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Tuesday, November 18, 1997 Published at 14:23 GMT


Elephant fair opens in India

Thousands of elephant traders and sightseers have decended on the eastern Indian city of Sonepur on the River Ganges for the annual elephant fair.

It is Asia's oldest and largest animal market with people travelling for hundreds of miles to be part of the event.

Elephants have been bought and sold here for as long as anyone can remember. In ancient times, maharajas came in search of elephants with tusks to bolster their armies.

[ image:  ]
Although elephants no longer go to war, they are still in demand - mainly for religious ceremonies. And for wealthy Indians an elephant is still the ultimate status symbol.

But owning an elephant has many pitfalls. The animals can be trained, but temperament is all important, no one wants a rogue elephant.

Elephant owner Guddu Singh says chosing the right animal is not easy: "It's not only the elephant's age that is important. There are many other things as well.....subtle things that are only evident to the trained eye. You have to know what you are doing."

Owning and keeping an elephant isn't cheap. They have a voracious appetite consuming one-fifth of their total body weight every day.

And a healthy baby elephant sells for at least ten thousand US dollars. A full grown animal can fetch as much as thirty-thousand dollars.

The price of elephants has risen dramatically since the government imposed a ban on capturing and training wild elephants, a measure aimed at protecting India's dwindling population, estimated to be about twenty-seven-thousand.

But dealers say that in some areas the herds have become too large and they want permission to capture a certain quota each year.

The attitude of the dealers highlights a potential threat to the animals.

Behind the colour and excitement of the annual market, there's a growing fear that unless more is done to protect India's elephants from poachers, there will soon be none left to sell.

[ image: Elephant handler, Hari Prasaf:
Elephant handler, Hari Prasaf: "We must protect them"
Hari Prasaf, an elephant handler says each year there are fewer animals for sale: " It is a sad thing that while they are so loved and appreciated, people still kill them for their tusks. We must make sure they are protected. This market is good because people come to appreciate them even more."

Although the number of elephants being sold may be falling, there is no shortage of buyers. It means the month-long market will continue to draw the crowds for years to come.

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