Padam can’t recall when he first started holding elephants at his hotel. However, he claims that elephant rides in the community forests outside of Nepal’s popular Chitwan National Park used to be very costly.
Until March 2020, Padam’s two elephants were kept occupied from dawn to dusk. However, one of Nepal’s most popular tourist destinations was virtually abandoned after the Covid-19 pandemic limited travel worldwide. Despite the fact that the Nepali government has now removed most travel restrictions, hoteliers in Chitwan, such as Padam, are still experiencing less than 50% occupancy.
Tourist drives, wedding processions, and temple ceremonies are all conducted with captured Asian elephants. Campaigners argue that long-lived animals are often removed from the wild and subjected to harsh treatment to make them compliant, which is extremely controversial.
Padam sold one elephant to an Indian dealer for NPR 6.5 million (approximately USD 56,000) in February. He hopes that by making this decision, he will be able to cut his hotel’s monthly operating costs by at least $1,000, which had previously been spending on the elephant’s food and mahouts (keeper).
Bishal, another hotelier who heads an elephant owners’ cooperative, claims that in 2021, the group’s representatives sold at least 20 elephants to Indian traders. They currently have 35 elephants, the smallest number in the cooperative’s two-decade history.
Nepal and India, on the other hand, are both signatories to the International Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Asian elephants are classified in the convention’s Appendix I, which includes species that are “threatened with extinction and are or may be affected by trade.” Importing live Appendix I animals (or their parts) for “primarily commercial purposes” is prohibited in order to avoid “further endangering their life.”
Before Appendix I species can be exported from one country to another, the exporting CITES Scientific Authority must advise that the export would “not be harmful to the species’ survival,” and the CITES Management Authority must be sure that the animals were collected lawfully before issuing an export permit. Meanwhile, the Management Authority of the importing country must issue an import permit after determining that the animal(s) are “not to be used for primarily commercial purposes” and that the import would be “for purposes that are not detrimental to the survival of the species” and that the recipient of a live animal is “suitably equipped to handle it.”
The Nepali government adopted the Act to Regulate and Monitor International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora in 2017 in order to enforce CITES. “No individual shall buy, sell, possess, use, cultivate, rear, captive-breed, transport, import or export, or cause to be done, an endangered or vulnerable wild fauna or flora or a specimen thereof,” according to the rule. All species listed in CITES Appendix I are considered “threatened fauna or flora,” according to the act.
The government released a series of rules on how to bring the act into effect in 2019. According to Section 2 of the regulations, anyone wishing to trade in such species or their parts must comply with various legislative requirements and obtain a government permit.
In the cross-border selling of live elephants, there is no proof that any of these laws were observed. No one has sought approval yet, according to Hari Bhadra Acharya, a spokesperson for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the government agency in charge of enforcing the act.
Trade that is ‘clearly unlawful’
According to senior advocate Prakash Mani Sharma, the ongoing trade is obviously illegal, and the government has a duty to put an end to it. According to Hari Bhadra Acharya, the department has done nothing because it has not been “formally” informed about the trade. Nonetheless, he claims that he is aware of these activities and that “necessary action will be taken until the sale is proven.”
According to Acharya, Chitwan National Park officials have been “charged” with investigating the matter, but the park’s information officer, Lokendra Adhikari, claims the park has done nothing.
Two days after rumours of an elephant being sold to India emerged on social media and one day after the subject was covered by a national media outlet, The Third Pole contacted Chitwan’s chief district officer Prem Lal Lamichhane to ask if he had taken any steps to stop the trade.
“We tried to figure out what was going on, but we were told there was nothing out of the ordinary,” Lamichhane said. “We were unable to confirm the news.”
“It’s pointless to make a law if you don’t put it into effect,” Sharma said. “The failure of the state to enforce it indicates a strong connection between the two [the state and the traders].” We’re still breaking international agreements on which we’ve agreed.”
There aren’t many reports on elephants kept in captivity
The 2019 regulations also state that anyone who keeps an endangered animal in captivity must report it with the appropriate government agency or risk having it confiscated. No one has applied for registration, and no elephants have been seized as of yet.
There is no official count of captive elephants in Nepal, according to the government. According to a 2016 CITES report, there are 216, with nearly half under government control and the rest held by individuals and businesses. Outside of Chitwan National Park, about 80% of privately owned elephants are reported to be in Sauraha and Amaltari cities.
While the park authorities did not take any action against the elephant traders, they did begin tracking the number of captive elephants in the region last year. According to information officer Adhikari, hoteliers in Sauraha, Amaltari, and Kasara owned 65 elephants as of late 2020. As of last year, hotelier Rishi Tiwari estimates the population to be about 80.
This means that in the last three months, a quarter of all elephants in the region have been sold to Indian traders.
For the past five years, Amir Sadaula, a wildlife veterinarian at the National Trust for Nature Conservation’s Biodiversity Conservation Centre in Chitwan, has been tracking animal trade. He claims that up until now, he had only seen three elephants sold every year, and only inside Nepal. “When they don’t make any money, people sell them. But that wasn’t always the case,” he says.
This is referred to as an evacuation by Carol Buckley, the founder of the non-profit Elephant Aid International, based in the United States. “Even though the pandemic has been going on for a year, the market is already flooded with buyers. “The money they sell is inflated, and it’s all in cash,” she claims.
Sold into a state of confusion
Activists are still concerned about how elephants will be handled in India. Surajan Shrestha, a Chitwan-based animal rights activist, points out that “captive elephants are used in religious functions and even protests” in India.
Buckley believes that these elephants could be sold several times within India or even further afield, possibly into Nepal. Those selling elephants have no idea where the animals would end up. The majority of Indian traders use Nepali middlemen.
Padam was informed that the elephant he sold will be taken to the home of a local moneylender by a middleman from Birgunj, a city near the Indian border. Padam says, “I believe the elephant can now feed better.”
In a Facebook post, Association Moey, an international NGO that cared for Chitwan’s retired captive elephants on their path to freedom, says, “Some might think it’s a positive thing.” “However, this only helps to divert attention away from elephant misery. On a regular basis, they will face isolation, violence, and poor living conditions in temples, weddings, and as symbols of prestige.”
Elephants are not allowed to be used in tourist trips, according to activists. According to Ashok Ram, a wildlife expert, this has triggered a schism. “Activists who oppose the rides convince hoteliers that they can no longer profit from the animal. Humans have been using elephants since the dawn of time.” Bishal, a hotelier, believes that regulations should be changed to accommodate both human and animal needs.
Carol Buckley and Surajan Shrestha, for example, believe that keeping the animals hostage for riding or other tasks is inhumane. According to Shrestha, the government should create an elephant sanctuary in Chitwan, where all captive elephants should be released. He argues that the elephants will still support the towns by attracting visitors and promoting the sanctuary as a model conservation project, raising income and promoting the sanctuary as a model conservation project.
Meanwhile, government spokesperson Hari Bhadra Acharya, who alternates between tour operators and animal rights activists, blames the inability to enforce the laws of the land on the lockdown imposed by Covid-19.
Editor’s note: names of some sources have been changed
The original version of this story was originally published on The Third Pole under a Creative Commons licence.
Original Author: Diwakar Pyakurel