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Jumbo joust for zoo home Mahouts bear brunt of jumbo solidarity

- Mumtaz the elephant resists training for relocation

Mumtaz is the oldest of Alipore zoo’s three elephants and at 24, a tad reluctant to take orders.

Four mahouts requisitioned from Assam have struggled for almost 10 weeks to train Mumtaz for the rigours of a 16-hour road journey to north Bengal, her designated home for the rest of her life.

Koi baat nahin sunti hai (She just doesn’t listen),” said one of the mahouts after an hour-long session on Sunday evening. “Ekdum bigdi hui hai (She has been spoilt silly).”

Mumtaz is to be relocated to Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in accordance with a directive from the Central Zoo Authority, which has told Alipore zoo that it can’t keep more than two elephants in the enclosure.

But try explaining that to Mumtaz, who is in no mood to move anywhere from her home of 15 years. The option of tranquillising her 3,500kg frame hasn’t been considered yet.

“Elephants in a zoo are not tame in the sense that they are never trained to obey commands. Within their enclosure, they lead a free life. They are not made to do any task. They just eat and sleep and roam. Basically, they are pampered,” a zoo official said.

The zoo authorities fear Mumtaz might throw a tantrum while being ferried by truck, in which case “controlling” such a huge animal would be an elephantine challenge.

The four mahouts trying to prepare her for the journey are from Kaziranga in Assam, where trained elephants take tourists on safaris inside the national park famous for the one-horned rhino. The quartet hasn’t even been able to get close to Mumtaz so far, much less train her.

“As soon as we enter the enclosure, all three elephants start moving menacingly towards us. The enclosure itself isn’t large enough for us to manoeuvre them. We do not want to risk angering the elephants,” a mahout said.

Mahouts accompany elephants whenever they are moved from one place to another by truck. They carry tranquillisers that can be administered if an elephant shows signs of becoming agitated or violent.

According to wildlife experts, Mumtaz is too old to be trained and relocated to a place alien to her. “In north Bengal, she is to be engaged in tasks such as patrolling or carrying man and materials. Mumtaz is past the age when she can be trained for that,” said S.B. Mondal, a former chief wildlife warden.

Mondal would know, having closely observed wildlife behaviour for decades while working in the field.

Apart from training Mumtaz for relocation, the zoo authorities have a few things to take care of, including a temporary ramp near the enclosure to ease her into the vehicle.

The Central Zoo Authority hasn’t set a deadline for her relocation but there have been several reminders, sources at Alipore zoo said.

The decision to move elephants out of enclosures was taken in 2009, triggering protests from zoos across the country. The regulatory body’s order stated that elephants were too large for zoos and should not be restricted to enclosures where they could barely take a few jumbo steps.

The order was meant to take effect immediately but a four-year tug-of-war culminated in Alipore zoo convincing the Central Zoo Authority to allow it to retain two elephants.

So while Mumtaz revolts against any attempt to relocate her, Uttara and Phulwanti, the other two jumbos, appear to be throwing their weight behind her.

Ask the mahouts, who have been at the receiving end of elephant solidarity for two months.