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The costs of Reliance’s wildlife ambitions

The costs of Reliance’s wildlife ambitions
Led by Anant Ambani and supported by the Indian government, Reliance’s effort to shelter abused elephants has transmuted into an enormous wildlife centre – raising concerns over the sourcing of some animals as well as over India’s wildlife management

Welcome to Vantara

FOR MANY, the first inkling came from the save-the-date card, speckled with images of exotic birds and animals: an elephant with a calf, a leopard, an African lion, a tiger, a chital, flamingoes, a peacock, and three parrots winging through the air. Above them all, a minimalist sketch of Ganesh, remover of obstacles in Hindu mythology.

A description of the venue for the pre-wedding celebrations of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant explained why:

In 1997, Reliance built the world’s largest grassroot refining complex near Jamnagar. Over the years, we planted more than ten million trees in this arid region, transforming it into a bustling green community, flourishing with flowers and fruits, and housing Asia’s largest mango orchard!

Taking the spirit of this initiative further, Anant has lovingly nurtured this complex into a haven of care and compassion for over thousands of rescued animals.

Anant is the youngest son of Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries and India’s richest man. He was preparing to wed Radhika, the daughter of the pharma tycoon Viren Merchant. The celebration would take place at the Reliance Greens in Jamnagar, in the state of Gujarat, on the first weekend of March 2024.

FOR THE MOST PART, the card was received with surprise. Who could have imagined that Reliance, one of India’s top two conglomerates and a petrochemical giant, had been quietly rescuing wild animals and housing them at the world’s largest refinery complex.

On 26 February, some two weeks after the card went out, the surprise deepened further. At an interaction with the media, Anant announced Vantara, described in an accompanying statement as “an umbrella initiative to focus on rescue, treatment, care and rehabilitation of injured, abused and threatened animals, both in India and abroad,” created by him and funded by Reliance.

The scale of it left reporters grasping for words. Vantara is home to over 200 elephants; over 300 large cats, including leopards, tigers, lions and jaguars; over 3000 herbivores, such as deer; over 1200 reptiles, including crocodiles, snakes and turtles; and a huge number of birds to boot. It occupies 3000 acres inside Reliance’s Jamnagar refinery complex, and is exceptionally well-provisioned to treat ailing animals. Reporters who got to tour the facility marvelled at an operation theatre and specially-designed ambulances, hydro-therapy pools, an ayurvedic massage centre and kitchen, all created especially for the elephants. “‘Rescue Prince’ Makes India Proud,” Ahmedabad Mirror gushed.

These reports got some things right – but missed many details.

Between 2019 and today, the two principal building blocks of Vantara – the Radhe Krishna Temple Elephant Welfare Trust and Greens Zoological, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre – have indeed amassed an extraordinary assemblage of wildlife, including multiple endangered species. A high-powered committee (HPC) constituted by the High Court of Tripura on 7 November 2022 to recommend whether elephants should be transferred to Jamnagar found that, as of 1 April 2023, the Trust was home to 170 of the animals. As this story was being written, it received twelve more elephants from Tripura, and now had a reported total of more than 200 of the animals.

As for Greens, its annual report for 2022–23 lists 3889 birds and animals in its custody, belonging to 134 species. By February 2024, these numbers had climbed even further. Talking to the press that month, Anant pegged the number of birds and animals at Vantara at over 4700, from an unspecified number of species.

Along the way, Vantara has overtaken the National Zoological Park at Delhi, which had 1114 animals from 100 species in 2020–21 (the latest year for which data is available). Greens now hosts about as many individual birds and animals as New York City’s fabled Bronx Zoo, although from far fewer species. Its 2022–23 annual report lists 857 marsh crocodiles, 229 leopards, 76 “hybrid” lions and 71 tigers, more than 1200 iguanas and 225 African spurred tortoises, not to mention Nile crocodiles and saltwater crocodiles and Siamese crocodiles and gharials, grizzly bears and black bears, African lions and cheetahs, Nile hippopotamuses, chimpanzees, an orangutan and a Komodo dragon, and more.

This dizzying accumulation of animals, many from endangered species, has been accompanied by an incredible willingness to spend. Vantara has poached veterinary and animal-care staff from conservation NGOs across India, and convoys moving animals to Jamnagar are well-provisioned, with vets and an ambulance riding along. “Between Greens and the Trust, there are no less than 80 vets on duty,” a senior animal-care staffer at the Trust told me.

Domesticated elephants are often treated cruelly by their owners, be it in temples or in tourism or in logging operations. Once at Jamnagar, besides the luxury accommodations, they are also given high-quality medical care. In December 2022, the court-appointed HPC, chaired by a former justice of the Supreme Court of India, visited the facility. Its report lists elephants like Leelavati, a circus elephant with second-degree burns, who is being nursed through recovery. The animal-care staffer described an elephant called Nithya, who was found to have a uro-genital tumour. “Urine was backing up, affecting her kidneys,” he said. “The Jamnagar centre spent Rs 2 crore” – roughly USD 240,000 – “removing the tumour.” At least 20 elephants, the animal-care staffer added, had seen their lives extended because they came to Jamnagar. “The world’s best vets – from countries like Portugal, Thailand, etcetera – are there.”

Arraigned against this vast benevolence are equally large concerns. First among them: were all 4700 birds and animals now at Vantara really in need of rescue? Rescue centres are meant to rehabilitate injured and abused birds and animals, including those abused in captivity, and provide lifelong care if they cannot be returned to the wild. As I learnt in my reporting, however, the Trust is also taking in healthy animals. 

This question applies to Greens as well. Among the objectives listed in its 2022–23 annual report is the goal of providing “lifetime care” to animals rescued from human–animal conflict, animals in the custody of the government, and animals housed in zoos loaded beyond their carrying capacities.

A senior forest officer in eastern Assam asked why even healthy elephants from the area were being sent to Jamnagar, well over 3000 kilometres away by road. “Even if elephants have to be removed from logging camps, they should come to the forest department, where they are needed for patrolling,” he said. “Captives will have a better life with us. They are kept in semi-wild conditions, not in sheds but out in the open. They forage. They are better socialised. They even mate with wild elephants.”

Second is the question of whether Jamnagar, even with all its sparkling animal-care facilities, is actually a suitable place for all the animals it holds, including numerous critically endangered species. For one thing, Gujarat is hotter than many parts of India and the world, making it potentially unsuitable for many species from more temperate climates. For another, Greens has been set up on land abutting Reliance’s mammoth petrochemical complex, and the Trust, as the HPC report noted, actually houses elephants inside it. In the words of the HPC, “The [elephant] Camp is located within the green belt of the precincts of the campus of Reliance Industries Limited’s Jamnagar Refinery.”

The Jamnagar complex, stretching across 7500 acres of land, houses a petroleum refinery, a power plant, a butyl rubber plant and many other petrochemical facilities. According to a 2016 circular from the Central Pollution Control Board, both oil refining and petrochemical manufacturing are highly polluting industries. An older CPCB report, from 2000, says that green belts near such industries can mitigate environmental damage by acting as sinks for pollutants. What is more, besides the dangers of pollution, there is also the risk of industrial accidents – such as flash fires.

Third, there is the sheer scale and speed at which Vantara has accumulated animals. As a Goa-based conservationist said, “There is a lot of red tape for wildlife transfers, a lot of conditions that the destination must comply with. How did they source so many animals so quickly?”

“The idea, when all this started, was good,” the animal-care staffer said. That start came at least as early as 2008, but the effort gathered steam in the mid-2010s, when Anant briefly moved to Jamnagar. The animal-care staffer added, “They wanted sick, suffering elephants from places like circuses and temples” – both notorious for mistreating the animals. Many circus elephants, for instance, suffer fractures from being constantly loaded onto and off from trucks. Temple elephants face cruelty in part due to lack of knowledge. As the animal-care staffer explained, “We call them Ganesh-baba and then feed them poori-sabzi, ghee, etcetera” – but these foods are not suitable for the species. So the Trust was set up “to provide life-time care for suffering elephants. That has somehow changed to ‘We want numbers’.”

I spoke to more than 50 people in the course of reporting this story, including individuals who have worked at or been closely associated with Vantara. Most of these insiders, as well as activists, wildlife experts and officials who have been tracking the Trust and Greens, traced this growth in ambition to Anant, who at 28 years of age oversees both entities. “Something that drives my cause is animal welfare,” he said in a recent interview. There are lots of people working for human welfare, he explained, “but in animal welfare, there are few people working. I think I was the chosen one and I was fortunate enough that [with] God’s blessings … that I could do Seva of animals.”

Incidentally, as Anant’s plans have changed, so have India’s laws and regulations on wildlife. Until 2018, the country’s legislation on wildlife discouraged private ownership of endangered species. Over the last five years, however, both the union government in New Delhi, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as various state governments across the country – not to mention the courts – have weakened the earlier legal framework.

The questions around Vantara reach beyond Indian borders too. Vantara’s 26 Spix’s macaws, highly endangered birds native to Brazil that arrived in Jamnagar from a controversial breeding farm in Germany, offer just one example. International wildlife conservation NGOs have complained about the means through which Vantara acquired the macaws, of which only 200 or so remain worldwide.

As the number of animals at Vantara grows, Reliance also faces the question of where to put them. In just five years, Vantara’s plans, which started with a shelter for abused elephants, have expanded to cover healthy elephants, then animals in extremis from other local species, then animals in extremis from across the globe, and now even a zoo. In August 2023, Greens also picked up an operations, maintenance and expansion contract for a recently set-up state zoo at Kevadia, in Gujarat, near the colossal Statue of Unity that the government has been promoting as a tourism destination. Beyond Gujarat, it now owns a tea estate abutting Kaziranga National Park in Assam, bought after talks to partner with the Wildlife Trust of India, which runs a wildlife rescue centre there, reportedly failed.

At Kevadia, a familiar pattern of wilful state mismanagement concluding in privatisation appears to be playing out with biodiversity. As the Chief Wildlife Warden for Gujarat, Nityanand Srivastava, told me, “Wildlife management weak ho gaya hain” – Wildlife management has become weak. “Companies with passion for wildlife should come in.”

How all these pieces fit together is not widely known even inside Vantara. “Very few people there know the full picture,” a former employee of the Trust said. In the absence of information, rumours are rife. “They want a thousand elephants,” the animal-care staffer said. According to an observer, given India’srecent dilution of regulations against wildlife trading, Vantara might eventually set up a breeding farm. Others feel the conglomerate may be planning to create private reserves outside protected areas. Anant has told an interviewer, “What you’ve seen now is only 8-10 percent of my vision.”

I sent questions to Greens for its director, Brij Kishor Gupta. “We are nonprofit organisations established with the sole purpose of promoting animal welfare, their in-situ and ex-situ conservation, research, and education,” Greens replied. “It is important to clarify that none of our organisations were, are, or will ever be breeding farms. Instead, we were, are, and will continue to remain rescue centres, conservation breeding centres, and a home for animals in distress.”

Greens added, “We do not have any ‘targets’ for specific numbers or species; our commitment is to offer rescue, relief, and support conservation efforts as needed. Your allegations attributing numbers or targets is frivolous and baseless.” The facilities at Jamnagar “have been established across over 3000 acres of green belt, following extensive research and scientific evidence assessing various factors such as climate, soil, air, water, overall suitability. In fact, there are many establishments around the green belt, including a large housing complex. Animals at our facility are thriving in all respects.”

Further, “Animals are only housed at our facilities after obtaining necessary permissions and licences from statutory authorities. It is totally false to suggest that any animal was brought to our facility from any other source or for reasons unrelated to our mission.” When it comes to India’s wildlife laws and regulations, “we have not found any provision that has been weakened or that has provided us any purported advantage,” Greens said. “If anything, amendments in the past decade have only tightened these provisions.”

I also sent Greens questions for Anant Ambani. This story will be updated when he responds.

In late February 2024, days before the pre-wedding celebration, Reliance invited some media organisations to Jamnagar to see its animal-care facilities first hand. Besides the adulatory coverage that came out of this tour, the Indian media has barely reported on Vantara’s accumulation of animals as well as lands abutting protected forests, or on the many attendant knock-on effects. Given Reliance’s enormous economic clout and its massive holdings in Indian media companies, there is little mood for hard questions in official circles or the public sphere.

There is no doubt that the condition of wildlife in India is parlous: the country’s forests are shrinking, human–animal conflict is rising, existing facilities to treat and rehabilitate injured animals are by and large dismal. But there is plenty to doubt in whether the best response to human–animal conflict or overcrowding in zoos is to hand animals over to private individuals or corporations for “life-time” care – and also in why Reliance and the Ambanis have been chosen to provide this service.

Until the recent publicity push, Reliance itself largely kept mum on Vantara. A clutch of animal-rights activists and forest officers have been invited to Jamnagar in the last two years or so, but, as a member of one such group told me, the trip was tightly controlled, and the visitors could not see all the relevant facilities. Most of the current and former employees at Greens and the Trust whom I contacted declined to speak, and I was told that employees have been required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Most of the forest department officials I reached out to in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat also declined to comment.

As the Goa-based conservationist pointed out, when Byculla Zoo brought eight Humboldt penguins to Mumbai in 2016 there was a furore over whether it was right to house a species native to the cold climes of South America in sweltering Indian heat. “This time around, hundreds of animals are coming in,” the conservationist said. “And no one is asking any questions.”

The elephants in the room

ON THE NIGHT between 5 and 6 June 2022, a convoy of ten trucks, escorted by two Toyota Fortuner SUVs, was stopped in the town of Pasighat, in Arunachal Pradesh, by members of a local student union. Twice already that year – once in March and again in April – this part of the Indian Northeast had seen convoys loaded with seven elephants each to be driven to theRadhe Krishna Temple Elephant Welfare Trust inJamnagar. The student union members, hearing about one more convoy, had decided to see for themselves what was happening.

There was plenty to puzzle over. The Trust had come into being to care for domestic elephants that were old, sick or abused in captivity, but the elephants in the convoy were all young and healthy sub-adults. If they nonetheless needed to be rescued, other rehabilitation centres lay nearer – one was just some 370 kilometres away, near Kaziranga in Assam. Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, also in Assam, could have hosted these elephants as well, and it lay even closer – just 60 kilometres away from the town of Namsai, in Arunachal Pradesh, where these elephants had been picked up. Instead, they were being trucked across the entire breadth of India to Gujarat, at the peak of an uncommonly hot summer, to an arid place nothing like the rain-soaked, tropical evergreen forests they had known all their lives.

But the convoy had its paperwork in order – transit permits for the elephants, ownership documents and no-objection certificates from the Chief Wildlife Wardens of Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The next morning, after an intervention by the Arunachal government, it resumed its journey.

EXACTLY HOW THE Trust and Greens came into being is not clear. What is clear is that the youngest Ambani son has long liked wildlife. He is said to have kept exotic pets at Sea-Wind, the Ambani clan’s joint home in Mumbai until Mukesh Ambani’s family moved to a mansion of their own, Antilia. More recently, the family has been erecting outbuildings for “[reptiles, marsupials, [and] flightless birds](https://www.ft.com/content/5dcd18d6-8c1e-4d3c-a5b5-93b355e78ead)” at their county estate in the United Kingdom.

At Jamnagar, where Reliance owns swathes of farmland around the petrochemical complex, one set of animals arrived around 2016. At that time, a Gujarat-based observer told me on the condition of anonymity, Anant was living in Jamnagar, and “a small zoo was built for him on 10-15 acres.”

Around the same period, an animal-rights activist who has visited Vantara told me, Maneka Gandhi, then a cabinet minister, contacted Reliance asking if it could house some rescued circus elephants. Gandhi, a member of the BJP, is a prominent animal-rights activist herself, and is the founder of the advocacy group People for Animals. Those elephants came to Jamnagar as well. Which explains why a team from the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT) that visited Greens sometime between 2019 and 2020 found “land and about fifty elephants,” as a person closely associated with the MCBT told me.

I sent questions about this period to Anant Ambani. This story will be updated when he replies. I also sent a query to Gandhi, who responded, “I have been associated with the elephant rescue facility and deeply appreciate the care and vision that have gone into housing, treatment and care of these noble animals.” She added that Vantara is “a serious and mature attempt at wildlife conservation and must be appreciated. Governments would do well to learn from it and replicate it in every state.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic raged, India announced an amnesty scheme for owners of exotic animals to voluntarily disclose possession of any prohibited live species. By 2020, an unknown number of exotics had been housed in Jamnagar, and Reliance’s previously ad hoc arrangements for receiving animals had changed into something far more structured and ambitious.

The Radhe Krishna Trust was registered in 2019. That same year, Greens applied to India’s Central Zoo Authority for permission to operate as a zoo, described as an effort to “complement and strengthen the national efforts in conservation of the rich biodiversity of the region and the country.” It also said Greens would function as a “rescue and rehabilitation centre for orphaned, sick, injured wild animals.” In tandem, interviews began for veterinary and other positions at Greens.

As Reliance updated its wildlife plans, there were swift ripple effects in India’s forests and the communities living near them, as well as in forest bureaucracies and wildlife markets. To understand these, last September I drove into Arunachal Pradesh from Assam, passing the exhausted coal town of Margherita and wide expanses of paddy fields until, near the interstate border, remnants of the great forests that once covered this region loomed into view.

Past the border, running north along the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, I passed more paddy fields and forest fragments, and the odd tea estate. Finally, I arrived at the small town of Namsai.

Since colonial times, this has been logging country. Each of the principal communities living in the area – Singphos, Khamtis and Morans – leased domestic elephants to loggers or the forest department. “Each family had an elephant,” a Singpho elder near Margherita told me. “Having three or four elephants was considered a point of pride.”

The aftermath is well known. The forests thinned and in many places disappeared. In the mid-1990s, a logging ban was imposed, pushing many households into an even poorer state than before. Unable to support their elephants, locals began selling the animals off, mostly to temples in southern India. Since the logging ban, the Singpho elder said, “99 percent of the elephants in this area have been sold.”

Today, some logging mills have reopened, and some logging still continues – most of it illegal. There is still some work for elephants, locals said, but those that remain are now mainly owned by a few relatively affluent families.

This is where the thorny questions begin. Between March and June 2022, according to a petition filed in the Supreme Court of India by the animal-rights activist Mubina Akhtar, 26 elephants were transported from Namsai to Jamnagar. Such elephant transfers continued into the following year too. In April 2023, locals in Tinsukia, in Assam, halted a 49-vehicle convoy ferrying 25 elephants from Namsai to the Trust. Another local in Namsai, who did not want to be identified, told me in October 2023 that another 40 are waiting to be dispatched.

Put together, that makes for 91 elephants destined for the Trust from Namsai. According to the Trust, all of these are captive elephants whose owners, unable to maintain them, had bequeathed them to Jamnagar. In January 2019, however, India’s environment ministry had pegged the number of captive elephants in all of Arunachal Pradesh at 109. So has the Trust picked up 91 of these – and were so many of these captives in Namsai alone?

Understanding such transfers requires a minor detour into India’s captive-elephant laws. In 1972, with the passage of the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), the country outlawed ownership of Schedule 1 animals, defined as belonging to endangered species that need rigorous protection and so cannot be hunted or traded. But, in 2002, an exception was made for elephants to accommodate existing captive individuals. At the same time, to choke off the trade in elephants and stop any new supply of the animals from the wild, the government began laying down a series of conditions.

One: the capture of wild elephants was banned. Two: the commercial sale of elephants was outlawed. With that, one could come to own an elephant only through inheritance, or via gift or donation.

Three: anyone acquiring an elephant, especially a young elephant, had to prove its heredity from an already domesticated mother. Here, an elaborate protocol gradually came into being. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior environment ministry official stationed in the Northeast sketched out the system. Whenever a female captive elephant becomes pregnant, the owner has to report it to the divisional forest officer. From there, the local veterinary officer has to confirm the pregnancy, and return soon after delivery to confirm the birth, along with a local forest officer. When the calf turns three, blood samples are taken from the mother and calf to be sent to a designated lab to confirm parentage through DNA testing.

As the final step, once the testing confirms captive parentage, the calf is microchipped. Introduced in 2002, microchipping was meant as a fourth curb on the illicit elephant trade. Despite the WLPA, some of the trade had continued, with false documents of provenance and commercial transactions masked through instruments like gift deeds. The resulting demand was still feeding wild captures. Microchipping was the government’s response. It implanted all captive elephants with microchips, each with an unique number. “If any elephant was left out, it would be considered illegal,” explained Tana Tapi, the former park director of Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, who oversaw the microchipping exercise in the state. Confiscation by the state would follow.

In addition to all of this, there was also a fifth protection. Moving elephants required approval from the Chief Wildlife Warden of every state the animals were trucked through.

Through these measures, India largely staunched the elephant trade. By 2010, the number of elephants transported from Assam had fallen to just six, down from 77 in 2006, according to a much-cited 2011 paper on illegal sales and transfers by Chaturbhuja Behera, a regional deputy director in the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. The numbers at Bihar’s Sonepur mela, a traditional hub of the elephant trade, had also declined. “Fear psychosis has trickled into the traders and the violations are slowly falling,” Behera wrote.

Pointing out that some trade still survived under the guise of non-commercial transactions, Behera emphasised the need for “complete inventorization and microchipping, and absolute compliance with guidelines.” To stop the elephant trade completely, he added, “the provision of transfer” will have to be abolished.

IN MAY 2022, Kamno was donated to Greens as a seven-year-old sub-adult. While Kamno’s owner, Chow Molaseng Namshum of Namsai, claimed to have had the elephant since its birth, Kamno had not been microchipped. Intriguingly, he also had a hole in his right ear. The Centre for Research on Animal Rights, headed by the academic Alok Hisarwala, wrote to the forest departments of Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat to point out that perforating the right ear is “a standard training practice to rope and train a young – mostly wild captured – elephant, used commonly in Assam.”

Nonetheless, Namshum managed to get Kamno microchipped on 21 May 2022. On 25 May, the Arunachal Pradesh government issued an ownership certificate for the elephant. Just one day later, Namshum wrote to the Trust asking it to adopt Kamno. Even before the Trust wrote back, he applied to the state forest department seeking permission to transfer the elephant to Jamnagar.

The Trust wrote back accepting the elephant on 27 May. After a two-day weekend, on 30 May, Gujarat issued a no-objection certificate for the transfer of ten elephants, including Kamno, to the Trust. The very next day, Arunachal Pradesh permitted Namshum to transport Kamno.

It was a breathtaking sequence of efficient bureaucracy and planning. Only, as Hisarwala wrote in his letter, it “remains implausible that Mr Namshum would undertake the administrative trouble of acquiring Kamno only to donate him for free the very next day.”

I messaged Namshum on his two phone numbers to ask for a clarification. This story will be updated when he responds.

Kamno’s is not an isolated instance. Similar patterns – elephants born after 2003 but not registered, adult or sub-adult elephants microchipped late in life, blindingly fast paperwork from state governments – show up with some other elephants taken to Jamnagar as well.

On 12 February 2018, the office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) for Arunachal Pradesh issued ownership certificates for four elephants – Unni, Laxmi, Hari Prasad and Lakhi Prasad – despite the youngest one, Unni, being seven years and three months old. Of the rest, Laxmi was 18, Hari Prasad 30, and Lakhi Prasad 34. Interestingly, Laxmi and Unni also had holes in the right ear.

Three months later, on 25 May, the PCCF’s office issued an ownership certificate for another elephant, Ai-Long, despite it being 18 years old. On the same day, it also issued an ownership certificate for eight-year-old Kanchi. All these elephants were taken to Jamnagar.

Since 2019, forest officers in Assam have also seen some curious patterns play out with microchipping. At first, they began finding convoys where some elephants did not have microchips. “In the case of Laxmi and Unni, despite the paperwork listing microchip numbers, as many as six scanners were used but no chips were found,” said a senior forest department officer in Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, who did not want to be identified. By 2022, forest officers were seeing a new pattern: juvenile and adult elephants with microchips inserted less than a month before the application to register their ownership, as with Kamno. That same year, the senior forest officer told me, forest officers also encountered a 17-year-old elephant with a one-month-old microchip.

Yet other elephants had microchips which could not be verified. For instance, the chairperson of the court-appointed HPC, Justice Deepak Verma, wrote a letter on 4 April 2023 to Ngilyang Tam, the PCCF and Chief Wildlife Warden of Arunachal Pradesh, seeking the transfer of 20 elephants from Namsai to the Radhe Krishna Trust. The animals included two elephants whose microchip numbers could not be verified.

These slip-ups reveal a larger pattern of rot setting into elephant conservation in India. The WLPA had imposed a blanket prohibition on all wildlife transfers of a commercial nature – but, looking to discourage trafficking, it made an exception for non-commercial transfers of elephants for three purposes: education, scientific research and scientific management. It also banned wild captures, insisted on scrupulous reporting of captive births, introduced DNA testing and microchipping, required multiple approvals for elephant transfers, and created provisions for confiscating any unregistered elephants except those captive-born after 1 April 2003. Between these curbs on demand and supply, India largely choked off the elephant trade. Over recent years, however, the BJP-led national government has greatly weakened this architecture.

In 2021, the government’s draft Wild Life Protection (Amendment) Bill said any person with a valid ownership certificate should be allowed to transfer and transport live elephants with permission from the relevant state governments. Among the restrictions this would dilute was Section 43 of the WLPA, which strictly regulated the transfer of elephants. After a Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Jairam Ramesh, of the opposition Congress party, recommended a relaxation of the rules specifically for religious purposes, the union government brought in a sweeping amendment that allowed the transfer of captive elephants for “religious or any other purpose”.

This was hugely problematic. The amendment legalised temples’ appetite for elephants, even though multiple investigations have established that they often treat captive elephants with great brutality. Beyond this, as pointed out in The Leaflet, “The new proviso creates a legal pathway to encourage the further commercialisation and transfer of elephants through the vague wording of ‘religious or any other purpose’.”

Also done away with was the need for approvals from Chief Wildlife Wardens all along the route of an elephant’s transport. The WLPA 2022 says elephant transfers will be governed by terms and conditions defined by the union government. With that, power over transfers pooled with the union government – and the Chief Wildlife Wardens from the states of origin and destination for any elephant being moved. The role of other state governments ended.

This was bad law-making. “Amendments should improve the law,” Debadityo Sinha, who leads on environmental matters for the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in Delhi, said of the amendment. “It shouldn’t be diluted. That is the principle of non-regression. You cannot bring a new rule which is against the mandate of the law.”

That left wild elephants with three protections – proof of heredity, microchipping, and the ban on wild captures. Microchipping was already proving porous, as the forest officers in Assam had learnt. And the system of proof of heredity is now showing weaknesses as well.

While in Namsai, seeking to understand the origins of the elephants sent to Jamnagar, I visited the office of the divisional forest officer for the area. An official there, who did not want to be identified, said the forest department did not have updated records on the local elephant population. “The last time we did a wild elephant census was in 2017,” he explained. Even for local captive elephants, the department did not have updated records. “We do not have those records because there is no reporting from the owners,” the official said.

I asked how, in the absence of reliable microchips and an updated inventory, the forest department was ascertaining heredity. “When these elephants were being sent, we got an affidavit from each owner saying that this elephant is the child of that elephant,” the official said. “The documents we wanted were affidavit-cum-declaration that the calf was born to a captive mother, mother’s registration certificate, the calf’s birth certificate, succession of ownership, and gaonbura’s letter” – that is, a letter from the local village head.

The affidavit, in other words, had replaced the defined process of home visits and DNA testing.

“What is an affidavit?” the environment ministry official stationed in the Northeast said. “Those get made for 200 rupees. You need to follow the process plus have DNA proof.”

I emailed and messaged Tam to ask him to respond, and also directed questions on the provenance of the elephants from Namsai to Anant Ambani. This story will be updated when they reply.

“With respect to elephants, all transfers up to 1 April 2023 have been scrutinised by a Supreme Court High Powered Committee,” Greens wrote in its email response. “Since that date, an elephant is housed at our facility only with the permission or approval from this committee, which is headed by a retired Supreme Court of India judge, highest functionaries from the Environment Divisions of the Central and respective State Governments, and experts. Elephants are sheltered at our facility only after due permissions.”

“WE HAVE RESCUED all these elephants from some kind of trauma,” Anant Ambani told India Today when he took the television channel on a tour of Vantara in February. “Mainly from circuses, begging, parades, logging and timber industry, and from mahouts who cannot afford to keep them.” Earlier, in June 2022, Tam told the media that the state government had reviewed all necessary documents before allowing elephants to be moved from its jurisdiction to Gujarat.

Activists and news reports, however, have challenged these claims.

In 2022, activists in Tripura, also in the Indian Northeast, went to court to challenge the transfer to the Trust of 23 elephants from Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. In response, the High Court of Tripura set up the high-powered committee under the retired Supreme Court judge Deepak Verma, and asked it to study whether the Trust can house these captive elephants for “lifelong care”. In its report, the HPC lavished praise on the Trust, said the 23 elephants had not been obtained through commercial transactions, and asserted that local temperatures at Jamnagar were not too hot for elephants – a claim subsequently contested by activists.

Despite the elephants being housed inside the refinery complex, the HPC report did not allude to local air quality or other possible risk factors arising from proximity to such a facility. Taking the High Court’s order as its terms of reference, the HPC also did not explore whether wildlife welfare should be entrusted to private individuals, or compare the Trust with other wildlife rescue centres, including those closer to Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. Instead, the HPC asked the Trust to ramp up its capacity for taking in rescued elephants. 

Even as the HPC worked on its report, the Supreme Court stepped in to extend the HPC’s “jurisdiction and scope … throughout the territory of India.” With that, any complaint about an elephant in extremis anywhere in the country goes to the HPC – which, activists told me, usually directs the animal to Jamnagar.

Three animal-rights organisations – People for Animals (Goa), the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations and the Centre for Research on Animal Rights – wrote to Verma in April 2023 asking the HPC to announce the process it will be following each time it receives an application for transfer, and saying its decisions should be open to public scrutiny.

I wrote to Verma asking for clarifications. The counsel for the HPC replied on behalf of Verma to say, “HPC is indeed dutybound to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, however it is under no obligation to answer any media inquiries.”

Meanwhile, local media in the Northeast has reported claims that middlemen are paying to get elephants for the Trust. The local in Namsai added that his area had a middleman. In tandem, he added, the price of elephants is rising. “The going rate for elephants was between 15 and 20 lakh rupees,” he told me. “It’s between 25 and 30 lakhs now.”

Some of the elephants being procured, he said, are captive local animals. Others are being brought in from Assam, purportedly for work, but sold once in Namsai. “While being sold, however, these are shown as elephants from Arunachal,” he said. A third set of elephants, he said, are wild-caught sub-adults. “Herds are being separated near the border, and then the sub-adults are chased into Arunachal near Jairampur.” There they are tamed, he said, and held pending the completion of paperwork.

Greens’ emailed reply said, “We vehemently deny the allegation of payment for Elephants … We categorically refute any allegations of financial impropriety related to elephants or any other animals.” It added that there have been numerous “baseless, frivolous, and whimsical allegations made against us since 2022,” which “have been thoroughly examined by various Indian courts. Time and again, these courts have found no evidence or merit in such claims.”

In the past too, as in depositions before the High Court of Tripura, Reliance’s lawyers have described such charges as “fanciful allegations made without any supporting material whatsoever.” It is true that no one has seen videos of elephants being captured and the same elephants then being loaded onto a truck bound for Jamnagar. At the same time, several elephants have been registered (and microchipped) late in life, some of them have wounds resembling those typically incurred while taming wild elephants, and, instead of doing DNA testing, the Arunachal Pradesh government has relied on affidavits from owners to certify sub-adults as captive-born.

I directed questions to Anant Ambani about these patterns. This story will be updated when he replies.

There is also the repeated procurement of elephants for Jamnagar from Namsai, and from Arunachal Pradesh more generally. “Namsai is home to the Khamti tribe,” an Indian Forest Service officer from Arunachal Pradesh said. “Their main profession is elephant capture and training. Anyone who wants an elephant will tell them. They catch and give.” In addition, this region, around the towns of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, is also home to an industry of elephant traffickers. Veteran elephant traffickers like Munna Khan and Mumtaz Siddiqui hail from here.

Arunachal Pradesh, as Hisarwala has written, is the only state still handing out private ownership papers for elephants – even as a case over the legality of gifting elephants is pending before the Supreme Court.

“On the face of it, everything is legal,” a senior forest officer in eastern Assam said. “The chips match. There is an ambulance with these animals. They have the ownership certificate and the transfer permit. But they are not able to prove maternity.”

The only way to settle this question, he said, is DNA testing. “The DNA of all elephants at Jamnagar should be collected – and tested against that of the captive elephants in this country. There should be a hundred-percent match. Any young elephant whose DNA doesn’t match cannot be captive-born.”

In the meantime, Assam has stepped up vigilance of its elephant herds. “We have 6000 wild elephants,” said the forest officer. “Patrols accompany our elephant herds but we have now told our guards to monitor more granularly. It’s not enough to keep an eye on the herd. We have to know how many sub-adults each has.”

Anant’s Ark

OF COURSE it is not just elephants.

In communications – whether social, like the invite for the pre-wedding celebration, or official, like representations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – Vantara has been described as a shelter for wild animals in extremis. The media statement released during Anant Ambani’s announcement of Vantara says: “Vantara has also taken part in foreign rescue missions in countries like Mexico, Venezuela etc. It recently brought in several big animals answering a call from Central American zoo authorities.”

This assertion has been echoed by others: the HPC report, for instance, says the Trust has “rescued Tigers from foreign countries during Pandemic (sic).”

But were all the 3889 birds and animals from 134 species that Greens reported having as of March 2023 – up from 1873 in 2021–22 and 68 in 2020–21 – in extremis?

With the exception of elephants, endangered species cannot be privately owned in India. And so, Greens and the Trust have sourced these birds and animals from other sources. Greens’ emailed reply said, “Animals are accepted at our facilities solely from recognised zoos, rescue centres, conservation breeding centres, statutory governmental departments, and elephant owners registered as per the provisions of the Wild Life Protection Act.”

Greens’ 2022–23 annual report points to numerous sourcing channels. One is from private entities – like the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots in Germany, and Mexico’s Fauna Zoo de Mexico. A second channel is from state-owned zoos, like Sakkarbaug Zoo in the Gujarati city of Junagadh and the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati, which have transferred some of their stock to Jamnagar. A third channel, also from state-owned zoos, involves some zoos sending exotic species seized while they were being trafficked.

A fourth channel is from state forest departments, which send wildlife ensnared in human–animal conflict to Jamnagar.

Within these arrangements, claims of rescue need a closer look.

TAKE THE 857 marsh crocodiles, or muggers, at Greens. The animals, from a threatened species indigenous to the Subcontinent, were sourced from the MCBT. The organisation, set up in 1976 after the Tamil Nadu state government asked the herpetologist Rom Whitaker to run a breeding and release programme for crocodiles to boost their numbers in the wild, has been struggling ever since an Indian government order in 1994 stopped the wild release of captive-born crocodiles. By 2020, the MCBT, which had started with 30 muggers, had seen their numbers rise to 1820.

“We had surplus animals we were trying desperately to give away,” the person closely associated with the MCBT said, on condition of anonymity. Sometime between 2019 and 2020, the person added, Whitaker reached out to Anant Ambani. “At that time, all Reliance had was the land and about 50 elephants.” After Whitaker met Ambani, the latter “was very keen on the idea. After seeing the area available, it was decided to move a thousand crocodiles after the enclosure is prepared.”

In 2022, the crocodiles began to be moved. “The animals were moved in batches,” a former official at the MCBT, who asked not to be identified, said. “Reliance provided air-conditioned trucks. The team at the MCBT packed these individuals.” Gradually, over the year, 850 muggers were moved.

The former official praised the enclosure built for the crocodiles at Jamnagar, calling it world-class. “They are all happy crocs,” he said, adding that he was relieved since, for a couple of decades, the MCBT had been “pretty desperate”.

Greens is also trying to obtain, in partnership with the privately-owned Ostok Sanctuary in Mexico, 60 hippos from Colombia. These animals have a chequered past. Brought to Colombia from Africa in the late 1980s by the cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, four hippos escaped from his country estate in 1993. They went feral, living and breeding in the Magdalena River. Their number now stands at 150 – the largest population of hippos outside Africa. Declared invasive in 2022, they were set to be culled before Greens and Ostok intervened.

Jamnagar also now hosts a reported 250 big cats rescued from Mexico. Most of these animals were seized in 2022 from the Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation, a self-styled rescue and rehabilitation centre founded by the businessman Eduardo Serio. Black Jaguar-White Tiger charged stiff fees from anyone who wanted to pet big cats – and, as critics like the animal-rights organisation PETA have said, bred and trafficked them as well. In 2022, Serio’s foundation was shut down after distressing footage emerged of starving, emaciated animals that had, in some cases, begun eating themselves. Greens stepped in to offer them a new home.

With the crocodiles from the MCBT, Colombia’s cocaine hippos and the big cats from Black Jaguar-White Tiger, it is easy to see Greens’ interventions as acts of rescue. Elsewhere, things might not be as clear cut.

In its annual report for 2022–23, Greens lists the zoos and other institutions it has obtained its birds and animals from. These include private organisations from outside India – Fauna Zoo de Mexico; Al Busan Zoological Centre in the United Arab Emirates; Kangaroo Animals Shelter, also in the UAE; the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots in Germany; and Animal Farm Guyana Zoo, in the South American country of Guyana.

Unlike the MCBT, which is a conservation organisation set up to run a state-sanctioned breed-and-release programme, Fauna Zoo de Mexico, Al Busan Zoological Centre, the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP), Kangaroo Animals Shelter and Animal Farm Guyana Zoo are private firms.

Registered under the ownership of Mary Linda Quezada Libien, Fauna Zoo de Mexico has supplied animals to the likes of Eduardo Serio, the founder of the Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation. Mary Linda Quezada Libien’s name also shows up on Trademo, a supply-chain website tracking global shipments, as one of the principal suppliers to Greens.

I could not find an Al Busan Zoological Centre in the UAE. There is, however, an Al Bustan Zoological Centre in the country. This, too, is a privately-owned breeding centre, with an interest in “endangered, exotic and endemic” species. (I asked Greens to clarify if Al Busan and Al Bustan Zoological Centre are the same. This story will be updated when it responds.) ACTP is a privately-owned breeding centre as well. As multiple investigations have shown, it has almost cornered the world’s supply of some highly endangered parrot species, and its business model remains opaque. As noted in one report, “How many birds are bred versus collected or sold nobody knows, because ACTP does not publicly disclose its finances or structure.”

Kangaroo Animals Shelter is also a live-animal exporter. Its biggest clients, according to Trademo, are Greens and the Radhe Krishna Trust. Animal Farm Guyana Zoo is also a wildlife exporter.

India signed on to CITES, which regulates the international wildlife trade to protect species under threat, in 1976. CITES divides species into three appendices according to their risk of extinction. Commercial trade is completely prohibited for birds and animals in Appendix 1, which lists species under the greatest threat, except when dealing with commercial breeders registered under and compliant with CITES.

Among the birds and animals Greens sourced from the five private organisations outside India, roughly a dozen species are listed under Appendix 1. None of these firms, however, shows up in the CITES list of registered captive breeders. According to a wildlife-crime researcher, there is only one permitted route for acquiring Appendix 1 species from non-CITES breeders: through non-commercial transactions for non-commercial purposes.

“All international rescue efforts are of help to animals in need or help in their conservation,” Greens’ emailed reply said, adding that all animals “received from facilities abroad are on a non-commercial basis, with prior confirmation from CITES Management and statutory authorities of both countries.”

According to the wildlife-crime researcher, in September 2023 Greens also sought permission from India’s environment ministry to source a whopping 531 animals – including 50 hybrid lions, 40 hybrid tigers, 40 cheetahs, 10 servals and 20 giraffes – from Akwaaba Lodge and Predator Park, a privately-owned wildlife park in South Africa. Akwaaba, set up by a South African of Indian descent named Naseer Ahmed Cajee, is part of South Africa’s infamous captive-bred lion industry.

Unfair Game, a 2020 book on this industry, describes Akwaaba as a “supplier of big cats to the canned hunting industry and to the illegal tiger and lion bone industry.” The book shows that captive-lion farms are foul inventions, and periodically source animals from the wild. Every stage of a big cat’s life is monetised. After being offered to be petted as cubs and being shown off on lion walks, lions are then killed in canned hunting, where trophy hunters shoot a cat trapped in an enclosure. After death, their bones, skin and flesh are all sold.

Shortly after the transfer of its animals to Greens, Akwaaba downed shutters. In response to questions, Cajee said his organisation “operated as a park and [was] not in the business of animals for commercial purposes.” He added that Akwaaba had slipped into losses when tourism, a key income source, was decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and was no longer able to maintain its animals. To save them, Cajee said, and since he feared the prospect of South Africa banning the captive-lion industry, he had reached out to Greens. He added that the transaction was CITES compliant.

“We have rescued animals from all across, from hunting lodges in South Africa and other places,” Anant Ambani told the press in February. I asked Greens how it ensures these animals are not wild-caught, and how it ensures that the entities it sources from will not go on to acquire more wildlife to replenish the animals they send on. Greens replied, “Our organisation is strongly opposed to any disturbance of wildlife, whether its illegal trade, poaching or targeted destruction of habitat.”

At least one of Greens’ international transactions has been accused of violating CITES norms. This involves the Spix’s macaw, one of the world’s rarest birds and an Appendix 1 species. By the mid-1990s, this blue-coloured macaw had vanished from its wild habitat in Brazil, mainly due to illegal trade fed by demand from private collectors. The number of individuals in captivity dropped perilously low as well – just 39 were left by 1996. Today, that number stands at 204, almost all of them with the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots.

In 2020, 52 of these 204 were flown from ACTP’s German base to Brazil, which is trying to reintroduce the species into their native habitat. In 2022–23, however, ACTP shipped 26 individuals to Greens – along with eight vulnerable St Vincent Amazons and four endangered Lear’s macaws. It was a puzzling decision: with precious few specimens of the Spix’s macaw in existence and a reintroduction programme underway in Brazil, why were 26 birds sent to a region that is not a natural habitat for them – exposing an endangered species to a unfamiliar climate – and, to boot, to a centre at the world’s biggest petrochemical refinery?

Before a key CITES meeting in November 2023, a group of wildlife conservation NGOs raised a complaint over potential violations of CITES norms in various transfers involving ACTP, including those to Greens, which had been cleared by European authorities.

At the meeting, ACTP and Greens justified the transfer stating the latter is setting up a conservation breeding centre. But Brazil’s delegation submitted that the country “had never approved the transfer of specimens” to Jamnagar, and pointed out that Greens “doesn’t formally participate in the Spix’s Macaw Population Management programme developed by the Brazilian government.” Any Spix’s macaw currently in the possession of international breeders, it said, must be sent “primarily to institutions located in Brazil, the country of their origin and from where the species was illegally removed … Any need to fragment the species for ‘risk diversification’ should prioritize sending it to institutions in Brazil, which are fully capable of implementing the management programme of the species.”

When I asked ACTP about this, its founder, Martin Guth, replied that the organisation was working “to mitigate the biosecurity risk faced by ACTP in its entire inventory being situated in one facility and to create a facility for housing a second reserve population.” The Spix’s macaws have been loaned to Greens as part of the breeding programme, Guth explained, and remain “in the management program for Spix’s macaw” under ACTP. He emphasised that there is “no commercial purpose or transaction for the same.”

Guth also said that, in 2022, ACTP had run its plans by ICMBio – the administrative arm of the Brazilian environment ministry, which he described as the competent authority in this case – and received its consent. Following the NGOs’ complaint, he said, “a department of the Brazilian government, not ICMbio, … released a statement in light of the above statements” at the CITES meeting. After discussions, Guth maintained, the Brazilian delegation dropped its concerns.

“All the critics have an agenda to keep themselves relevant and secure funding,” he added. “ACTP stands for conservation of threatened parrots and it will continue to conserve.” Guth said that “ACTP takes strong except (sic) to the slanderous language of it being coined a breeder selling to wealthy collectors. This demeans the whole of ACTP. Ask yourself this question, which breeder in the world has released such a large number of near extinct birds back in the wild and has another release planned.”

Greens, too, said it had established a “breeding loan agreement” with ACTP that was “executed with the approval of the relevant Brazilian department.” At the CITES meeting, it added, “the uninformed stand of another Brazilian Department that you have quoted out of context was clarified by German and EU CITES Management Authorities, effectively closing the matter.” Greens said it has also stated publicly to CITES that “we are working for the conservation of endangered species and are executing breeding programs under which the animals (including Spix’s Macaws) would be released back in their natural habitat.”

“If ACTP was moving species to not have them all in one place, it should have moved them closer to the country of origin,” the wildlife-crime researcher said. “Reintroduction would be easier that way. Why did they choose India – that too, an arid state and near a refinery?”

Guth said ACTP had chosen to work with Greens because it offered some of the best facilities and experts in the world. 

IN THE LAST five years, Jimmy Borah has seen the illegal wildlife trade in the Indian Northeast change in radical ways.

Until 2018, most of the trade used to originate in India and flow out to countries like Myanmar, China and Vietnam. There was very little smuggling into India. “That flow has reversed now,” said the senior manager at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based NGO working on deterring the illegal wildlife trade. “By 2022–23, we had seen 20-22 cases where exotics came into India.” Most of these, he said, entered India through Moreh in the state of Manipur and Champhai in the state of Mizoram, both of which abut Myanmar.

The species being trafficked have also changed as well. “In the past, people came in with things like pangolin scales, etcetera,” Borah said. “Now, we have kangaroos, reptiles, birds and primates from South-East Asia and Latin America coming in.”

And it is not old smuggling networks bringing these animals in. New supply chains have emerged, and how they work is different as well. “In the past, we got information in exchange for money,” the environment ministry official working in the Northeast said. “With these exotics, informers no longer ask for money. They just tell us where the shipment can be found. We go and catch them.”

Once caught, these birds and animals are sent to the nearest state-owned zoo – usually in Guwahati, in the case of Assam, or in Aizawl, in the case of Mizoram. Smaller zoos, whenever unable to house these captures, also forward seized specimens to Guwahati.

What happens next is another recent change. “Most of these ‘rescued’ animals … land in the Assam State Zoo and from there (are) relocated to Jamnagar,” the Assam-based RTI activist Dilip Nath told NE Now. He also alluded to a “sudden rise” in wildlife rescues.

“The exotics reaching Guwahati are in a bad shape,” the senior animal-care staffer at the Trust said. “They have been in a crate, and on the road, all the way through Burma, starting from farther away yet.” These animals are “stabilised” at the Guwahati zoo, he explained, and then sent on to Jamnagar. 

These claims are echoed by other activists and wildlife officials. “Guwahati zoo tells the state forest department it cannot look after these animals,” the environment ministry official said. “After that, the state government says it knows a facility which can look after these – Greens. That is how these birds and animals have been moved.”

I asked about this in my questions to Anant Ambani via Greens. I also sent questions to M K Yadava, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam until April last year. This story will be updated when they respond.

In 2022–23 alone, the Assam State Zoo sent 64 reptiles and mammals to Jamnagar, as listed in Greens’ annual report. With the exception of two rhinos, none of the other animals – all from rare and endangered species – show up in the Guwahati zoo’s inventory for 2021–22. Does this mean the zoo received these animals in 2022–23 and sent them to Jamnagar in the same year?

Three species on the list turn up in news reports on a seizure on 19 October 2022, when Assam forest officials found 13 exotic primates in Cachar district. A report from ANI quotes the divisional forest officer saying, “We have recovered 7 Moor Macaque, five Lesser Spot Nosed Guenon and one Debrazza’s monkey species.” All of them, said the officer, would be sent to the Guwahati zoo. Greens’ annual report records the arrival just 19 days later, on 7 November 2022, of one De Brazza’s monkey, four lesser spot-nosed guenons, and eight Moor macaques from the Guwahati zoo.

A senior official in Assam’s forest department said these transfers have been sanctioned by Yadava. A former director of the Assam State Zoo, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the number of transfers from the zoo has increased in recent years. 

I wrote to Yadava asking if the transferred primates were the same individuals that had been seized. I also asked him about the origins of the other 51 birds and animals sent to Jamnagar – and if exotics had been sent to any other zoo. This story will be updated when he responds.

“To check trafficking, zoos have to show the origins of every bird and animal they house,” the environment ministry official working in the Northeast said. “When trafficked species are first sent to Guwahati, a paper trail gets created for them.” From there, it is easy for any private collector to say these animals came from a state zoo.

In its reply, Greens said, “We do not treat animals as commodities, nor do we engage in any commercial trading involving animals. We also do not engage with animals living in the wild. We exclusively provide support and assistance to captive animals owned or possessed by registered zoos or similar organisations.”

The Guwahati zoo is not the only state-owned zoo sending wildlife to Greens. In 2020–21, through seven transactions, Greens received 60 leopards from Junagadh’s Sakkarbaug Zoo – in addition to two from Guwahati. The following year, it reported a total of 51 wildlife transactions, which included another 51 leopards from Sakkarbaug. In addition, it also sourced birds and animals from the customs department of Maharashtra, the Maharashtra forest department, Dhauladhar Nature Park in Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland Zoological Park, and the National Zoological Park at Delhi.

Greens’ reply said, “Animals entrusted to us by enforcement agencies are housed only until the conclusion of the relevant legal proceedings or until repatriation proceedings by the authorities are concluded.”

In 2022–23, Greens listed a total of 160 transactions where it received wildlife. A subset of these involved birds and animals from state zoos in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Karnataka, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Nagaland.

In India, zoos can exchange animals. The annual reports of zoos like those in Guwahati and Aizawl, for instance, list the animals these institutions have given and received. Several of these transactions are direct swaps. Others are three-way swaps: A gives to B, who gives to C, who gives to A. Greens, however, has only received shipments. It has not sent any birds or animals out in exchange.

How this is possible is made clear in a letter from Greens’ director, Brij Kishor Gupta, to Mercy Bella, the director cum conservator of forest at the Nandanvan Jungle Safari in Naya Raipur, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Writing on 30 July 2023, Gupta says it has come to Greens’ notice that Nandanvan Jungle Safari has “surplus” sloth bears and four-horned antelopes, or chousinghas. He continues, “You are requested to kindly convey your consent for providing sloth bear … in the ratio 1:1 and four-horned antelope … in the ratio 2:2 which are surplus with your zoo and you will spare with GZRRC, Jamnagar” – that is, Greens Zoological, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre.

Gupta also writes, “Most of the animals in the GZRRC is (sic) being housed in the Rescue Centre and we are not allowed to give on exchange with other zoos. However, we have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds that can be made available for the jungle safari.”

Similar arrangements are apparent elsewhere. The Guwahati zoo, for instance, sent black panthers, and received two Isuzu vehicles in turn.

Can all these transfers be considered rescues? For instance, Sakkarbaug Zoo sent 101 leopards to Jamnagar between March 2021 and March 2023. Why did it have so many captive leopards? Were they unwell? Had they attacked humans or livestock? 

Gir National Park, some 200 kilometres from Jamnagar, “has an extraordinary number of leopards and lions,” a retired forest officer in Gujarat said. “It has about 700-800 leopards. In all, there will be about 1400 big cats. Some of these cats are now being sent to Jamnagar.” 

India does have hundreds of trapped leopards kept in awful conditions, and many natural habitats where, especially as forests shrink, human–animal conflict continues to rise. A clutch of states, however, have learnt to minimise the fallouts – some have announced fresh protected areas, others have introduced early warning systems and prompt compensation for livestock lost to wildlife.

The alternative response, instead of doing the hard work of protecting forests and wildlife, is to label animals as “surplus” or “problems” and trap them. In the past, as biologists like Vidya Athreya have found, these animals have been released elsewhere. 

Now, they are being sent to Jamnagar. Take Gajraj. In November 2020, this male tusker and his small group – two adult females and two sub-adults – was relocated to Botezari, a remote forest camp in Tadoba, in the state of Maharashtra, after complaints of human–elephant conflict. The elephants seemed to be settling down fine, but, in December 2021, they were all sent to Jamnagar. “There is nothing wrong with a wild elephant being aggressive,” a Bengaluru-based biologist said. “Why did the male tusker need to be moved?” Just as pertinently, why were the two females and two sub-adults moved as well?

When I contacted Sunil Limaye, the CWW of the state at that time, to ask for clarification, he told me to approach the office of the serving CWW of Maharashtra.

This approach not only consigns animals to a life in captivity – and weakens wild gene pools – it also allows forest officials to ignore the worsening health of the ecosystems they are meant to protect.

“What about snow leopards?” asked a wildlife-trafficking researcher based in northern India. “Can you rehabilitate them like this?”

Money has the Power

“WE ASKED THEM this: Why set up a zoo in Jamnagar?” said an elephant-rights activist who visited Vantara. “The answer was that we control this land.”

There is no disputing that. In October, I headed to Gujarat to see for myself. Jamnagar is located near the coast on the Kathiawar peninsula, which thrusts out into the Arabian Sea. Skirting around the city, I headed south-west, through a flat and relatively featureless landscape, towards Reliance’s gigantic refinery complex. 

This is good farming land, a farmer told me, asking not to be identified. “It has two rivers, three dams, the land is such that it can produce three crops,” he said. But there is little farming here. Most of the local land is owned by Reliance, he explained, and it continues to buy up more.

With the towers of the petrochemical plant looming in the distance, we stood beside a tall boundary wall topped with barbed wire. Looking through an open gate, we saw a tract that looked no different from the land outside. They are expanding the zoo, the farmer said. The flank of the compound wall before us was just two kilometres or so long. At its end stood a Reliance-branded petrol pump, and beyond that another compound with a similar wall. That was the zoo.

Further on, past the zoo compound, was a gate to the refinery complex itself. A dirt track running in the other direction led to fields abutting a reservoir. Standing on the near shore, the hulk of Reliance’s butyl rubber factory reared up on our left. Across the water was a long shed with a red roof: Greens. 

What is taking shape behind these walls? 

Rescue centres come into play in specific circumstances, the Bengaluru-based biologist said. “They tend to wounded or infirm individuals from captivity, and the very young if the mother is not able to look after it.” In the case of free-ranging wild animals which have been captured, he said, the rescue centre should be in its habitat to increase its chances of being released into the wild – and, ergo, should focus on local species.” Animals like Gajraj, however, are being pulled out of the forest and trucked far away to Jamnagar.

Greens’ emailed response said “animals that are part of our conservation breeding programme are intended to be released back into their natural habitats and endemic locations, in accordance with current regulations.” However, it added, “By law, animals in rescue centres, especially exotic animals that are not endemic, cannot be released back into the wild. Furthermore, other animals cannot be randomly reintroduced. Numerous scientific considerations must be taken into account.” In cases “where we are called to provide assistance in man-wild conflicts or accidents, complete priority is given to the consideration of re-release.”

IN JUST FOUR YEARS, Vantara has gone from about 50 elephants, in the words of the person closely associated with the MCBT, to a trust, a zoo, a gigantic assemblage of endangered species, and a workforce of 2700 managing it all. (While reporting, I learnt that there are actually two trusts: the Radhe Krishna Trust, which is headed by employees of Reliance, and the Khodiyar Animal Welfare Trust. Some of the job offers to Vantara employees were made through this trust.)

How did Vantara scale up so quickly? In just four years, not only did it secure administrative permissions and build its campuses, it also figured out it could get Spix’s macaws from ACTP, elephants from Namsai, hippos from Colombia, orangutans from the UAE, sakis from Guyana.

Apart from market knowhow, there is also a question of logistics here. Take the elephants. Donors had to be found, the necessary paperwork and sometimes even microchipping had to be sorted out. Elephants had to be housed and cared for while the preparations to move them came together, and then convoys had to be arranged. Vets are a part of this ecosystem as well – some help with microchipping, others accompany elephants to Jamnagar.

Obviously this has all taken money, often huge sums of it. But it has also required certain key personnel and extraordinary access to government systems.

Vantara’s CEO is Vivaan Karani. Greens is headed by Brij Kishor Gupta, who at least as late as 14 February 2019 was working at the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) as a monitoring and evaluation officer. On that day, after a meeting of the CZA’s Expert Group on Zoo Design on 29 January 2019, he wrote to the member-secretary of the CZA, “It is submitted that we may communicate the approval … to the Zoo Operator to establish the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom at Jamnagar, Gujarat.” Gupta left the CZA and joined Greens as its director later that year. 

I emailed Gupta to ask if there was any conflict of interest in his involvement in the approval for Greens shortly before he joined the organisation. This story will be updated when he responds. The CZA’s member-secretary, Sanjay Kumar Shukla, replied to emailed questions to say that the approval process to establish a zoo involves various committees and Gupta’s remarks had not been decisive – and, hence, that there had been no conflict of interest.

When it comes to the government, it is guilty of sins of both omission and commission. 

A series of lapses have brought the country’s biodiversity to a dire point where privatising its management can be pitched as an answer. Forest departments are underfunded and understaffed, as are zoos. Forests have been allowed to shrink – Gadchiroli, from where elephants were sent to Jamnagar, is seeing an expansion of mining – resulting in animals moving out of the forest and coming into conflict with humans. Elsewhere, projects like roads and rail-tracks continue to split forests into smaller chunks. The government fails to take steps to protect elephant corridors, even though those would ameliorate human–elephant conflict. The country lacks mobile rescue clinics, training centres for wildlife rescue are scarce. As are funds for state-owned rescue centres.

“Project Elephant wanted rescue centres for elephants in every state,” the environment ministry official in the Northeast said. “Only Kerala built one. In 2011, Assam wanted to build one, not just for elephants but other species too.” Five places were short-listed, but nothing moved thereafter. 

Implementing DNA testing for elephants continues to be a big problem as well. “Not one lab in the Northeast can do DNA testing,” the environment ministry official said. “All samples have to go to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.” In March 2024, the government issued updated transfer rules that state no elephant can change hands unless its DNA profile has been registered with the environment ministry. The implications of this remain to be seen.

The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau continues to struggle with rampant understaffing. Its office for the Northeast has just five people tasked with covering seven states. “There is no country director for the last one year,” the environment ministry official told me in September 2023. “The post of the Eastern Region head, usually filled by an IFS officer on deputation, is vacant as well. This, despite the region being such a critical location in terms of elephant and wildlife trafficking.”

Such omissions are long-standing, as many of the government’s sins of commission are too. But since 2019, the pace and scale of the latter has sharply grown. The BJP government’s Covid-time amnesty for owners of exotics violated CITES. And it has weakened the WLPA.

When Greens replied saying it had not found any WLPA provision that was weakened or gave it any advantage, it also said that “the amnesty scheme is unrelated to our organisations; it saw over 50,000 pet owners registering themselves and their animals.”

Despite the CZA authorising Greens to house only 52 leopards, Shyamal Tikadar, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Gujarat at the time, gave it approval to keep 229 leopards, as per Green’s annual report covering the period through March 2023. As the deal with Akwaaba shows, that number has only increased since. 

Tikadar declined to meet and did not reply to questions seeking clarifications. I also wrote to Nityanand Srivastava, the serving Chief Wildlife Warden for Gujarat. This story will be updated when he responds.

Shukla, of the CZA, said, “Animal collection plan is as per the carrying capacity of the zoo and availability of housing, expertise man power, veterinary health care, nutrition, enrichment, etc.” He added that Green’s location at Jamnagar had been “allowed as per the regulations. Housing of the animals is as per the approved layout which is not situated inside refinery.”

I also sent questions to Bhupender Yadav, India’s environment minister. This story will be updated when he responds.

Arunachal Pradesh has been sending elephants to the Trust without vetting their antecedents. Uttarakhand, too, has sent elephants to Jamnagar. Assam has sent animals from its zoos. Maharashtra, a wildlife activist said, is using human–elephant conflict to label wild elephants as “aggressive”, and these animals are then captured and transported to the Trust.

Gujarat does not send surplus lions to other states but has been willing to send leopards to a private facility. It has also outsourced to Vantara the running of the state zoo at Kevadia, which has seen a spate of deaths among exotic species.

“They will privatise everything,” the lawyer Anand Yagnik said. “First land, then animals, and then forests.”

ACCORDING TO NEWS reports on Vantara, the diet for its elephants includes khichdi and jaggery laddoos – a point meant to impress the public with the exceptional care provided. “The elephants also get bananas from the Caribbean and apples from New Zealand,” the animal-care staffer said. “But, in the forest, they eat some 300 different types of leaves, grasses and browses. When their stomach is in a mess, elephants self-medicate.” While captive elephants in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have access to this variety of vegetation, the ones at Jamnagar do not.

Then, there is the question of the Jamnagar heat, and of crowding. “Do you know how much land is needed for one thousand elephants,” the Dehradun-based biologist asked. “The whole of Rajaji National Park and Corbett Tiger Reserve, which has about one thousand elephants, covers 3000-4000 square kilometres.” Elephants, she pointed out, do not like to live in high densities. “It is not comfortable for them.” 

Questions also hang over the animals’ future. The HPC inquired into the financial viability of the Trust, and in its report proclaimed itself satisfied. Anant Ambani has said these wildlife operations will be run as a non-profit venture. And yet, elephants can live as long as 70 years. One reason wildlife is typically entrusted to the state is because it is usually more long-lived than private enterprises. “What will happen to these animals when these people are gone?” the Bengaluru-based wildlife biologist asked. This is not an idle concern. The Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation and Akwaaba ran into trouble after they hit a cash shortfall. At the former, the animals starved.

Here, another recent amendment to the WLPA comes into play. It says Schedule 1 animals born in captivity will be treated as Appendix 2 or Appendix 3 animals – meaning, in effect, that they can be bred and sold outside the country. “My fear is that this might become a huge animal-trafficking site,” the wildlife-trafficking researcher based in northern India said.

Greens’ stated in its emailed response, “It is important to clarify that none of our organisations were, are, or will ever be breeding farms.”

Alok Hisarwala wrote in his letter to wildlife officials in Gujarat and Arunachal Pradesh that old elephant-trafficking networks are coming back to life. In the short-term, the animal-care staffer at the Trust feared, owners “might unload older elephants on Reliance and replace them with fresh-caught ones.” He added, “If they want to keep taking elephants, the number of wild-caught elephants will keep rising.”

“If that happens, that is heartbreaking,” said a Dehradun-based biologist. “Elephants are very intelligent animals. They have complex social systems.” When a wild elephant is caught, all these social systems break down. “There is the calves’ trauma at being separated from their mothers and the herd, the trauma of the capture itself” – and then the alien environment of Jamnagar. 

At the very least, said another elephant-rights activist, Vantara should have taken an undertaking from donors that they will not replace elephants being given to the Trust.

After the WLPA came into force, in the early 1970s, “the government ran awareness campaigns about the species in which trade was allowed – and the ones in which trade wasn’t,” the wildlife-trafficking researcher said. “Trade in harmless species was allowed, while others saw crackdowns.” With that, “Instead of driving the trade underground, India nudged communities and businesses dependent on this trade into harmless species. Trade came down, and they were not left marginalised either.”

Now, with elephants and other species, all of this is being lost. Demand for endangered and exotic species has been rising in India over the past five years. “Appendix 1 animals are being freely traded,” the wildlife-trafficking researcher said. “The market for exotic threatened species is especially booming. Endangered birds like hornbills and toucans, which cost between Rs 400,000 to Rs 500,000, can be sold in India for as much as Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh.”

The senior official in Assam’s forest department said demand for temple elephants is rising as well. “In the past, most demand for elephants used to come from temples in the south,” he told me. “Tamil Nadu and Karnataka wanted female elephants. Kerala wanted tuskers. But now, temples from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan also want to keep elephants.”

After the WLPA came into force, in the early 1970s, “the government ran awareness campaigns about the species in which trade was allowed – and the ones in which trade wasn’t,” the wildlife-trafficking researcher said. “Trade in harmless species was allowed, while others saw crackdowns.” With that, “Instead of driving the trade underground, India nudged communities and businesses dependent on this trade into harmless species. Trade came down, and they were not left marginalised either.”

Now, with elephants and other species, all of this is being lost. Demand for endangered and exotic species has been rising in India over the past five years. “Appendix 1 animals are being freely traded,” the wildlife-trafficking researcher said. “The market for exotic threatened species is especially booming. Endangered birds like hornbills and toucans, which cost between Rs 400,000 to Rs 500,000, can be sold in India for as much as Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh.”

The senior official in Assam’s forest department said demand for temple elephants is rising as well. “In the past, most demand for elephants used to come from temples in the south,” he told me. “Tamil Nadu and Karnataka wanted female elephants. Kerala wanted tuskers. But now, temples from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan also want to keep elephants.”