All aboard the Ambani ark at Vantara

At what cost does Anant Ambani get to indulge his childhood ‘passion for wildlife’ with an enormous private zoo to himself?

Anant Ambani with his 'rescued' elephants in Vantara
Anant Ambani with his 'rescued' elephants in Vantara

AJ Prabal

There are a lot of people working [for human welfare] but in animal welfare, there are few… I think I was the chosen one and I was fortunate enough that [with] God’s blessings… I could do seva of animals… I see God within every animal.”

Thus spoke Anant Ambani, the youngest son of Mukesh Ambani in a chat with CNN-News18, on the launch of his pet project Vantara in February.

Lucky for the animals, not so lucky for the poor. The information that the 28-year-old’s rescue and rehab centre spent Rs 2 crore to remove a tumour from an elephant might boggle the minds of some. But apparently, it was money well spent, a committee headed by a former Supreme Court judge attested.

The tough question is: what’s the need for this private zoo, when there are 150 zoos in the country, most of them understaffed and underfunded? Why not extend the seva (service) to them? Why transport crocodiles in airconditioned carriages with ambulances and vets in attendance all the way from Chennai to Gujarat?

Vantara is an amalgam of the Radhe Krishna Temple Elephant Welfare Trust and Greens Zoological, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. The 650-acre centre is located within the Jamnagar refinery and petrochemical complex, and was very speedily constructed. Funded by the Reliance Foundation, it is now said to equal New York City’s Bronx Zoo and outdo the National Zoological Park in New Delhi in terms of sheer number of animals.

In 2020–21, the last year for which public data is available, the Delhi Zoo had 1,114 animals belonging to 100 species. Speaking to the media in February 2024, Anant Ambani pegged the number in his private zoo at over 4,700.

Exotic and hybrid species abound. Some, like the endangered Spix’s macaw from Brazil, are acquired by dubious means. African spurred tortoises, Siamese crocodiles, African lions, Nile hippopotamuses, an orangutan, a Komodo dragon… the list goes on.

Tigers rescued from the hunting lodges of South Africa, Pygmy hippos from Sri Lanka, over 1,000 crocodiles from Tamil Nadu, 200 leopards from all over India, lions… and elephants. The ‘world’s best’ vets (as many as 80) are employed at the 25,000 sq. ft elephant hospital, one of the largest in the world.

Scientifically designed day-and-night enclosures, hydrotherapy pools, water bodies, a large elephant jacuzzi for treating elephants — they have it all. Even a team of dedicated nutritionists, headed by a German expert, Professor Wolf, busily creating diet plans in a 14,000 sq. ft kitchen. While the accident cases get treated in a hospital spanning 100,000 sq. ft, equipped with the most advanced technology known, but not made available to, the common man.

In 2019, Greens applied to India’s Central Zoo Authority for permission to operate as a zoo, and ‘complement and strengthen national efforts in conservation of the rich biodiversity of the region and the country’. It also said Greens would function as a ‘rescue and rehabilitation centre for orphaned, sick, injured wild animals’.

Why then, forests officers wonder, are healthy elephants from Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Assam being sent to Jamnagar, 3,000 km by road? Why not to other rehabilitation centres closer by, like the one near Kaziranga (a mere 370 km away) and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, barely 60 km from the town of Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh, which is where most of the elephants were picked up?

“Even if elephants had to be rescued, they should have come to the forest department, where they are needed for patrolling,” independent reporter M. Rajshekhar was told in Assam. “Captive elephants have a better life with us. They are kept in semi-wild conditions, not in sheds but out in the open. They forage. They are better socialised. They even mate with wild elephants.”

Elephants don’t need to be fed khichdi and laddoos, forest department officials said. They are intelligent animals and have the natural ability to forage for plants and herbs to feed and heal themselves.

And while nobody can deny that circus and temple elephants are brutally treated, officials contest the claim that only old and injured elephants have found their way to Jamnagar. In any case, they point out, Jamnagar is hotter than many places in India, receives less rainfall than the Northeast, and is too cramped for elephants who like to roam far and wide.

They also red-flagged the additional risks posed by air pollution and industrial accidents at the petrochemical complex within which the private zoo is located.

Meanwhile, Greens has picked up an operations, maintenance and expansion contract for a recently set up state zoo at Kevadia in Gujarat, near the Statue of Unity. It also owns a tea estate abutting Kaziranga National Park in Assam, which reports say was bought after an offer to partner with the Wildlife Trust of India (which runs a rescue centre there) failed to fructify.

There are too many urgent issues at stake with the country’s forests shrinking, human-animal conflicts rising, and existing facilities to treat and rehabilitate injured animals quite abysmal. But is handing over animals to private individuals or corporations for ‘lifetime care’ the solution? Besides which, the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA) was diluted to accommodate the rich man’s fancy.

The Union government brought in a sweeping amendment that allowed the transfer of captive elephants for ‘religious or any other purpose’. Approvals from chief wildlife wardens all along the route of an elephant’s transport were no longer necessary. With the WLPA 2022 stating that all elephant transfers will be governed by terms and conditions defined by the Union government, state governments no longer have any say.

Three animal rights bodies — People for Animals (Goa), the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations and the Centre for Research on Animal Rights — wrote to former Supreme Court justice Deepak Verma in April 2023 asking the high-powered committee to reveal the process it would follow each time it received an application for transfer of elephants. They also demanded that the committee’s decisions should be open to public scrutiny.

Rajshekhar, who had sought the committee’s response to the points raised, was told, “[The committee] is indeed duty-bound to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, however it is under no obligation to answer any media inquiries.”

Based on the extensive, two-part investigation by M. Rajshekhar for Himal Southasian, and media reports

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