In the wake of growing threat from emerging zoonotic diseases, like the deadly coronavirus, an animal right organisation has urged Union Minister Giriraj Singh to ban elephants from being exhibited or trained for performances, as high prevalence of tuberculosis among them can pose a threat to public health.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) knocked on the doors of the Union Minister of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying and called for his attention to another imminent zoonotic threat -- tuberculosis -- faced by captive elephants in the country.
In a letter, Giriraj Singh was apprised that tuberculosis, which can be transmitted from elephants to humans, has been detected in elephants in the country.
"Many captive elephants in the country suffer from TB," the letter stated. PETA noted that captive elephants who have tested reactive for TB have been used for rides at Amer Fort near Jaipur and that those used in circuses, films, TV shows, festivals, parades, and other spectacles could also be putting the public at risk.
"It is high time we unshackle all elephants and allow them to live freely, as nature intended. Banning their use in performances would bring us closer to that goal and protect the public from this source of tuberculosis. COVID-19 has shown us that zoonotic disease risks must be taken seriously," says PETA India CEO and veterinarian Dr Manilal Valliyate.
Continued use of elephants could have severe consequences for public health, tourism, and the overall economy, as the nation has rightly learned from the current pandemic.
"The Ministry can issue a central notification in the official Gazette of India banning the exhibition and training of elephants as performing animals," the letter written to the minister stated.
Although protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, elephants are unreasonably excluded from the ban imposed by the central government which prohibits the use of various wildlife species, including bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and lions, for performances.
The letter also alluded to various studies which time and again have pointed towards the imminent threat of transmission.
An April 2018 evaluation report of captive elephants in Jaipur by the Animal Welfare Board of India - a central government statutory body - revealed that 10 per cent of the elephants, which are used for rides and other tourist attractions near Jaipur, were found to be reactive in a rapid serological test for TB.
Another scientific study conducted on 600 elephants in Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu published in 2012 found "evidence for high prevalence of asymptomatic tuberculosis infection in Asian elephants in a captive Indian setting".
A study published in 2013 discovered "two probable cases of cross-species transmission of M. tuberculosis between mahouts and captive elephants. First is the case of human-to-elephant (transmission) and second is a case of elephant-to-human transmission of M. tuberculosis".
Besides this, a paper published in 2016 stated, "There is evidence to suggest cross-species tuberculosis transmission," based on one-time screenings of nearly 800 elephants and their mahouts over a period of three years.
In 2008, the Ministry of Defence had decided to prohibit the use of elephants during Republic Day parades by concluding that there are serious safety concerns associated with the risk that frustrated elephants could become violent - and that uncertainties exist regarding the legality of their ownership.
In 2010, the government declared elephants a National Heritage Animal in order to strengthen measures to protect them. Based on a detailed study report that highlighted the suffering endured by captive elephants in India in 2016, AWBI had then recommended that the central government ban the exhibition and training of elephants for performances.