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Elephant in the city: Laxmi found after two months, mahout arrested

Press Trust of India  |  New Delhi 

An elephant that went missing two months ago, prompting the Delhi forest department to sound a nationwide alert, has been found 'hiding' in plain sight near the banks of the Yamuna in the city's Yamuna Khadar area, official said on Wednesday.

Laxmi, one of only two elephants in the city outside the Delhi zoo, was "detained" and will be kept in a rehabilitation centre in Haryana. Her mahout Saddam has been arrested, Delhi Police officials said.

The mystery of the missing 47-year-old elephant ended around 3.30 am after a long day that involved three teams of four men each combing the area along the banks of the Yamuna in the eastern part of the city and the Uttar Pradesh-Delhi border.

Laxmi's owner Yusuf Ali and his elder son are absconding. Efforts are being made to nab them, said Deputy Commissioner of Police (East) Jasmeet Singh.

While Saddam was produced before a court in the afternoon, Ali's family protested outside the Shakarpur Police Station where the elephant was kept till noon. Laxmi was later shifted to the Delhi government's nursery at ITO from where she will be taken to the Ban Santoor elephant rehabilitation centre in Yamunanagar in Haryana.

The hunt by Delhi Police and forest officials intensified after some media reports said the pachyderm had been in the city right through.

"We launched a search operation on Tuesday to locate the elephant. Three teams comprising around 12 officials combed the areas along the banks of the Yamuna river and the Uttar Pradesh-Delhi border," a forest department official said.

"We requested police to increase patrolling in the Yamuna Pusta area as we suspected the elephant was being kept somewhere there," he added.

For much of the two months that she was missing, Laxmi was kept in a ground barely 100 metres from the office of the Delhi Commissioner of Police (East) in Patparganj, forest officials claimed.

They said the elephant was booked for weddings, religious functions and other events all this time.

"A few days ago, our people went to the ground posing as customers, but they were told that the elephant had been removed from there," an official said, adding that the mahout kept changing his location to avoid arrest.

As the case became a source of conversation and much speculation over how an elephant could go missing in one of India's most built-up cities, the animal at the centre of it all munched on 12 dozen bananas, one quintal sugarcane, and leaves of trees at her temporary home in the ITO nursery.

As the mercury rose, she sprayed dust on her back to keep cool before getting a bath from a caretaker.

The forest department staff prepared an elevated earth platform with the help of a JCB machine to help the elephant climb into a truck that will ferry her to Ban Santoor.

Sunil Tomar, a veterinary officer from the Delhi government's animal husbandry department, conducted a medical check-up and said Laxmi was fit to travel.

The elephant belongs to Ali's family residing in Shakarpur.

Since he could not make proper arrangements for housing, maintenance and upkeep of the animal, the forest department issued a seizure notice in February this year.

Ali then moved the Delhi High Court, which said the forest department can seize the elephant only when "necessary arrangements for its transfer to the new site have been finalised".

On July 1, the forest department got the go ahead from the Ban Santoor elephant rehabilitation centre in Haryana to transfer the elephant.

Five days later, on July 6, a forest department team reached to take the elephant but was allegedly attacked by Ali, his son and their relatives. In the commotion, the mahout fled with the elephant and "disappeared" into a wooded area in the Yamuna floodplains near the Akshardham temple.

In August, the forest department wrote to the chief wildlife wardens of all states asking them to alert it if they come to know about the whereabouts of the elephant.

The department also alerted the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau as it suspected the elephant could have been taken to Nepal.

In 2016, there were seven domestic elephants in the capital. Five were sent away by the forest department to various centres, leaving only two -- Laxmi, and another elephant that belongs to the 'Dabur' Burman family and is kept in a farmhouse in Chhattarpur -- said officials.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, September 18 2019. 17:50 IST