Police track India-Nepal elephant trafficking

A domesticated elephant used for safaris in Chitwan National Park which was being illegally transported to India in contravention of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is being tracked by Nepal police at the border.

The 50-year-old female elephant belongs to Jungle World Resort, and is named ‘Ashakali’. A video of the truck showed its number to be: ना ४ ख २८२७. 

Wildlife activists say more elephants have been sold to buyers in India for up to Rs9 million each since the pandemic began, and safari tourism in Nepal’s national parks collapsed.

Jungle World Resort director Tokraj Khatiwada admitted he had rented Ashakali from India at Rs80,000 a month, and since there had been no tourists upkeep of the animals was difficult and he was sending her back.

“You are now all raising the issue of elephant rights protection, but did any of you help feed these animals during the lockdown? The national park did not help either,” Khatiwada told us on the phone from Sauraha. He warned: “We were allowed to send back two rented elephants to India before this, so it is legal. If we are stopped, there will be an agitation here."

Set the elephants free, Michelle Szydlowski

According to CITES, endangered wild elephants cannot be domesticated, and it cannot be traded across borders. Many of the 216 captive elephants used in Nepal’s tourism industry are imported from India in contravention of Indian law. It is an irony that some of these elephants are now being sold back to India. 

Hari Acharya, spokesperson of the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation says, “No one has filed for an application on transporting Ashakali, so the process is illegal. We have written to the authorities at the border to increase vigilance.”

According to the convention, the CITES Management Authority in both countries have to give permission for the cross border transport for endangered species. For example, 16 captive elephants were brought from India in 1986, and 4 Nepali rhinos sent to India in exchange.

CITES does not allow the export of captive elephants for commercial purposes. Sources said the elephants were being sold to a new zoo in Gujarat. Up to five elephants have been sent to India since the lockdown went into effect last March, sources said.

“We think the collapse of tourism due to the pandemic has made it expensive for private owners of captive elephants to maintain them which is why they have an excuse to sell them to India,” said one conservationist at Chitwan National Park who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

After finding out about the illegal trade, the group Pro Public this week wrote to officials in India and Nepal, including the prime minister’s office in the two countries, embassies, and Interpol to stop the transport of captive elephants from Nepal to India.

CITES rules say that captive elephants need to be registered, but the national park says very few of the domesticated elephants in Nepal are registered. Nepal stopped capturing wild elephants to domesticate them 40 years ago. There are an estimated 200-227 wild elephants in Nepal.

Working elephants rise up, you have nothing to lose but chains, Lucia De Vries

Association Moey first posted information about the elephants being transported to India, which was later shared by Wildlife activist Shristi Singh Shrestha on her Facebook page one Thursday morning. She says safari lodges in Sauraha regard elephants only as profit generators, and she is working with other groups to let them roam in nature. 

Sanjeevani Yonjan of Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN) who has conducted sting operations to apprehend wildlife traffickers, says: “It is not just trans-border transport of elephants that is illegal, it is also illegal to domesticate wild elephants. Lodge owners cannot say they don’t want to follow the law.”

Praveen Pokhrel of Rupendehi Police used to be head of Wildlife Crime Division of Nepal’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), and says that he had received information about the elephants being transported, and was acting on it. 

But deputy conservationist at Chitwan National Park Shiva Gaire says he only heard about captive elephants being transported to India on Thursday. “We warned lodge owners that it is illegal to do this, and told them that they may face action,” he added.

Wildlife crime researcher Kumar Poudel says owners of captive elephants had been given one year to register their animals, but did not. He adds: “They are openly selling elephants across the border illegally, this has to be stopped immediately.”

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