Five held in elephant-smuggling probe in India

Five people were arrested and three wild elephants seized as Indian police busted an elephant-smuggling ring in north-eastern Assam, officials said today.

Police official PK Dutta said documents seized during the operation showed that the gang had smuggled at least 92 elephants from the north-eastern state to other parts of India over the past five years.

Selling elephants is barred under Indian law and even getting permission to move domesticated elephants between states is a lengthy procedure.

Nevertheless, authorities say there remains a thriving trade in elephants, with many wealthy landowners in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh buying the animals as status symbols.

Authorities said the elephants are usually transported by truck. The smugglers are suspected of colluding with forestry officials, who have checkpoints along the major roads to prevent this type of smuggling.

Police investigated the ring after a local conservation group, the Green Heart Nature Club, filed a written complaint last week, Mr Dutta said.

After a three-day operation, authorities arrested five people and took custody of the three wild elephants, which did not have the identifying microchip implants required of all domesticated elephants, he said.

The group planned to smuggle as many as 10 elephants out in its latest operation, Mr Dutta added.

The smugglers regularly captured wild elephants from the forests of Assam, trained them for a year or two, and then claimed they were the offspring of the state's many domestic elephants, he said.

Wildlife authorities in Assam, home to more than 5,000 wild Asiatic elephants, denied the existence of the illegal elephant trade.

"We are examining the matter, but I can say there is no smuggling of elephants out of Assam," said Suresh Chand, the state's chief wildlife warden.

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