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24 Jan 2018 2:57
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  •   Home > News > International

    New Delhi's last elephants: Wildlife advocates argue city is no place for creatures

    Elephants are a special sight for most people in the Indian capital, but for a few, they're a source of income. Now wildlife advocates argue the city is too polluted and congested for the animals to live happily and healthily, and want them gone.

    New Delhi's last elephants

    Elephants are a special sight for most people in the Indian capital, but for a few, they're a source of income. Now wildlife advocates argue the city is too polluted and congested for the animals to live happily and healthily, and want them gone.

    Tethered to a wooden post by a bit of rope, Hira sways listlessly in a shelter to the side of a cramped New Delhi street.

    Outside, workers are building houses, children are skipping school, and heavy traffic churns along the road.

    Hira is one of Delhi's last elephants, and if city officials have their way, he won't be here much longer.

    His keeper, Mukut Yadav, is a 40-year-old man who has been around elephants since he was a child.

    He has looked after Hira for the past decade, sleeping in the shelter alongside his giant charge.

    The dirt floor is cushioned only with fodder for the elephant to eat.

    The shanty is completely open to the cold in winter, and to stifling heat in summer.

    Mukut knows no other way to make a living.

    Neither does the elephant's owner, Mahboob Ali.

    We asked if you thought elephants should be removed from the Indian capital. Read the discussion in the comments below.

    He owns six elephants, and he earns money by renting them out for religious ceremonies and weddings.

    It can take all day for an elephant to get from one venue to another, moving at a cracking pace of 4 kilometres an hour through Delhi's choking traffic jams.

    Mahboob's family has made a living from elephants for 250 years.

    "My great-great-grandfather was working as an elephant handler with a king," he says.

    "The king gifted an elephant to him, and since then we have been owning elephants."

    Elephants pulling carriages were not an unusual sight in the capital's streets during the days of Mughal rule and the British Raj.

    The powerful beasts were associated with the rise and fall of empires.

    But they look rather out of place in the polluted streets and waterways of modern Delhi.

    Wildlife advocates have taken Mahboob to court in a bid to get his elephants removed from the city.

    They argue that Delhi is too polluted and congested for an elephant to live happily and healthily.

    Watching the elephants bathe in Delhi's Yamuna River, it is hard to disagree.

    The elephant keepers, or mahouts, take the creatures to the water a couple of times a week.

    The river is so black is shines like oil. It is clogged with refuse. The beasts bathe underneath an overpass that churns with traffic.

    Motorbikes and tuk-tuks zip past, but the elephants don't react to the noise.

    Most of them are about 30 years old, and this is all they've ever known.

    But conservationists say living amid the noise of a city like Delhi overloads an elephant's system.

    About 10 years ago, scientists discovered that elephants can hear through their feet.

    The vibrations of sound travel from their toenails through their very bones to their ears.

    Life in Delhi must be about as calming as a heavy metal concert for these creatures.

    Back in the shelter, the large male elephant Hira is agitated.

    His mahout tries to placate him by feeding him freshly cooked chapati bread, which he devours before continuing to sway and snort at anyone who comes near him.

    The points of his tusks have been shaved off, but his might is not diminished.

    There are no tranquilisers or medicines on hand to calm him, and no secondary barriers should he break free from the rope around his hind leg.

    Elephants remain a special sight for most Delhiites, and they hold spiritual significance for Hindus.

    But animal rights activists say "culture" isn't a good enough reason to keep elephants in captivity in the city.

    Mahboob says he'll fight the court case, but he seems resigned about the outcome for him and his family.

    "The moving out of elephants from Delhi is really sad and shocking for me and my family," he says.

    There is diminishing tolerance among Delhi's educated elite for keeping wild animals in captivity.

    But perhaps the younger generation is also less interested in making a living through such an antiquated business.

    Fardeen, Mahboob's 14-year-old nephew, isn't interested in working in the family business.

    He wants to be an engineer. Or perhaps a movie star.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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