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Zimbabwean elephant suffering abuse in India




HE was still breastfeeding when he was taken away from his mother and flown to India 24 years ago. His name is Shankar.

This is a real-life story of a lone Zimbabwean elephant languishing in an Indian zoo.

In 1998, the Zimbabwean government presented a diplomatic gift of two baby elephants to former Indian president Shankar Sharma. The elephants were named Shankar and Bombai. Bombai being the female elephant was named after the wife of the Zimbabwean ambassador to India. Shankar was named after President Shankar.

As a result of the unbearable conditions at the National Zoological Park (NZP), formerly Delhi Zoo, Bombai died six years later.  Since then, Shankar has been living alone in a cage. There are currently two other elephants at NZP, but they are kept separately from Shankar.

For 17 years now, Shankar has been living in isolation. Psychologists argue that loneliness can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical, mental and cognitive health. It causes depression, poor cardiovascular functions, impaired immunity and aggression.

There is scientific evidence to prove that elephants and humans share similar cognitive abilities such as empathy, death awareness, communication, memory and self-awareness. Like humans, elephants are social beings. Shankar has no olfactory, visual and vocal communication with other elephants.

National Geographic journalist Rachel Fobar argues that solitary confinement damages the brain of elephants the same way it does to humans. There is video evidence to show that Shankar is a distressed elephant with traits of aggression.

Zoos are animal prisons and there are several reasons why elephants must be left in the wild. Animal captivity causes zoochosis, a form of psychosis that develops in animals held in captivity. They exhibit stereotypic behaviour which involves monotonous, obsessive and repetitive actions that serve no purpose.

Elephants with zoochosis usually sway back and forth rhythmically as if they are dancing. I recently discussed Shankar’s fate with Nikita Dhawan, a deeply concerned Indian youth who regularly visits Shankar at “his prison”. She explained that his aggressive behaviour towards visitors and zookeepers has prompted the authorities at NZP to cordon off the viewing pathway such that visitors can only see him from a distance.

An elephant can spend up to 18 hours a day feeding and can eat between 100 to 200kg of vegetation a day.  Disturbingly, Shankar spends 17 hours of his day caged and in chains.   There also exist video and picture evidence of Shankar being beaten and cruelly treated by his caretakers at NZP. The zoo itself has confirmed Shankar’s desolate confinement. They however seem not to have any plans of releasing him.

There is good and bad news concerning Shankar’s fate in India. The good news is that India’s Environment ministry condemned and banned the keeping of elephants in zoos. The Central Zoo Authority of India (CZAI), a statutory body under the ministry, ordered through a gazetted notice that: “All elephants collections are banned for all the zoos throughout the country effective immediately. All captive elephants in zoos should be rehabilitated…”

The sad part is that the ministerial directive was made 13 years ago, but today Shankar is still suffering at NZP. This has prompted Nikita and her organisation Youth for Animals (YFA) to drag  the Indian Environment ministry, CZAI and NZP  to the High Court of Delhi seeking an order to have Shankar freed.

Dhawan has also initiated an online petition demanding that NZP release Shankar from captivity. The petition now has close to 160 000 signatures from conservationists and other concerned individuals across the world.

Shankar is not the only animal being tormented in a zoo in India. There are two other elephants at NZP and at many other zoos across the world. The Islamabad High Court directed the release of an elephant named Kavaan from a Pakistani zoo to be rehabilitated in a sanctuary in Cambodia. Before then, Kavaan was described as the loneliest elephant in the world.

Shankar’s  court case is still pending  and it is  hoped that the Delhi High Court will rule in favour of  the lonely 26-year-old Zimbabwean elephant.

What is most disturbing is that Shankar went to India as a special diplomatic gift.  Diplomatic gifts are meant to show respect, build relationships and to celebrate friendship between two countries. This is the exact opposite of what is happening in Shankar’s case.

President Ram Nath Kovind, are you aware that the special elephant gift that Zimbabwe gave you as a show of respect for your office has turned out to be one of the most abused animals in India? President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Mnangagwa, do you know how the elephant that Zimbabwe presented to India as a special gift is being treated?

The ambassadors of both Zimbabwe and India should be put to task over Shankar’s welfare at NZP. Whilst the case is more political, environment ministries and wildlife authorities for both countries must also be seen taking some action. This is a case which should never have spilled into the courts.

Shankar’s companion died as a result of hostile conditions 17 years ago.  If India cannot take good care of him, they should bring him back to Africa before it is too late. There are private organisations which are willing and ready to fund the translocation of Shankar from NZP to wherever is deemed appropriate.

As hinted earlier, there are many other elephants facing ill-treatment in zoos across the world. There is an ongoing outcry over Namibia’s recent decision to put   170 wild elephants up for auction.  A few weeks ago, 22 elephants were exported from Namibia to the United Arab Emirates.

The Namibian government confirmed selling the elephants to a businessman named Gerrie Odendaal for N$3.3 million (US$221 000). Odendaal, who has been described as Namibia’s “elephants middleman”, went on to sell the jumbos to zoos in the UAE at a higher price. He is reported to have sold them for a staggering N$50 million (US$3.3m).

The Indian courts have in the past ruled that elephants are legal persons. That Shankar’s rights are being trampled in India is beyond doubt.  He is an innocent being who has already served 24 years imprisonment. His release is long overdue. #FreeShankarDelhiZoo.

About the writer: Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa is a lawyer , environmental law expert and director of Fauna and Flora Zimbabwe(FaFLoZim).  He is a former public prosecutor and is a member of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

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