“Come on, come on!” cries Mohammad Saddam, as I strip off my jeans and stare apprehensively after him and the other three mahouts—Hindi for "elephant riders"—who are already splashing around in the water. Ordinarily I’d be the first to dive into any body of water, especially in the scorching Delhi sun. But as I stare out over the muddy, polluted sludge that the Yamuna River has become, I’m having second thoughts.
It’s more the sound than the sight that makes me quickly change my mind. The trumpeting boom from the nearest elephant echoes around the warm concrete underbelly of the bridge; it’s too amazing to resist. Over the next hour, the four mahouts smile and laugh, mostly at my expense, as we wade waist-deep with the gray giants. The elephants soak up the Yamuna. "We have to wait at least an hour before we can scrub them clean because their skin is so tough,” explains Saddam.
Mahouts and their elephants have become a dying breed in Delhi. The total number of privately owned elephants is now just 13. Pressure from animal rights activists and restricted permits from the government have made it almost impossible for owners to bring new elephants into the city.
The government's Wildlife Protection Act lists elephants among the animals that cannot be used for performance and must only be kept for personal use. One elephant owner (who didn't want to be named) claims the government is using the public ban as a way to manipulate owners to abandon their elephants.
“The government in 2003 stated that an elephant can only be reared by those who have the facilities: a big water fountain for it to drink from and a shelter to house it. In Delhi, a place like that would cost around ten crores (100,000,000 rupees, or about $1.6 million). Ten crores… plus many lakhs (thousands of dollars) worth of elephants… but you can’t use them? And how can you even find a place like that in Delhi?”
Looking out across the littered sprawl of Delhi, it’s startling to think these elephants are still here at all. Urbanization is rapid and the city is covered in construction sites. There have been a few serious traffic accidents and deaths involving elephants in recent years, which have only served to spur the government clampdown.
Not that that seems to be off-putting to Sahil Akhter. In many ways, Sahil is just like your average 12-year-old—boisterous and playful when given a task, shy when meeting new people. But when he comes home from school, he doesn’t play with toys or watch TV. “I ride elephants, camels, and horses,” he mumbles modestly. The more I learn about Sahil, the more he intrigues me. The mahout tradition is one that is passed down from father to son. Sahil’s father was killed in an elephant accident a few years ago. When I first meet the boy—who was raised alongside animals beneath one of the city's busiest bridges—he is deciding whether he wants to continue with school or become a full-time mahout.
“I want him to stay in school,” exclaims Sahil’s older brother, eyes squinting as he watches Sahil playing in the distance with the other boys. “This is not an easy life.” Mahouts are trapped in poverty. They earn the equivalent of $80 a month each, which—though supplemented by occasional tips earned at festivals and weddings—isn't enough to live on.
Over the next few months, I watched Sahil refuse his brother's wishes and drop out of school to become a mahout. When I asked him about his future, he told me with a half smile, “I want to do whatever God has planned for me. My intention is to carry on riding elephants.”
Although he is continuing his family tradition, the reality of Sahil’s situation appears bleak to me. For better or worse, this 12-year-old boy might very well be the last mahout of Delhi.