Mumbai bans elephants from city saying it's a cruel environment

Elephants - long revered in India as symbols of wisdom and good fortune - are no longer welcome in Mumbai.

The state government has banned domesticated elephants from India's largest city, saying that forcing the beasts to walk the city's chaotic, crowded and polluted streets was an act of cruelty.

"We want to keep the poor elephants off city roads. It is sad to see them walking with traffic going past," said Shree Bhagwan, a senior official in the Maharashtra state forestry department.

The ban, the first of its kind in India, went into effect last week, Bhagwan said.

Before the ban there were 14 elephants working in Mumbai, begging for their handlers, used in religious ceremonies or hired out as status symbols at weddings.

They were often seen plodding along crowded promenades in South Mumbai or popular tourist spots alongside the beach in the suburbs, collecting money in their trunks.

Caparisoned elephants, with colorful sequined parasols, would stand outside wedding halls to welcome the bridegroom, surrounded by band members playing brash music from Bollywood movies.

The state government issued the ban after a campaign by animal rights activists who charged that the elephants are not properly fed, and suffer skin and foot ailments from being forced to walk on scorching hot, potholed city roads for long hours.

When not working, the elephants were chained to posts and unable to move with most living under busy overpasses.

Activists welcomed the move but said the government had not made adequate arrangements for the evicted elephants.

"It would have been ideal to build rescue centers first and then issue the ban," said N. Jayasimha, a lawyer with the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA. "But the order is positive and a step in the right direction."

To illustrate the problem, Mumbai police were forced to release an elephant handler arrested after the ban went into effect because there was no one to look after the elephant, which spent five hours chained outside the police station.

The 13-year-old elephant named Laxmi and her handler went free after he signed a statement promising to take the elephant out of the city, said police officer P. Gaitonde.

Bhagwan said the government plans to build a rehabilitation center in the forests of the Nashik region, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Mumbai.

There are some 3,600 tamed elephants in India, with some 1,000 in the northeastern Assam state where they work in logging and about 600 in southern Kerala, used mainly in temple celebrations.

By Monday it appeared that all the elephants had left the city, although activist warned they would probably soon come back.

"When news like this comes out, they will lie low for sometime, they will go off the roads," said J.C. Khanna, secretary of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Mumbai.

However, some slammed the ban, saying it interfered with their religious practices.

"It is not proper to ban this innocent beast just because some people abuse elephants by taking them for begging," said S. Ganesan who has written a book on Mumbai's famous Siddhivinayak temple to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good fortune.

"They are auspicious and part of our belief and faith. Why should this beautiful animal be banned," he said.