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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
Indian minister's elephant alert
two young elephants and their keepers
Orphans of the storm: These elephants were saved from a cyclone
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A prominent member of the Indian Government says the country's elephants are "almost extinct".

The warning was given by Maneka Gandhi, Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment.

Speaking to Reuters news agency, Mrs Gandhi blamed ivory poachers and the methods used to train elephants.

She said the number of bull elephants capable of impregnating a cow was under a thousand.

Breeding imperilled

The Conservation Foundation said that, at current rates, there would be no breeding elephants left in India by 2007, and the species would die out.

Mrs Gandhi, who also heads India's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said: "Elephants are almost extinct in India.

"I say this with great responsibility, because we have less than 20,000 elephants.

maneka gandhi
Maneka Gandhi
"There are less than 800 tuskers left in India, which means the semen distribution is low because there are only 800 inseminators. And they are being killed all the time."

Unlike their African relatives, female Indian elephants do not have tusks. Ivory poaching has therefore resulted in a severely depleted male population.

An animal rights activist, Iqbal Malik, said the poachers were killing 10% of the remaining tuskers every year.

Mrs Gandhi said: "That is what has caused this imbalance. In fact, 10 years ago the situation was not so alarming, when we had more than 5,000 tuskers."

But she said the elephants were also threatened by forest loss, the growth of the cities, human pressures and the methods used to train elephants for work or for the tourist trade.

'Brutal and primitive'

"One problem is the destruction of the habitat, and the second is this constant catching of elephants for training, for tourism or logging.

"And this training that we are doing is the most brutal, primitive and stupid in the whole world."

hedge in form of elephant, delhi
Elephants are part of Indian life
Mrs Gandhi said elephants were often starved and beaten during training, and half of them died.

"The worst areas of cruelty are Kerala and the northeast. Kerala kills one elephant a week."

Mrs Gandhi called for foreign experts to teach Indian trainers, and for a halt to illegal logging.

Some animal trainers have criticised a technique which they say involves reducing the animal to a state of helplessness by tying it down with ropes or chains and then beating it until it stops resisting.

Conflict with encroaching human settlements is an acknowledged problem. The World Wildlife Fund says up to 300 farmers in southern India are killed annually by elephants, many of them trying to feed on the farmers' crops.

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See also:

21 Oct 99 | South Asia
Drunken elephants trample village
04 Apr 00 | Africa
Ivory trade: Horns of a dilemma
17 Apr 00 | World
Two-year freeze on ivory trade
01 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Elephants 'killed as aphrodisiac'
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