Guwahati, Nov 2 (IANS) A trans-national elephant smuggling syndicate was busted in Assam with the arrest of five persons, even as conservationists claimed close to 100 wild Asiatic jumbos were captured and sold in Nepal and various Indian states in the past five years.
'The ring leader of the elephant smuggling racket was arrested over the weekend from Guwahati and later four more gang members were apprehended,' P.K. Dutta, police chief of the western Assam district of Kokrajhar told IANS Tuesday.
Two elephants, a mother and a calf, were also seized from a truck headed for Uttar Pradesh via the Assam-West Bengal border.
'The gang was planning to smuggle 15 more elephants from Assam,' Dutta said.
A conservation group, the Green Heart Nature Club, provided the initial tip-off to the police.
'An estimated 91 elephants have been smuggled out of the state during the past four to five years to parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and even Nepal,' the police chief said.
The modus operandi was clever -- the elephants were captured from the wild with the help of local handlers and then tamed. The animals were then loaded on to trucks after being sedated.
'Apart from being status symbols for the rich in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan, elephants are also sold to organised gangs who slaughter the animals for their skin and ivory,' Sangeeta Goswami, an activist of the People for Animals, said.
An adult elephant fetches the gang anything between Rs.3-4 million (Rs.30-40 lakh).
'Some of the elephants smuggled out of Assam also find their way to Nepal after crossing the borders, with forged documents after bribing the officials,' Goswami said.
Selling the animals is banned in India, and even relocating tamed elephants within a state involves prior government permission.
'Unfortunately, the Assam wildlife department is doing very little to stop trafficking of elephants, although it is a flourishing business going on for many years now,' Bablu Dey, director of the Green Heart Nature Club, said.
Locals who owned captive elephants in most parts of Assam were also forced to sell the animals due to financial constraints.
'Tamed elephants were earlier used for logging by timber merchants, but after a Supreme Court verdict banning illegal felling of trees in 1996, owners were finding it hard to feed the animals,' said Kushal Konwar Sarma, a professor at the College of Veterinary Science in Guwahati and a noted elephant expert.
'Our elephants used to work in timber transport and earned anything between Rs.40,000 to Rs.50,000 per month,' said Rudra Baishya, who owns two elephants.
'Until recently, owning elephants was like being a king. Now keeping one elephant has become a real burden,' Baishya said.
'Today, the elephants don't even earn Rs.10,000 a year although we have to spend Rs.5,000 to Rs.7,000 per month for the upkeep of one elephant,' he said.
This fall in income has forced elephant owners to sell their captive animals to smuggling gangs at a premium.
Elephants are used in temple processions in various Indian states, apart from forest patrol and tourist rides.
The last elephant census carried out in 2007 showed there were about 5,500 wild elephants in Assam, more than half of India's count of 10,000. There are an estimated 1,500 tamed elephants in Assam - most of them kept by their owners as status symbols.