Sahil Akhter was raised alongside trained elephants, horses and camels under one of Delhi’s most trafficked bridges. He lost his father to an accident involving one of the family’s elephants a few years ago. Now, despite dropping out of school to focus on the family trade, the 12-year-old says he is unsure whether he will continue the tradition of riding these massive mammals for a living like his father and grandfathers did.
“School is boring,” he said in Hindi, dressed in a white, button-up shirt under the ITO bridge on the bank of the polluted Yamuna River. “Let god decide my fate.”
If the gods that run Delhi’s government get their way, Sahil seems certain to be the last member of his family to carry on the dying skill of jockeying elephants at weddings and other celebrations in India’s capital. Tourists here pay as much as £150 to ride them for a few hours. But over the past decade the Delhi government has labeled them as health and traffic liabilities, imposing a ban on them in the city.
“We only allow them in from other states for circuses but none of them are allowed to take permanent residence,” said A K Shukla, the chief wildlife warden at Delhi’s Forest Department who signs off on elephant permits. There are now only 13 of the animals left in Delhi, ranging from their teens to their late 50s. They are all micro-chipped and owned by a few families who mostly live together in unkempt fields under the same bridge where they also train camels and horses.
Unlike Akhter’s family, most of the city’s ancestral ties to the trade have lost their vigor as domesticated elephant numbers dwindle. Freelance riders, or “mahouts,” often come in from other states where the profession is still flourishing.
Akhter is one of the youngest potential mahouts, still learning tricks passed on from his dad. They use about 15 unique words handed down from generations past to communicate with the animals. There are usually three mahouts for every trained elephant, each earning about £50 a month – plus tips during events – and they say the job is easy.
“We sleep right here with the elephants,” said trainer Mohammad Saddam in a Sponge Bob Square Pants shirt and a thin red robe as he pointed to cushions propped in the grass, surrounded by empty bottles of Kingfisher. “The work isn’t hard. We just take them to the temples and feed them and wash them.”
But their work is controversial and dangerous. Saddam was reluctant to talk about his job for fear his boss would disapprove. Deaths and elephant attacks in the trade are not uncommon. And sometimes the animals hurt their feet by walking long distances through the capital to their events. Occasionally, vehicles hit them.
The mahouts strike the elephants with sugarcane or chain their feet to the ground if they are being disobedient. In 2009, elephants were banned from performing in the annual Republic Day Parade in the capital after nearly 60 years of starring in the show because of pressure from activists about safety and the way they are treated.
These photos show the last group of elephants and ancestral mahouts in the city. The animals are still awed by tourists and in demand for weddings and Hindu temple ceremonies, but their numbers will continue to fade.
"Weve asked all of the families to take the elephants and leave, but this is their home and they want to stay,” Shukla said. “Now, it’s just a matter of survival.”
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