In 1998, a young elephant at home in the vast Savannah grasslands of Zimbabwe set off on a journey he hadn’t asked for.
The elephant was an emissary, a gift from the African nation to the Indian president. He was given a name, Shankar, and a new home, an enclosure at the Delhi Zoo.
He was accompanied him on that journey by a female elephant who died in 2005 and since then Shankar has been alone.
It is hard for the African elephant, untamed and solitary by nature, to get along with Asian elephants or respond to human commands. The only other African elephant in India lives far away in Mysuru. And so, in this strange land, all that remained for Shankar was a long, stubborn loneliness.
For centuries, emperors and imperialists have turned animals into a currency of power, or tokens of benevolence.
Now a plea in Delhi’s high courts may send Shankar back home.
A petition – filed by 16-year-old Nikita Dhawan, founder of the non-profit Youth For Animals – alleges that Shankar has been living in isolation for years. It demands that he be removed from the zoo and rehabilitated in a wildlife sanctuary that houses other African elephants.
Dhawan says that through Shankar, she wants to raise awareness about the plight of all captive elephants in the country.
“Indian culture gives elephants an elevated status. They are everywhere, in temples, in private ownership and are embedded in our history,” she said. “Yet, we don’t take care of them.”
Animal rights activists have long advocated for more humane treatment of India’s captive elephants, who live in dismal conditions. Many, owned by private individuals, are used for religious processions, logging activities and sometimes even begging.
Shankar is one of two African elephants in Indian zoos – the second is another male at the Mysuru Zoo in Karnataka state.
Since the death of Shankar’s companion, Bombai, he has been on his own.
The two young African elephants have larger, fan-shaped ears than their Asian counterparts.
For some years, Shankar and Bombai seemed content enough at the zoo, touching, nuzzling and smelling each other.
Shankar, now 26, lives a solitary life where he is kept in a “bleak enclosure of steel posts and metal fences”, Dhawan says. “What really struck us was his condition, he looked terribly sad,” she says.
She decided to fight for his release after visiting the zoo in September and seeing Shankar.