New Delhi // Elephants have been kept on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi for hundreds of years but the changing environment of the city and mounting pressure from animal welfare activists look set to consign this ancient way of life to the history books.
On Friday, India’s Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision on banning the use of captive elephants in religious functions, processions and other events.
The court’s decision will be in response to a public interest petition filed by animal welfare groups.
Elephants are revered in India due to their enshrinement in many traditional and religious beliefs. In Hinduism the elephant-headed god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, is invoked before every new endeavour.
Elephants add to the aura of temples and bestow blessings on the devoted.
Canny Indian businessmen have exploited their countrymen’s love and respect for elephants for centuries by keeping them and hiring them out for religious functions, weddings and other events including honouring their most important politicians.
The numbers of captive elephants in southern Delhi has dwindled to just eight from about 40 in 2001. The elephants are owned by five or six close-knit families who make a living hiring the animals out for various events and providing elephant rides for passers-by.
The elephants are subject to extremely harsh living conditions and treatment.
The handlers use sharp metal bullhooks to control the animals with daily beatings. The elephants have no proper shelter and are forced to walk on burning hot tarmac and stand for hours with their feet chained together.
Photographer Simon de Trey-White has spent the last year documenting the unusual working lives of Delhi’s Hathi-Walas – which means elephant herders in Hindi.