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Curious case of the missing camels—trafficked from Rajasthan, lost in Varanasi, court steps in

Nobody has seen the 'missing camels' in the last three weeks–not the villagers, or animal rights activists.

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Sixteen camels travelled for more than 1,000 kilometres from the arid Thar desert in Rajasthan to the lush banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, before they disappeared.

On 27 June, they were found in Varanasi, trussed up like chickens in the back of a truck allegedly headed to West Bengal. The camels were lying upside down with their limbs and mouth tied by ropes. At least two of them have died since they were rescued. And only two have been seen grazing in Katesar village in UP’s Varanasi division.

For three months, the various cogs of Varanasi’s administration — courts, cops, caretakers— have been spinning in a frenzy trying to get the surviving camels shipped back to Rajasthan. But the camels are nowhere to be found.

Barring the two found in Katesar village and the two that are now dead, the remaining 12 camels, who are geo-tagged, have seemingly vanished into thin air. Nobody has seen them in the last three weeks–not the villagers, or animal rights activists. Their way back home is lost in petitions and public interest litigations.

If Varanasi is Hotel California, then the camels are the guests that cannot leave.

“We fear the camels have been trafficked again, or they have died because we have been absolutely unable to track them. If the camels were safe, then why would the Sessions court take so long to write a two-page-long judgment? Something weird is going on,” said Varanasi-based animal rights activist, Swati Bellani.

The Sessions Court has been sitting on the case for over a month and has been giving one hearing date after another. Varanasi’s District Magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma faces contempt of court, but there is no clarity on whether the onus is on him to ensure the safe return of the camels to Rajasthan. He said the administration does not have the funds to transport the animals back to Rajasthan. The Sessions court was directed by the Allahabad High Court to pronounce its ‘preferably’ decision by 30 September, but it wasn’t delivered. On one hand, the police claim the camels are safe and on the other hand, they are refusing to divulge their location or allow anyone to see them. Even witness protection programmes are not so airtight.

Did the camels drown in the Ganga? Where are the police ‘hiding’ such large animals? These are questions that have gripped Varanasi, the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Smuggled camels roam around in Katesar village| Shubhangi Misra, ThePrint
Smuggled camels roam around in Katesar village | Shubhangi Misra,ThePrint

Where did the camels go? 

The police investigation has revealed the camels were trafficked from Baghpat in UP and were allegedly on route to West Bengal. But there is no clarity on how they were transported from Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh in the first place.

Five men, all from Baghpat, have been accused of smuggling the animals and have been booked under Section 11 (treating animals cruelly) of the Animal Cruelty Act, and Section 279 (rash driving) of the Indian Penal Code. One of them is absconding.

The herd of camels was rescued after the police received a tip-off from Lata Devi who runs the Gau Gyan Foundation, an animal rights organisation in Varanasi. She claims to have an intricate network of informants who regularly monitor vehicles for trafficked animals.

But this was just the start of the saga. Officials in Varanasi struggled to figure out where to keep these large animals that are not native to the state. Unlike cows, the camels had no shelter to go to. They decided to house them in a small 2,500 sq feet plot in Ramnagar near Lanka Maidan.

It was hardly the ideal spot. Camels require a large area and getting stuffed like cattle took a toll on their health. They became violent and started hurting each other. One camel lost its life here.

The police claim they produced a caretaker in court on 20 July, and sent the camels to Katesar village.

While this was unfolding in Ramnagar, the court of additional chief judicial magistrate (ACJM) on 7 July granted custody of camels to Ankur Sharma, a representative of the Gau Gyan Foundation, and ruled that he had to help supervise the camels’ transportation. It directed the investigating officer, Vishwanath Sonkar, to shift the camels to People for Animals, an animal care shelter and hospital in Sirohi, Rajasthan. The court also directed the District Magistrate to make arrangements for camels to be transported to Sirohi.

But arrangements for their transportation have still not been made. The camels are trapped in a logjam involving the District Magistrate, the courts and activists. The back and forth has been going on for more than three months.

On 22 September, when ThePrint tried visiting the camels in custody, caretaker Ramesh Yadav refused. Subsequent requests for permission to see the desert animals were not granted by the Deputy Superintendent of Police Trilochan Tripathi, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police Kashi zone Ramesh Kumar Pandey and Assistant Commissioner of Police HQ and Crime Santosh Kumar Singh.

Katesar, where the ‘missing’ camels are currently presumed to be housed, lies opposite the ghats of Varanasi And though it is far from an arid desert, camels are not alien to local people. The village Katesar has 80 camels of its own, which are used for tourism.

Katesar has over 80 camels | Shubhangi Misra, ThePrint
Katesar has over 80 camels | Shubhangi Misra, ThePrint

The camels here are sourced from an annual fair in Pratapgarh. “Ramesh Yadav charges Rs 50,000-80,000 for a single camel. Camels here survive four to five years,” said 57-year-old Ramjanam Yadav, a resident of the village.

But neither he nor other villagers know anything about the rescued camels that are still unaccounted for.

On 23 September, Ramnagar Station House Officer Ashwini Kumar Pandey told ThePrint that he would send his Investigating Officer and facilitate viewing of the “case property”. But the next day, he changed his tune and said it would not be possible without a court order. “All you need to know is that camels are safe and secure,” he said.

The rumour mill is churning and many animal rights activists are expecting the worst. “These camels will most likely again be sent to Bengal to be slaughtered, while the authorities and their proxies could claim that the camels have been lost to sickness. Despite the court directives, our local authorities have shown a blatant disregard for the judiciary, and following the rule of law has always been a matter of choice for them,” Ballani said.


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The DM’s refusal

DM Kaushal Raj Sharma has been resolute in his argument– “no funds have been allocated for the transport of the smuggled camels.”

This is despite the fact that in the past, districts have borne the cost of returning smuggled cattle, even camels, to their home states. As recently as 12 September, the District Magistrate of Kushinagar in UP gave the order to safely transport camels seized in the district to Sirohi in Rajasthan on state cost

According to animal rights activists, the transport of camels won’t cost more than Rs. 1-1.5 lakh. Gau Gyan Foundation filed a contempt of court case against Sharma and other relevant authorities in the district for not complying with the court’s orders on 15 July The District Magistrate was served a show cause notice on 19 July by ACJM court.

The court also reminded Sharma that rule 5, subsection 8 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Care and Maintenance of Case Property Animals) Act 2017 states, “If the owner and the accused do not have the means to furnish the bond, the magistrate shall direct the local authority to undertake the costs involved and recover the same as arrears of land revenue.”

The DM filed a revision petition in the Sessions Court instead, where it is currently reserved. Gyan Foundation approached the Allahabad High Court to speed up the unusually prolonged process.  The HC had directed that the order be pronounced ‘preferably’ by 30 September. It is now October, and the fate of the camels has not been resolved.

Animal rights activists are perplexed as to why the district is refusing to send the rescued animals back.

“There’s precedent for the return of camels to their home state. Laws in place make it clear that it’s the DM’s responsibility to ensure a safe return of camels. When he [Sharma] said the district doesn’t have money, we even said we would raise the money ourselves. But he was never even open for a dialogue,” claims Swati Ballani, secretary of Varanasi-based Ramaiya Charitable Trust, which works for stray animals.

Divesh Sharma, an advocate for Gau Gyan Foundation, had a similar view. He said it is strange for a district to not have contingency funds. “It’s not a huge amount of money. The seized vehicle itself acts as a security and can give the state the necessary funds. Why are they saying no?”

ThePrint tried meeting the District Magistrate at his camp office, but to no avail. Queries on the phone remain unanswered.


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Camel smuggling 

Camels from Rajasthan are big business, and cases of smuggling are only rising. According to activists, they are usually transported to West Bengal where they are slaughtered for meat, which is further illegally exported to other countries.

“In just the last one week, we intercepted two vehicles in Gorakhpur. One vehicle had 16 camels, while another had 25,” said Devi from Gau Gyan Foundation.

National Highway 2 passing through Varanasi is the easiest way to enter West Bengal through Bihar, and cattle smuggling is common on the route, Devi added.

Varanasi police refused to comment on the matter. “Why don’t you ask the cops in Rajasthan where the smuggling actually begins? Why are you trying to malign Varanasi?” ACP Singh said.

Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, an NGO based out of Rajasthan, said that camels are smuggled from Jaisalmer or Bikaner via UP or Madhya Pradesh. “The camel breeder is paid around Rs 10,000-12,000 for a camel. And in turn, the camels are sold for Rs 50,000-60,000,” he said.

Sirohi receives more than 3,000 camels rescued from trafficking almost every year. Rathore questioned how police who monitor state borders and national highways fail to spot trafficked camels. “It’s not easy to cross several state borders without paying off local cops,” he alleged.

A police officer, on the condition of anonymity, said the Grand Trunk Road is a busy, well-connected route suited to smuggling and trafficking of animals. The police have various checkpoints where smuggled cattle are seized. However, this is the first time camels were seized in Varanasi.

The fear is that it won’t be the last.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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