SC Expands Ambit of Pan-India High Powered Committee to Curb Capturing of Wild Elephants

The top court empowered the HPC to recommend the transfer of ownership of captive animals or of seized wild animals to any willing rescue centre or zoo.

New Delhi: A Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice P.S. Narasimha expanded on May 12 the remit of a High-Powered Committee (HPC) constituted for the purpose of stopping the capture of wild elephants.

The bench issued the direction while disposing of an interlocutory application (IA) in Prerna Singh Bindra & Ors vs Union of India, a writ petition filed in 2021.

It agreed to further expand the remit of the HPC to cover the following aspects:

(i) Duration of ownership certificates in relation to elephants; 

(ii) Enquiring into the capacity of the facility where the elephants are proposed to be transferred

(iii) Monitoring of the health and age of the elephants; 

(iv) Monitoring the facilities for transportation; and 

(v) The need to shift elephants.

The HPC consists of the Director General of Forests (Union of India); Head of Project, Elephant Division at the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India (MoEFCC); Member Secretary (Central Zoo Authority of India); Chief Wildlife Warden (State of Tripura) for Elephants; and Chief Wildlife Warden (Gujarat). It was conferred pan-India status by another bench of the Supreme Court on March 3 in Muruly M.S. vs State of Karnataka.

The committee was created by the Tripura high court last year in response to a public interest litigation seeking a direction restraining the transfer and transportation of captive-bred elephants from Northeast India, and in particular from Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, to the elephant camp of a charitable trust ostensibly engaged in the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife.

The high court declined to grant relief to the petitioner, but directed the HPC constituted by it to oversee the transfer of the elephants from the northeastern part of the country to the camp in Gujarat. 

It appointed former Supreme Court Justice Deepak Verma as HPC’s chairman. 

The high court had directed the Project Elephant Division of the MoEFCC to issue necessary directions to all Chief Wildlife Wardens to conduct a census of all elephants in the captivity of private persons or Government departments, and create an inventory of the same with their name, ownership certificate details, microchip number and photograph. 

It had also directed the issue of provisional certificates of ownership or confiscation of the elephant after necessary inspection and verification of its history and source. 

These directions included DNA sequencing for new offspring to be conducted so as to identify and prevent the capture of young elephants from the wild.

The Supreme Court, in Muruly M.S., conferred a pan-India status to the HPC to serve the “real public interest”, to advance the cause of welfare, care and rehabilitation of wild animals, and to curb the “filing of frivolous PILs before different High courts by busy bees”.   

This case involved a different Supreme Court bench directing all State and Central authorities to report the seizure of wild animals and abandonment of captive wild animals to the HPC. 

The top court empowered the HPC to recommend the transfer of ownership of captive animals or of seized wild animals to any willing rescue centre or zoo.

The committee was also empowered to investigate, with the help of all authorities in India, any pending or future complaints concerning the transfer, import, procurement or welfare of wild animals by any rehabilitation centre.