government.

 In India, as elephants lose their forest habitats they are increasingly coming face to face with humans. Each year, around 100 elephants are killed by human-related activity in India  some from being run over by trains, others in retaliation for damage to crops and property. In the long-term, one of the most effective ways to reduce the conflict will be to restore and protect forest areas and the ancient migration “corridors” elephants travel through. Allowing commercial trade in elephants in the current scenario, where elephants are already under threat and decreasing in number year by year due to a variety of factors including climate change, growing man-animal conflict resulting into habitat loss, fragmentation of corridors and range of other factors will have horrifying consequences that may also be irreversible. Instead of legalising the elephant trade, the government should fulfil its obligation under Article 48 A of the Indian Constitution by working to protect and improve the environment, as well as to safeguard the country’s forests and wildlife.