Karnataka’s Forest Department gave away 210 pairs of elephant tusks to the defence forces between 2008 and 2014 to display in their establishments, raising serious concerns among environmentalists and the armed forces alike.
Hundreds of requests have been made by defence units across the country seeking tusks to put up in their messes and halls, says Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Wildlife, Vinay Luthra.
Karnataka, habitat to India’s largest elephant population, has an ivory stockpile of 2,200 pairs seized from poachers or collected from natural elephant deaths. The ivory, highly priced in the black market, is stored in depots in Mysore and Shimoga.
Records with The Hindu show that since 2011 as many as 78 pairs were given to various defence units, including the Madras Regiment, Rajputana Rifles and Garhwal Rifles. In 1994, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) had asked all States to destroy their ivory stockpiles, adding, however, that some specimens could be kept aside for research, education or given to government institutions. These tusks are acquired free of cost because selling and buying Asian ivory is banned internationally by CITES and internally by the Indian government.
In Karnataka, until April 2014, requests for tusks for defence units could only be made by the Ministry of Defence. But the State government has now eased access to tusks by allowing requisitions directly from defence officers “not below the rank of a Colonel” for their regiments.
But a trophy-style display of elephant tusks — even if they are legally acquired — contradicts the spirit of the ivory-trade ban that aims to discourage poaching and the use of ivory in anyway, says M.D. Madhusudan wildlife biologist and co-founder of Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore. “To put up elephant tusks serves to commodify the species. It sends out the wrong message.”
A senior defence officer, who didn’t want to be named, concurred with this view. “One, it is unethical to display material that has been declared illegal in the country; and two, highly priced items like ivory could find their way into the civilian market.”
Elephant ecologist and professor at Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, R. Sukumar says that procuring tusks through the Ministry of Defence would have at least made tracking these pieces easier. “How is it possible to stock-take ivory that is scattered across the country without a centralised system in place?”