From Azam Siddiqui, New Delhi, India:
I have immense joy in sharing the news that elephant polo organizers have pledged not to hold elephant polo matches in the state of Rajasthan, India.
Reported Rachna Singh for the Times of India on January 9, 2015, “Tour operators are now informing the foreign agents not to book any more tours promising elephant polo in Rajasthan. In Jaipur elephant polo was played at Rambagh and Jai Mahal hotels, Dera Amber, and City Palace. But now that Rambagh, Jai Mahal and Dera Amber have refused to organize it for tourists, even City Palace will not organize it.”
“I am so grateful”
I am so grateful to all the people who stood united against elephant polo and believed that this was indeed a cruel sport that needs a ban. We were criticized, we were ridiculed, not just by the proponents of the game or the organizers, but also by animal welfare sympathizers, some of whom headed organizations that were direct beneficiaries of the funds generated from the sport. Even the Animal Welfare Board of India once granted a permit for the Cartier Cup Polo Tournament, although later they learnt their mistake and joined the crusade against elephant polo.
Our dearest Dame Daphne Sheldrick was the first to condemn elephant polo that was being organized in Jaipur, Rajasthan, by Mark Shand, who died on April 25, 2014, may he rest in peace.
Dr. John Wedderburn, I salute you for allowing the platform of Asian Animal Protection Network (AAPN) to brainstorm and debate elephant polo in the best possible way. In fact it is here at AAPN that the campaign was born. Shubhobroto Ghosh, you have been the spine of this campaign.
“The Elephant Commentator”
It was Edward Berry, moderator of the “Elephant Commentator,” who died on September 9, 2009, may he rest in peace, who suggested that I compile the emails received from elephant experts worldwide condemning and challenging the elephant polo into a Word document and make it available for the general public on the Internet, for there was nothing one could search that highlighted the negative aspects of the game. That is what inspired the website http://www.stopelephantpolo.com . What followed was a unique struggle for each one of us from various nooks and corners of this planet trying our best within our capacity.
I am extremely grateful to each one of you who extended your support, allowed your organization to be a voice, wrote letters, faxes and e-mails to the authorities and networked to the best you could.
Not to forget the valiant efforts of Anuradha Sawhney, former PETA/India chief functionary and the dynamic N. G. Jayasimha, who organized protests in many countries.
Thanks to Naresh Kadyan who later moved the Rajasthan High Court with a petition that eventually could generate the positive news that “Elephant polo comes to an end.”
Thank you, Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson, for believing in bringing an end to elephant polo, and also to Dave Neale of AAF for prioritizing elephant polo among other burning issues that need to be eradicated.
I thank each one of us who believed in the campaign. This is your victory. Let this victory echo now in the countries where this sport is still practiced: Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Ending elephant polo ends only a part of the ongoing campaign to end elephant use and misuse in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan and the longtime major venue for elephant polo in India.
Working and war elephants have been kept in Jaipur since the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II founded the city in 1727. But Jaipur, a desert metropolis, is far from any appropriate elephant habitat. The one Jaipur elephant known to have escaped into the desert in recent years, a 26-year-old female who bolted in August 2009, soon died from the combination of heat stress and dehydration with alleged over-sedation when she was captured, contributing to a fatal fall.
Traditionally, the Jaipur elephants cooled off daily in Sagar Lake, surrounding the Jah Mahal, or “water palace,” that is among the central Jaipur landmarks. Frequent droughts, however, have turned much of Sagar Lake into mud flats.
In recent decades elephants have been kept in Jaipur chiefly to ferry tourists up the mountain to the historic Amer Fort overlooking the city (most often called the Amber Fort.)
Concerned that these elephants were spending more and more time standing on hot asphalt awaiting fares, with less access to water, the Jaipur-based humane organization Help In Suffering and the Wildlife Trust of India in August 2001 organized a four-day clinic for the elephants and their mahouts. The clinic was co-sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corp.
“All the elephants were assessed by elephant experts from Kerala,” then-Help In Suffering head trustee Christine Townend told me. “Most were dehydrated, with cracked and burnt feet due to walking on the tarmac, being walked too far every day, and being kept chained in excrement, with nowhere for them to bathe.”
Help In Suffering
Wildlife Trust of India founder Vivek Menon asked the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation to start a permanent elephant care facility in Jaipur. The tourism agency envisioned developing an Elephant Village surrounded by shops and restaurants as a visitor attraction, but the plans did not advance for seven years.
The Help In Suffering program meanwhile expanded into more frequent clinics, funded in part by the proceeds from annual elephant polo matches organized by Mark Shand of The Elephant Family, a British charity. [See his obituary at http://wp.me/p4pKmM-jZ.]
But the elephant polo matches became politically controversial in 2006-2007, largely through the efforts of NDTV camera man Azam Siddiqui [see above] and then-journalist Shuhobroto Ghosh, who now works for World Wildlife Fund/India.
Elephant Family withdrew
Amid the controversy, the Rajasthan government at last moved ahead in building the Elephant Village, located about two kilometers from the Amber Fort. The elephants were promised facilities designed to promote their well-being. The mahouts were to live in adjacent housing.
The Elephant Family withdrew from involvement in Jaipur. The elephant polo matches were suspended in 2009-2010 due to litigation, but resumed as a tourist attraction in 2011.
After helping in 2009 to introduce the use of a lighter elephant saddle than those traditionally used, the Help In Suffering outreach program refocused from providing elephant aid to helping working camels, who had not previously been aided in an organized manner by anyone.
The Elephant Village opened in 2010 with housing for 51 elephants. But it received a highly critical online review from photographer Rebecca Yale, who was among the first visitors.
“The elephants are still chained and bound when they sleep,” Yale wrote. “You can see the visible chaffing marks on their legs and belly from the chains and harness they wear for the tourists to sit on. It is true that the mahouts care for the elephants because they are their livelihood, but they still use the very sharp bull hooks.”
Initially only 32 mahouts used the Elephant Village, mostly because the water supply was reportedly insufficient. By 2013, however, “The village has a pond in which at a given time at least 50 elephants can take a bath,” senior mahout Abdul Rashid told the Times of India. Rashid, a mahout for 50 years, heads the Elephant Owners Society, locally known as Haathi Malik Vikas Samiti.
But the Elephant Village still did not have either a resident veterinarian or a vet who visits during normal business hours and may not have any yet.
“There is a hospital, but the government is yet to depute a veterinary doctor or any other medical staff,” Rashid said.
In addition, the Elephant Village is accessible only over a rough, unlighted stone road.
“Elephant rides continue till 10:30 pm every day and therefore, it gets very dark by the time we return to the village. With roads being uneven, the animals often hurt themselves while walking,” Rashid explained.
Elephant deaths increase
Within four years of the Rajasthan state government taking over administration of the working elephant aid program from Help In Suffering, the death rate among the Jaipur elephants had markedly accelerated, while the number of working elephants in Jaipur increased from 96 in 2008 to 119 as of April 2013, according to the Times of India.
Rajasthan forest department records inspected by TNN reportedly showed a death rate among the Jaipur working elephants of less than 1% per year, until the 21st century: nine deaths in the 1970s, nine deaths in the 1980s, 11 in the 1990s. But 22 elephants died between 2001 and 2008, and nine more since 2010, with seven more elephants seriously ill, TNN found.
The phase-out that wasn’t
The state-funded elephant aid program was initially touted as part of a planned humane phase-out of the use of elephants to ferry tourists to the Amber Fort. The walk normally takes humans on foot about 20 minutes; elephants do it in 10 minutes, compared to five minutes for taxis.
But the notion of a phase-out of elephant rides appears to have been completely scrapped. Instead, the elephant rides appear to be more aggressively promoted in online advertising than ever before.
Meanwhile, the combination of the rising elephant death rate with the increase in the working elephant population suggests that older elephants are being replaced upon death or disability, and that additional elephants are somehow being added to the inventory, despite Indian federal legislation meant to restrict the use of elephants in entertainment and commerce.
PETA/India in an April 11, 2014 blog postiing alleged that, “Extensive inspection of elephants in Jaipur conducted by a team including experienced veterinarians and honorary animal welfare officers from PETA India, Animal Rahat, Wildlife SOS and the Centre for Studies on Elephants at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciencesin Kerala showed rampant and widespread abuse of captive elephants used for elephant rides and other tourist activities in Jaipur, in violation of Indian animal-protection laws.”
PETA/India called on the Rajasthan state government “to stop the use of elephants for any purpose, including tourism and ceremonies, and instead to set up an elephant sanctuary with a no-breeding policy under the chain-free protected-contact system of management for rescued elephants.”
The Rajasthan government has yet to respond. Evident, however, is that elephant-related tourism is viewed as too lucrative to lose.
Animal Welfare Board of India
The decision to discontinue elephant polo, meanwhile, may have been forced by the November 2013 decision of the Animal Welfare Board of India to stop licensing elephants for circus use, and to prosecute circuses that use sick, injured, and unlicensed animals. While an elephant polo match is not a circus, it is a similar sort of public entertainment, and might have been held by the courts to be covered by the AWBI ban.
The AWBI acted in response to a nine-month investigation by a team including representatives from PETA/India and Animal Rahat, both also involved in opposition to elephant polo.
The Central Zoo Authority of India in November 2009 decreed that elephants may no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses, but was unable to enforce the decree against circuses while the Animal Welfare Board continued to authorize elephant use.
India has about 3,500 captive elephants, the most of any nation; a 3,500-year history of elephant use and exhibition; about 28,000 elephants left in the wild, more than half of the total population of Asian elephants; and the longest record of protecting both elephants and elephant habitat, beginning about 2,240 years ago.