A two-month, nationwide search for an elephant that was illegally whisked away by its mahout ended before dawn Wednesday when authorities found it hiding in plain sight -- near the banks of Yamuna river in New Delhi, about 5 km from where it had disappeared, officials said.
Forest Department officials had been searching for 47-year-old Laxmi since July 6 when they had raided her owner's house in New Delhi's Shakarpur area to take her to a rehabilitation centre in Haryana. But officials claim the team was attacked by the owners and his family. In the commotion, Laxmi's mahout, Saddam, rode away with it and disappeared into a wooded area in the Yamuna floodplains near the Akshardham temple.
"We requested police to increase patrolling in the Yamuna Pusta area as we suspected the elephant was being kept somewhere there," a Forest Department official said.
"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," he added.
Finally, it was found at around 3.30 a.m. in the Yamuna Khadar area in the eastern part of the capital near the Uttar Pradesh border. Saddam has been arrested under various charges including obstructing a public servant, Delhi Police officials said, adding that Laxmi's owner Yusuf Ali and his elder son are absconding.
Laxmi is one of only two elephants in the city outside the Delhi zoo.
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.
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 an earth moving 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 Forest Department issued a notice in February to seize Laxmi on the grounds that Ali's family could not make proper arrangements for housing, maintenance and upkeep of the animal.
However, Ali moved the Delhi High Court, which overruled his objections and said the forest department can seize the elephant only when "necessary arrangements for its transfer to the new site have been finalised". The forest department got the go ahead from the Ban Santoor elephant rehabilitation centre in Haryana on July 1 to transfer the elephant.
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. Officials said 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.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)