South Asia

India police discover elephant smuggling racket

Indian elephant
Image caption More than 100 elephants have been smuggled out of Assam in the last five years

Police in north-east India have discovered an elephant smuggling ring which is suspected of selling scores of animals in India and Nepal.

Police in Assam said five traders were arrested and some animals due to be taken out of the state were rescued.

The sale and purchase of elephants is illegal in India but police say the trade is flourishing.

An adult elephant fetches nearly 1m to 1.5m rupees ($22,572 to $33,841) while a calf is sold for half that amount.

The rates have sharply increased over the last few years.

Undetected

Assam police spokesman PK Dutta said they recently arrested a man from the state's border areas and his confessions led to more arrests and the rescue of the elephants.

Image caption Police displayed what they say are the smugglers' calling cards (Photo: Bablu Dey)

"Some of these illegal traders even have the audacity to print calling cards saying they deal in elephants," Mr Dutta told the BBC.

"We have arrested a few of them and we are trying to catch some more because we now know all those involved in this illegal trade."

Mr Dutta said a wildlife protection society, Green Heart Nature, helped the police in busting the racket.

"We investigated this illegal trade. When we sighted some of these traders, we tipped off the police and they responded speedily," said Bablu Dey of the Green Heart Nature, based in western Assam's Kokrajhar district.

Mr Dutta is the police superintendent of Kokrajhar, through which the elephants were smuggled into other Indian states.

Rules say all new-born elephants must be fitted with a microchip.

But the gate at Srirampur - on Assam's border with the neighbouring state of West Bengal - does not have a microchip reader so many of the elephants could be taken out undetected.

'Heritage animal'

Police say the arrested traders, who mostly come from Bihar, said that 25 to 30 elephants were annually taken out of the state on an average over the past 15 to 20 years.

Image caption The arrested suspects were paraded before the media (Photo: Bablu Dey)

In the last five years, more than 100 elephants have been smuggled out of Assam, they said.

"They have been sold in fairs like the one at Sonepur in Bihar. In some cases, these elephants have also been taken to Nepal," Mr Dutta said.

The traders generally employ mahouts - elephant riders - to catch and tame the wild elephants mostly on the edge of some forests in Assam, he said.

After that, they strike deals with buyers in other states before smuggling the elephants out, he added.

Police have raided seven locations in the last few days.

Although many of the people involved in the trade have fled, two Assamese traders have been arrested.

The elephant was recently declared as the "heritage animal of India".

Assam's rising population and human encroachment on forests have brought man into direct conflict with the elephants and scores of people and elephants have died.

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