The trials of India’s National Heritage Animal

This World Elephant Day, raise your voices to ban the practice of wildlife trade, taking responsibility to put an end to the exploitation of wild animals forever.

The days were serene and always enjoyable. I was surrounded by my parents and relatives. My mother was the leader of my herd and I was endlessly caressed and fondled. There were baths in the rivers and tug of war matches with my cousins. We roamed for miles every day. Sometimes I would feel tired and lie down and my family waited for me to gather my strength. We would feed for a major part of the day, and I would browse from vegetation and break leaves and trunks full of leaves that I could chew on.

 But all this changed one day when a bipedal creature shot my mother and killed her in front of my eyes. It was a trauma I was brutally subjected to and can never erase from my mind. I was separated from my herd and felt a dart pinch my body. Then it was all black as I lost consciousness. I regained consciousness in a wooden stockade and the unrelenting nightmare began. Prolonged starvation, repeated beatings, and being spoken to in an alien language became part of my daily routine. My spirit was wild but I realized it was being purposefully broken. After all, there is only so much that the physical body can endure, and eventually, I had no other option but to cave in and give in to the commands of the curious bipedal animals.

Thereafter, I was subjected to a training schedule that offered me food only if I obeyed commands. Through the mists of this tortuous process, I was compelled to understand the nuances of the language of these bipedal creatures that are known as humans. Then I was dragged into the maddening noise, traffic, and pollution encumbered the surroundings of a place known as a city where I was deposited in a venue full of other animals. Some memories of my days in the pristine forest returned, except for the fact that the animals here were all captive. Some were in cages, some were in chains, some were in moated enclosures and yes, some were performing tricks at the command of the bipedal humans. I eventually became one of those individuals performing tricks in front of hordes of shouting children. It was during these performing episodes that I would think of my family in our forest home and the sight of the children evoked memories of my cousins and family whom I lost a long time ago. A long, long time ago…………

The monologue above is imaginary but if an elephant could speak, it would not be preposterous to assume that his thoughts would echo the ones stated above. When the elephant was declared as the National Heritage Animal of India in 2010, there was cause for jubilation and anticipation that there would be a better treatment for the creature depicted in Indian mythology and folklore as Ganesha, both in the wild and in captivity. The Gajah report published in 2010 laid down elaborate recommendations for improving the management of wild and captive elephants in India. But ten years down the road, it seems we have a long way to go to ensure the best possible treatment for elephants living freely and in captivity.


African Elephant Shankar with Asian Elephant at Delhi Zoo

Image credit: Shubhobroto Ghosh

Captive Elephants in Amer fort, Jaipur for tourism and entertainment

Image credit: Shubhobroto Ghosh

A new report from an international animal welfare organisation, World Animal Protection exposes dismal conditions of elephants at entertainment venues in India and alarming elephant tourism trends across Asia. These trends are expected to get worse as venues try to fill the income shortfall following COVID-19.


Captive Elephants Used for Entertainment in Sonepur

Image credits: Shubhobroto Ghosh

The third edition of the report – Elephants. Not commodities –is being released on World Elephant Day in 2020. It compares research spanning a decade into elephant tourism, assessing venues across Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. To read more, visit


According to the report, India is home to the second-highest number of elephants used in tourism in Asia, and of the 21 venues housing 509 elephants, the report found 45% (225) of the elephants were kept in severely inadequate conditions.


“The findings of this report are truly shocking. In India, elephants are revered and are considered a heritage animal. And yet we are witnessing that there are 21 venues housing over 500 elephants for the entertainment of people. This is completely unacceptable. Elephants are wild animals and they belong in the wild. I urge the Indian government to effectively enforce existing wildlife protection laws to stop the trade of wild animals and wild animal products,” says Gajender K Sharma, Country Director, World Animal Protection India.


In India, World Animal Protection is working to phase out elephant rides at the Amer Fort in Jaipur, where over 100 elephants are providing daily rides to thousands of tourists.


Across Asia, there are over 3,800 captive elephants in 357 elephant tourism venues. Thailand is home to three-quarters of the elephants and has seen a shocking 70% increase in their number in just 10 years.


The findings are horrifying, revealing that 2,390 (63%) elephants are suffering in severely dire conditions at 208 venues across the countries studied, and of those just 279 (7%) elephants are kept in high-welfare venues. This is in contrast to 2015 when 2,242 (77%) of elephants lived in severely inadequate conditions, and 194 (7%) lived in high-welfare venues.


Elephants chained in Sonepur, with people taking selfies

Image credit: Shubhobroto Ghosh

Chained Elephant in Sonepur

Image credit: Shubhobroto Ghosh

Wild animals are traded for the purpose of our entertainment, for medicine, and are treated as products. This cruel trade causes the suffering of millions of animals and endangers the health of people with pandemics like COVID-19. It also has a terrible impact on our environment.


“Tourists need to know the truth – any elephant that you can get close enough to touch is an elephant that’s been subjected to horrific abuse for this use. It’s not just riding and circus-style shows that involve suffering – it’s the bathing and selfie opportunities that you might find at so-called ‘sanctuaries’, ‘orphanages’, or ‘rescue centers’. This isn’t innocent fun. This is cruelty,” says Audrey Mealia, Global Head of Wildlife at World Animal Protection


World Animal Protection has launched a global appeal to ban the trade of wild animals forever. The organisation is appealing to the leader of G20 nations to agree for this global ban when they meet for the G20 nations summit in November.


In India, World Animal Protection is urging Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to support the global call for a wildlife trade ban when he represents the country at the G20 summit. World Animal Protection has also requested the World Health Organisation to permanently ban all wildlife markets around the globe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and to take a highly precautionary approach to the wildlife trade. The aggravated risk to human health caused by close contact with wild animals in the wildlife trade and in entertainment can no longer be ignored.


Elephants enjoying in their natural habitat, Kaziranga

Image credit: Anirban Chaudhuri

The elephant in North Bengal freely moving in its natural habitat

Image credit: Shakti Ranjan Banerjee


World Animal Protection is calling on everyone, from holidaymakers to tourist operators, to take responsibility and put an end to the exploitation of wild animals forever – less demand will mean less elephant suffering. #EndWildlifeTrade


Join us and ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi to support the call for an end to the global trade of wild animals. Sign this petition here –


World Animal Protection hopes for a day when all captive elephants in abusive situations are retired in elephant-friendly sanctuaries where they enjoy good welfare for the rest of their lives. If that happens, the imaginary protagonist of our story, in the beginning, might be able to speak in the vein of Anna Sewell in Black Beauty in 1877, “My ladies have promised that I shall never be sold, and so I have nothing to fear; here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple-trees.”


Image credits for featured image: Anirban Chaudhuri and Shubhobroto Ghosh

About the Author /

Shubhobroto Ghosh is an ex journalist whose works have been published in a number of publications in India and abroad. He is a contributor to the biography of Indira Gandhi by Jairam Ramesh and is the author of the book, ‘Dreaming In Channel Islands’ based on his surveys of zoos in North East India and England. He currently works as Wildlife Projects Manager at World Animal Protection in New Delhi.

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