To whom do tusks of elephants belong? The Supreme Court has ruled that tusks are the property of the government. A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra filled a half-a-century vacuum in law, with its interpretation that “there cannot be an iota of doubt” about government having the right.
The court was examining the Kerala Forests Act of 1961 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 in a case dealing with the alleged unauthorised collection and storage of elephant tusks, possession of an unlicensed gun and other accessories by an individual in Wayanad two decades ago.
The Supreme Court observed that there is a clear “declaration” in the 1972 Act on elephant tusks being government property.
A boost for the Greens
Conservationists campaigning to curb ivory-trafficking and poaching got a boost with the order. India prohibits import and export of ivory. In Kerala, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Vigilance), A. K. Dharni of the Forests and Wildlife Department said in response to the order: “Anything from the forest is government property.” The ruling, however, would not affect individuals who have ownership certificates for declared ivory. Even in the case of captive elephants, either the government keeps custody of tusks or owners are permitted to retain them if they give an undertaking that they would not be traded, he said.
The Supreme Court said, “It is quite clear that ivory imported into India and an article made from such ivory in respect of which any offence against this Act (1961 Act) or any rule or order made thereunder has been committed, shall be deemed to be the property of the State Government.”
Proceedings were initiated against the collector, Komarrikkal Elias, but he was acquitted. The case continued to simmer on an order passed by the Assistant Wild Life Warden to confiscate the tusks.
Not forest produce?
Mr. Elias moved the District Judge, who ruled that tusks were not ‘forest produce’. The Kerala High Court agreed. An appeal in the apex court followed.
‘Forest produce’ under the 1961 Act defines many things, including timber, charcoal, wood oil, gum, resin, natural varnish, flowers and fruits, but does not mention tusks.
Mr. Dharni said all confiscated ivory — obtained through an animal’s death or an offence — is secured in strong rooms. Kerala asked the Centre for permission to burn these “liabilities,” but it was denied.