Elephant owners make a killing by selling ivory (India)


Jayan Menon, Onmanorama

Date Published

Thiruvananthapuram: An investigation into the ivory smuggling racquet in Kerala has put owners of captive elephants under a cloud of suspicion. Elephant owners who obtain the Forest Department’s permission to trim the animals’ tusks periodically later sell them to ivory sculptors for lakhs of rupees, the department has found out.

Elephant owners seek the Forest Department’s permission to trim captive elephants’ tusks saying the animal finds it difficult to feed with the long tusk. The department, however, does not have any record of the trimmings. Elephant owners later sell the ivory pieces to artisans specialising in the trade.

A former minister who has a passion for captive elephants is alleged to have threatened a Forest Department honcho to pre-empt an investigation into the elephant owners’ involvement in the illegal ivory trade. The department, however, hardened its stance and is getting ready for an audit of the incidents of trimming the tusks of elephants in captivity.

The department’s action is based on the testimony of Rajasekharan Nair (60), an ivory sculptor who was held in Thiruvananthapuram last week. Ivory sculptors manage to receive 25 kilos of ivory per month on average even though the trade is banned in India, he has told the Forest Department officials. Almost all of it comes from captive elephants, he said.

Nair claimed that the sculptors prefer the tusks of captive elephants as they are fairer than that of wild elephants. Sculptures made of captive elephants’ tusks have a special sheen which fetch them a better price. They look for tusks from wild elephants only when tusks of captive elephants are in short supply. The wild elephants’ tusks are not best-suited for sculpting as they have dark grains on them.

There are 788 captive elephants in Kerala. All of them get their tusks trimmed every four years. Forest Department officials say several devaswoms with large collections of temple elephants do not keep any record of the ivory they trim off the elephants.

As soon as the Forest Department decided to launch an investigation into the allegations made by Nair, the former minister tried to scuttle it. He, however, relented when the officers put their foot down and told him that they would continue with the investigation until the CBI took over and all information collected will be handed over to the central agency once they were on the job.