When it comes to intelligence, the elephant comes next to man. Its imposing size is good enough to make people curious about it. Elephants can be trained to execute a number of difficult manoeuvres in circuses. Social animals, elephants are led by their matriarch in the wild. They follow the matriarch, usually the eldest female elephant in the herd, on their long journey of migration. Respect for their ancestors is simply phenomenal. They perform a ritual of reverence if they come across bones of a dead ancestor.
Surprisingly, the pachyderms can be tamed. They are used for a number of heavy-duty works such as removing logs or dragging enormous amounts of load. They are trained for safari in the wild and even for capturing their own kind in the jungle. Chained and confined, the largest animals at times are treated cruelly so much so that they lose health and die of sickness prematurely.
Put to many such uses, they are not corrupted, though. But the scene can be completely different when their presence is announced on the capital's streets. When a lone elephant ambles on Dhaka streets among an array of vehicles, it is a sight indeed! There is likely to be a gathering of enthusiasts. But here is an elephant that has not come to entertain people with its playful antics. The man riding on its back has a particular purpose behind bringing the huge animal on the road.
The elephant has been trained to extort money from select people. It may not be aware of its illegal toll collection but the man on its back should know it. Yet he could not care less. He has been using the land's largest animal for extortion. The method is simple. Its mahout makes it stop before a shop when the animal shrieks. Unless the shop owner parts with some money, the elephant refuses to move. Intimidated, owners know they cannot help giving a larger denomination of bank note rather than a smaller one. But if less than Tk 10 is given, the elephant refuses to accept.
Similarly, the elephant stops vehicle to ask for money. If it is a motor cycle, a smaller amount but no less than that of a shopkeeper is expected. Unless the motor cyclist gives Tk 10, the elephant won't move. From a car, the demand is greater. The elephant's intimidating posture compels people to part with a 50-100-taka note.
Now this is extortion in public. But although many do not protest, some really may face embarrassment if they do not have change or run short of money. The intimidatory tactic resorted to is clear violation of the law of the land. The way the elephant was collecting extortion money on a side street of Mohammadpur Tajmahal Road on Saturday, September 16 last suggests that it can collect more than Tk 1,000 in an hour. How long does the elephant roam about collecting money like this way is not known but even if it is done for a few hours, the unearned income is likely to be quite handsome.
Now who has given the man the right to train an elephant to illegally collect money from passersby? One wonders if members of the law enforcement agencies are fully aware of this illegal practice. In the good old days, it was the zamindars who kept elephants as their pets and rode majestically to show off their importance. A moving story titled Adarini by Bibhuti Kumar Mukhopadhya has depicted a highly touching relationship between a zamindar whose feudal and economic power is on the decline and his pet elephant.
Today, there are people far richer than those landlords but they would not have elephants for any show-off. They would rather prefer latest model luxury cars for the purpose. Some of them actually illegally imported such cars and during the crackdown by the last military-backed caretaker government abandoned a few of those on the street to avoid detection and harassment.
Then who take a pet of elephants which need an enormous amount of food for survival? It is unbelievable that anyone with small means can manage permission for keeping such giant of a pet. Only powerful and influential people have the temerity to skirt around legal provisions. But should they instruct their mahouts to go about extorting money like this? Whatever it is, there is a need for looking into the matter and stopping this public extortion in the interest of public peace and order.