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'Shankar is chained for 17 hours a day'

By A GANESH NADAR
January 14, 2022 07:50 IST
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'There are around 80 to 100 elephants in zoos around the country.'
'We should not keep them in captivity for our entertainment.'

All photographs: Kind courtesy Nikita Dhawan

It takes a special kind of human to feel the pain of an animal.

And 16-year-old Nikita Dhawan is one of those special humans.

The teenager has filed a plea in the Delhi high court to free an African elephant, Shankar, who has been living without a companion in the capital's National Zoological Park for 16 years.

The Zimbabwean government had gifted an African elephant couple, Shankar and Bombai, to India in 1998. Bombai passed away in 2005 and Shankar has been alone since then.

The plea, moved by senior advocate Raj Panjwani, states that Shankar must be moved to a place where there are other African elephants.

Nikita feels that Shankar's isolation, and the fact that he is chained for many hours, causes him mental harm.

As the founder of Youth for Animals, which aims to spread awareness about kindness to animals, Nikita tells Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar what her organisation has been doing, and what they plan to do, for animals. Beginning with Shankar, the lonely African elephant.

 

Why is Shankar kept chained?

He is chained for approximately 17 hours a day.

The Central Zoo Authority, in their renewal letter to the Delhi Zoo, has also made the observation that Shankar is chained for long hours.

He is allowed to walk during visitor hours.

Did you speak to the zoo authorities before you moved to the high court?

We sent a letter to them by post; they did not respond.

So we sent letters to the prime minister's office, the ministry of environment and the Central Zoo Authority.

After that, we moved the Delhi high court.

What was the response to the RTI you filed, asking for information about Shankar's living conditions?

We filed an RTI in June last year.

They confirmed he has no contact with the two Asian elephants in the zoo.

They also said they have been no plans or efforts made to find him a companion or relocate him to a sanctuary.

You have asked that Shankar be released. Have you any sanctuary in mind for his rehabilitation?

We have received a letter from the Aspinall Foundation, which is based in the United Kingdom. They are willing to take him. They have multiple sanctuaries across Africa.

There will be a medical examination and he will go if he is fit to travel.

You have said that elephants from all the zoos in the country should be released. Do you have a number?

There are around 80 to 100 elephants in zoos around the country.

We hope Shankar's case will open the gate of freedom for all captive elephants.

There was a circular issued by the Central Zoo Authority in 2009 that banned the exhibition of elephants in zoos. They should implement that.

Temples and private individuals also own elephants. Have you mentioned them in your petition to the high court?

No, we are focusing on zoos now.

Why and when did you start Youth For Animals?

We started in March 2020 during the pandemic. We wanted to raise awareness about the need to be kind to animals. This is our first activism-based case.

Has your family been supportive?

They have been both supportive and helpful. My mom helps out with social media and my dad helps when we deal with the lawyers.

How many members are there in Youth For Animals?

As of now, we have six volunteers. There are others who contribute depending on the campaign.

IMAGE: Nikita Dhawan.

How is it funded? How much are you spending on your high court appeal?

We have not raised any funds so far. We are not spending any money.

The lawyers are working pro bono. They are also passionate about the cause.

Can you tell me what else Youth For Animals does?

We have an interview series called Zoom In With The Experts, where we talk about various animal and environment issues.

These interviews are available on our Web site.

We also raise awareness through social media.

As a school student, how much time can you devote to Youth For Animals?

We started the initiative during the summer last year.

We work during the weekends.

Can you share some of the problems you have faced since starting Youth For Animals?

With the Shankar case specifically, a lot of research and preparation was required.

However, we have been lucky as we have the support of several NGOs and mentors.

Finding a sanctuary that was willing to accept Shankar was particularly difficult.

Many people wanted us to find a sanctuary within the country.

We think that while this could be a temporary solution, Shankar ultimately needs to be with his own kind.

How important are animals when it comes to sustaining the environment?

They are really important. Animals maintain the ecosystem.

Elephants specifically are a keystone species and climate mitigators. We should not keep them in captivity for our entertainment.

What are your future plans?

Right now, the main plan is to find a home for Shankar.

We will be fighting for other captive elephants and other captive animals.

Our goal is to make an impact in our local communities first.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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A GANESH NADAR / Rediff.com