The zoos at Delhi and Mysuru are grappling with a tall order. Can they — and should they — find mates for Shankar and Richie, the only two African elephants in the country?
Shankar, aged around 27, has been the Delhi zoo’s sole African elephant since 2001, when a female elephant brought with it died. And at the Mysuru zoo, Richie, an African bull elephant in its 20s, has been alone since 2016 after its father Timbo died. African elephants, the largest land mammals, are different from Asian elephants. Both Shankar and Richie are housed separately from the Asian elephants at their respective zoos.
But African or Asian, all elephants are social animals, which explains the search for prospective mates. This issue, however, has run into a quagmire of monetary, legal, logistical and, importantly, ethical considerations. Not to mention, availability.
While Richie was born in captivity at the Mysuru zoo to two African elephants brought from Germany in the 1970s, Shankar is an elephant captured from the wild, one of two that arrived in India in 1998 as a diplomatic gift from Zimbabwe.
In 2021, a petition was moved in the Delhi High Court seeking Shankar’s relocation to a sanctuary that houses other African elephants. In an order issued earlier this month, the High Court disposed of the petition and said the petitioner, Nikita Dhawan, could approach a Supreme Court-appointed committee. This panel was set up in a different case in March to consider approvals, disputes or grievances concerning the transfer or import of wild animals by rescue or rehabilitation centres and zoos. Dhawan said she was considering how to approach it.
At the Delhi zoo, meanwhile, the search for a mate for Shankar continues. Zoo Director Akanksha Mahajan said they have prepared a proposal seeking assistance from the Union Environment Ministry to procure funding for the transport of another African elephant.
Where the elephant might come from though, is unclear. “We are exploring options. A proposal has been prepared to request the Ministry for help with procuring funding through CSR (corporate social responsibility) sources the Ministry may have. If someone can fund this amount, we can maybe get an animal from another zoo (abroad). There are some agencies in the country that are involved with the transport of animals, but this will involve transportation costs. For a female elephant close to the same age as Shankar, transport will be expensive, and estimates suggest that this could come up to around Rs 1 crore. Once we get formal approval from people willing to help, we can proceed. The elephant is a social animal,” Mahajan explained.
According to zoo officials, a request for a female African elephant has been submitted on the Species360 platform that manages information on, among other things, animals wanted and available at the zoos across the world.
Communiques were also sent to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the International Zoo Services. In April, a representative of the EAZA Ex Situ Programmes (EEP) responded: They did not have a suitable elephant.
In an order issued in July last year, the High Court had said the possibility of importing a female elephant should be explored. “We will not permit you to take the elephant to South Africa,” the court had observed then.
The High Court had also directed the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) to conduct an inspection of the area in which the elephant has been kept, and file an affidavit after considering the possibility of relocating the elephant to an Indian national park or sanctuary. The affidavit to be submitted to the court was to be based on the report of a committee which would include a wildlife expert.
The affidavit filed in November last year by the CZA included the report prepared by the committee comprising a representative each of the CZA and the AWBI, and a scientist from the Project Elephant Division of the Environment Ministry.
The committee said the relocation of the elephant to a national park or sanctuary in India is not possible due to its “different evolutionary history and genesis from the Asian elephant”, different habitat and environment conditions, and on account of it being an “alien species for Indian habitats.”
On the possibility of importing a female African elephant, the committee observed: “African elephants have a strong social structure and familial ties. Therefore, having a single female in the group may cause psychological stress. Having multiple females would allow the bull better interaction and augment genetic variability.”
The committee had recommended that “efforts be made to acquire at least two unrelated, compatible females (one adult and one sub-adult) with one sub-adult male”. It had also said that the integration of animals with Shankar would have to be done in a phased and careful manner, that housing arrangements would have to be in keeping with their herd compatibility and social structure, and that if the zoo acquires these additional animals, additional area would have to be provided in line with CZA guidelines.
But should these additional animals be brought into the zoo at all?
A submission made on behalf of Dhawan to the High Court in September last year, noted: “The exercise of including and importing further elephants into an already unforgiving environment would only lead to spoiling the life and liberty of two more animals. Notwithstanding the above, it is a well known scientific fact that one cannot force African Elephants to select their mates and/or members of their herds. It is a process of natural selection and cannot be forced.”
Exploring its options, the Delhi zoo has been in touch with a private agency in Hyderabad that assists with the transport of animals. No arrangement has been reached.
“Health protocol will have to be fulfilled, besides dealing with issues of transport considering the animal’s size. This is not easy and will take time. We are in the initial stages of checking with zoos in other countries,” said Rakesh Verma, of the agency in Hyderabad. Verma said the agency was also involved in the transport of animals to the zoo at Kevadia, Gujarat.
The Mysuru zoo, too, has been making efforts to find another African elephant. An official at the zoo said: “We have requested European and American zoos that can meet veterinary requirements of our country to consider sending a female elephant. But they need to consider sparing an animal. Besides, there are associations of zoos in Europe and America that need to take these decisions, not just individual zoos.”
Richie has “visual contact” with the Asian elephants at the Mysuru zoo, this official said. “He can see them… at least someone is there.”
Bringing an animal in will also require a CITES permit, besides approvals from the CZA and the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, Delhi zoo’s Mahajan said, adding that credentials of the agencies involved will also be verified. CITES refers to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a multilateral treaty.
A senior official in the Environment Ministry, who was associated with the zoo earlier, described the prospect of bringing even one adult African elephant from abroad as a “difficult proposition.” The species is very different and complicated to keep in captivity compared to other animals, on account of their needs, the official pointed out.
“They are big animals and are known to walk long distances in the wild. Elephants are also usually not prolific breeders in captivity. Transporting them will be a challenge. Ensuring space for the animal, engaging them in routines, feeding and ensuring enrichment for even one such adult animal has challenges. You need a large area and manpower, considering the many aspects of their care,” said this official. “It’s possible, but it’s challenging. The issues need to be worked out, and then individuals need to be brought in safely.”
“Higher quality of welfare”
The unique position of elephants in captivity is also underscored by 2013 CZA guidelines that ban the further intake of elephants, except for rescued or confiscated ones. The CZA had said then that it may permit some zoos to house elephants subject to the zoo’s willingness to comply with guidelines, provide increased area, and ensure “higher quality of welfare”.
An affidavit filed on behalf of the zoo in September last year had said that the African elephant “is an important educational tool of learning for small kids” visiting the zoo, and that the elephant is kept chained in its enclosure only during the period of “musth”.
Indian zoos are not the only ones in the world grappling with the challenge of elephants housed alone. An advocacy group had earlier challenged the captivity of Happy, an Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York, which is reportedly kept separate from Patty, the only other Asian elephant at the zoo. The New York State Court of Appeals had ruled in the case last year that the elephant is not a person, and therefore not entitled to the human right of liberty. In a 2017 report on solitary elephants in Japan, Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist noted: “The solitary nature of the elephants’ lives undoubtedly added to their psychological distress and, thus, stereotypic repetitive behaviour.”