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SC pulls up AWBI, directs survey on elephants held in captivity

The Supreme Court Thursday pulled up the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) for not having data on the number of elephants held in captivity and directed chief wildlife wardens of all the states to conduct a survey to identify and ascertain such elephants.

The apex court took strong exception to the arguments of the advocate appearing for AWBI that the board does not have the data on elephants held in captivity and it was for the states to take action in case the animal was tortured.

"This attitude simply cannot work," a bench of Justices Madan B Lokur, M M Shantanagoudar and S Abdul Nazeer told the AWBI's counsel.

"Your (AWBI) submission is that if something is happening in front of your eyes, you will say that I will not take any action as it is for the states to see. You do not even have the data on elephants," the bench said.

It directed chief wildlife wardens of all the states to conduct a survey and ascertain whether owners of elephants held captive have the ownership certificates.

"If they (owners) do not have the ownership certificate, then after following the mandatory procedures required by law, the ownership certificate may be granted provisionally subject to the final decision," the bench said.

It said that data collected by chief wildlife wardens of all the states be communicated to the Secretary of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and the ministry would file an affidavit on the basis of details provided to it "so that at least there is a consensus about the elephants in captivity".

"The cut off date for this purpose will be December 31, 2018. The entire exercise should be completed by the chief wildlife wardens on December 31, 2018 or a day or two thereafter. The affidavit should be filed by the MoEF before the second week of January 2019," the bench said and posted the matter for hearing in the second week of January.

The bench was hearing a petition which has sought implementation of the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals Act, 1960 to protect elephants in captive.

The plea has also said that a census should be conducted of all captive elephants under the supervision of secretary of MoEF&CC with the assistance of independent experts.

During the hearing, the bench observed that an application has been filed before it seeking a direction to give Aadhaar number to all the elephants in the country.

Advocate Aparna Bhat, appearing for the petitioner, told the court that large number of elephants were held captive in the country and they were used for religious purposes, begging and even at weddings.

"Such elephants (held in captivity) are subjected to cruelty and 74 unnatural deaths of such elephants have been recorded," Bhat told the bench.

AWBI's counsel said that function of the board was only "advisory" and they do not have data on number of elephants held in captivity.

The AWBI said that records of animals were maintained by the states and the board had sought for statistics from the states and union territories but they no response have been received.

When Bhat raised the issue of torture on elephants held captive, the bench said, "First of all we need to know how many elephants are there and how many of them are help captive and where".