India

Fears for elephants facing 1,900 mile train journey in India

Decorated elephants stand prior to the arrival of Gujarat state Chief Minister, Narendra Modi to offer prayers at the the Lord Jagannath Mandir in Ahmedabad on July 9, 2013 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Decorated elephants lead the procession at the Jagannath temple's annual festival in Ahmedabad

Animal rights activists in India have criticised a plan by the Assam state government to send four elephants on a perilous train journey of more than 3,100km (1,926 miles) to participate in a temple ritual. They say the long journey could be dangerous for the animals and may even kill them, writes the BBC's Geeta Pandey in Delhi.

The elephants are to be moved from Tinsukia town in the north-eastern state of Assam to the extreme west of the country - Ahmedabad city in Gujarat state.

Reports say the railway authorities in Assam, who have been asked to make travel arrangements for the elephants, are looking for a coach to transport them.

No date is set for their departure yet, but they are expected to reach Ahmedabad before 4 July to participate in the annual Rath Yatra (chariot procession) at the Jagannath temple. The train journey is expected to take three to four days.

In previous years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hails from Gujarat, has participated in the festival and the elephant procession, although temple officials say he's not expected to attend this year.

Temple trustee Mahendra Jha told BBC Gujarati that they decided to "borrow" the animals from Assam "for two months" because three of their own elephants died from old age last year.

But activists and conservationists say the plan to move the elephants is "cruel and completely inhuman", especially since temperatures are more than 40C (104F) in many places along the northern Indian route these elephants are expected to take.

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Media captionHuman-elephant conflict destroying lives in India

"Most of north-western India is reeling under a heatwave. There have been reports of people dying from heat during train journeys," Kaushik Barua, a wildlife conservationist based in the Assam state capital, Guwahati, told the BBC.

"The wagon in which the elephants will be transported is not climate-controlled. It will be hitched to a passenger train which will be travelling at a speed of 100km/h (62mph), so can you imagine the plight of the animals?"

Mr Barua warns the journey may prove "dangerous" for the animals.

"They can suffer from heatstroke, from shock, and even die."

Under the law, he says, there's no problem moving these elephants since all the paperwork is in order, "but where's the animal welfare?"

Also weighing in on the debate is the opposition Congress party MP from Assam, Gaurav Gogoi, who's petitioned India's Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to intervene.

"Roughly half of the country is struggling through its worst drought in six decades.... These are extreme conditions for the elephants to travel... The elephants may suffer from acute skin infection and dehydration," Mr Gogoi wrote in his letter on Thursday.

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Media captionIndia's first elephant hospital is run by the charity Wildlife SOS

"Therefore, I request the central government to intervene and instruct the state government to withdraw the decision as soon as possible."

Elephants - both wild and captive - are a protected species in India and there are strict guidelines for their transportation, wildlife biologist Dr Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar told the BBC.

According to the rules, no elephant can be made to walk for more than 30km (18 miles) at a stretch or transported for more than six hours in one go.

The state's wildlife officials, who've issued transit permits for the elephants, have so far refused to comment on the controversy. But after protests from activists and conservationists, "they have gone into a huddle, discussing a plan B," according to a wildlife expert.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Elephants are a protected species in India

"There's some suggestion that the pachyderms may be moved in trucks to allow them the flexibility to stop if needed and that they could be accompanied by a forest department veterinarian to look after them," he said.

Mr Barua, however, is blunt.

"Gujarat doesn't need these elephants," he says. "Wildlife laws prevent [the] display and exhibition of elephants. Laws ban performances by elephants in circuses, zoos are not allowed to exhibit them, so why should temples be allowed to use them in rituals or processions? Don't elephants have rights?

"We worship Ganesha, the Elephant God. Why are the Gods then being put through such cruelty by a temple?"

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