Every now and then, I keep hearing cries from activists to stop the elephant rides in Amer Fort.
These are ten minute rides, from the bottom of the hill to the fort, with a maximum of two riders to an elephant. The rides start around 8:00 a.m. and end by about 11:00 a.m.
Those who call for banning the rides say that it is cruel to the elephants, that they toil in the sun, and that the stone terrain is hard on their feet.
It is a complex issue, so to all those asking for the rides to be stopped, I say, please don't oversimplify it.
There are 4-5 traditional communities in India that work with animals - the madaris with their monkeys, the kalandars with bears, the elephant handlers, the saperas with their snakes, and there are also communities in Rajasthan who specialise in tiger hunting, and so on and so forth. Apart from these, there are many, many others in rural and small-town India who depend on animals for a living. When you advocate a course of action that impacts both people and animals, it is worthwhile to pause and think about not just the moral issues but also the practical ones.
For me, the first and larger dilemma comes when I ask myself - is domestication of animals ethically right? Do humans have the right to capture, tame and use wild animals? Do humans really have the right to tame and use other animals like camels, horses, donkeys, and bullocks? Do humans have the right to even confine dogs, whose natural habitat is the wild, and who would much prefer to run free in their own packs? Taking that a step further, is it correct to restrict the freedom of sheep, pigs, goats etc for slaughter? Is it correct to subject mice, monkeys and rabbits to pain in laboratories?
There are many inspiring schools of Indian thought which say that cruelty to living creatures is not acceptable. We all learn even as schoolchildren about the Boddhisatva who takes monkey form, or elephant form, or bird and other forms, to teach humans compassion for all living creatures. Many religions forbid the killing of animals, and religions like Jainism forbid the use of animal products like leather.
My personal view is that the restriction of freedom of any animals by humans is an unfortunate historical necessity and an unavoidable fact, but is morally incorrect. That applies not just to elephants, but to all animals who are victims of what I call "human conquest". Taking the argument to its logical extension, to me the raising of sheep for slaughter is no different from the raising of elephants for commercial use. I do not like either of these.
However, the moral dimension of the issue is different from the practical dimension.
Practically speaking, the planet probably can't support all of us if no one ate meat. Practically speaking, the camel is the best and perhaps only affordable solution for humans in the desert areas of Rajasthan. Elephants were probably the most effective way to get timber from forests. Dogs were probably the most effective warning mechanism and hunting help for humans. And so on and so forth.
These practicalities change with time and technology. Therefore from a purely practical point of view, leaving the morals/ethics aside, the use of animals has to be constantly re-evaluated to see if it makes sense, and if it is unavoidable as a means to secure human welfare.
When you evaluate the situation in such terms, it becomes obvious that some uses of animals have now outlived their necessity and that it is time to stop it. Some other uses have still enormous practical value, and stopping it would lead to loss of human welfare (for example, oxen for ploughs, or camels for the desert, even with the advent of tractors and jeeps, there is really no cost-effective subsitute).
It is not always easy to make these decisions, and there are definitely shades of grey in these.
But it is quite clear to me that we have only two ways forward:
1. Where the use of animals is unavoidable, regulate and police actively to ensure minimum pain and maximum compassion
2. Where the use of animals is avoidable, phase out with a sensitive and practical understanding of the issues.
The elephants at Amer are merely joyrides, and nowhere in the unavoidable category. So it is quite clear to me that they must be stopped. However, I am not willing to see the elephants at Amber starve to death simply because there is no employment for them forcing their owners to abandon them.
The solution is obvious and two-pronged, but I will state it anyway. We need the following:
a) The creation of a government or private sponsored facility to "retire" the elephants and look after them until they die
b) A program to re-skill and provide gainful employment the mahouts so that their families don't starve
I have just visited the Bear Rescue Centre in Agra where over 275 'dancing bears' have been brought from various places in India. The Bear rescue centre is a permanent home for these bears because they cannot be released into the wild. The kalandar community from whom they have been purchased have been compensated for the bears (Rs 50,000 for a bear) and they have been taught other skills. Some of them work at the centre. Craft products and jewellery made by kalandar women is sold at the centre.
Simply saying "Stop the rides at Amber" is not the solution. Without the necessary support system in place to provide alternative rescue for the elephants, stopping the rides would mean taking away the elephants' only earning.
So if you're visiting Jaipur, and wondering whether to do the ride, I say, until there is a viable alternative for the elephants, do it. If you see mistreatment, report it (there is an Elephant Welfare Office at the fort). If you want to contribute towards their welfare, then donate to wild life rescue organisations who are working in the field. I would recommend these guys: Wildlife SOS (the same guys running the Bear Rescue Centre in Agra). I visited them and was very impressed not just by their understanding of the issues involved, but their very practical approach, collaborating with difficult government departments etc. They have a captive Elephant Welfare Project and are trying to start a sanctuary in Haryana for elephants similar to their Bear facility in Agra. I wish them luck.