A case of animal diplomacy

Ganga, the elephant at the Ljubljana Zoo in Slovenia, was a gift from the Indian government

Published - August 06, 2023 12:22 am IST

Ganga, a gift from India to the erstwhile Yugoslavia, at the Ljubljana zoo in Slovenia.

Ganga, a gift from India to the erstwhile Yugoslavia, at the Ljubljana zoo in Slovenia. | Photo Credit: Arun Sahu

“She is 48. She came here from India in 1977 at the age of two. Initially, she had company, but she didn’t like it. She wanted to be close to the humans around her. They had to move the other one to a different zoo. She has a family here — the zookeepers, the attendants, the caretakers. You see the feet, the nails. They have to be properly cleaned every day.”

“Was it a gift?”

“Yes. It was. It was a gift from the Government of India.”

This was the conversation I was having as we visited Ganga, the elephant at the Ljubljana zoo in Slovenia. She was born in India and was brought to Slovenia as a gift from the Indian government.

Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia then.

She is the only elephant at the zoo and is a top-rated attraction for European visitors.

It was time for the zoo keepers to take care of Ganga. As we stood at a designated distance for visitors, the keepers cleaned her, checked her temperature, took a saliva sample for daily testing and fed her. It appeared routine.

“She had to do some exercises,” the zookeeper said. She had to lift logs, cross over a few barricades, lie down, and wake up as part of her exercises. “Over the years, she has learnt some tricks too,” the zoo guide said with a smile as Ganga finished her exercises. Ganga could lift her front legs and put them on a wooden stool on a high pedestal to salute her visitors. She could bend her hind legs and sit in a yoga posture. She can play through a ball. And, of course, she could sprinkle water out of her trunk towards the visitors.

As we adored her tricks, the guide sighed, “In recent years, Ganga’s health has declined. She has developed arthritis and other age-related problems. The Ljubljana zoo is providing her with the best possible care and is hopeful that she will live a long and happy life. She is a reminder of the importance of animal conservation and the need to protect biodiversity.”

Animals often define a nation’s character. For instance, the bald eagle represents the U.S., the lion the U.K., the panda and dragon China, the royal Bengal tiger, elephant and peacock India, the koala and kangaroo Australia.

The history of animal diplomacy dates back to the days of monarchs, and empires. Identifiable remains of domestic dogs have been found in the excavated cemetery of Valsgärde in Uppsala, dating back to the Vendel Period and Viking Age. Some were identified as gifts between affluent families of the time. Empress Wu Zetian of the Chinese Tang Dynasty gifted a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor.

Old practice

In the 14th and 15th centuries, ancient Egyptian rulers’ gift of giraffes reached as far as Samarkand. Muhammad Ali Pasha sent a female giraffe to King Charles X of France in 1827, dubbed “la belle africaine”. Roman history mentions Cleopatra’s possible gift of a giraffe to Julius Caesar. Romans called it a “cameleopard” as they thought it was a mixture of a camel and a leopard.

During the Cold War, in 1961, after a conversation with Jacqueline Kennedy about the dog Strelka, which the USSR had sent to space, Nikita Khrushchev sent the Kennedys Strelka’s puppy daughter Pushinka. The Chinese gave President Richard Nixon two giant pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, after his historic 1972 visit to Beijing. The Chinese also gifted pandas to French President Georges Pompidou and British Prime Minister Edward Heath.

The elephant represents several countries in Asia and hence the popularity of elephant diplomacy. India has gifted elephants to over 20 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, Iran, Canada, the Netherlands, and Japan. Similarly, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka have also used elephants for soft-power diplomacy. Ho Chi Minh sent elephants to Mao Zedong in 1953 and 1960. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike gifted an elephant to Chinese children in 1972.

Australia has developed its koala diplomacy. Ahead of the Brisbane G-20 Summit in November 2014, world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff hugged and cuddled Jimbelung, a koala. Australia loaned four koalas, Paddle, Pellita, Chan and Idalia, to the Singapore zoo to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic ties.

Sometimes countries use exotic animals as diplomatic gifts. In February 2013, Australia’s Northern Territory presented a gift to Britain’s royal family, a baby crocodile hatched on the day Prince George’s conception was announced. President Suharto of Indonesia gifted komodo dragons to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and US President George H.W. Bush. The Turkmen leaders gave Akhal-Teke horses to successive Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gifted a Siberian kitten to Finnish President Tarja Halonen.

As we left Ganga behind, I observed European visitors, especially children, discussing India’s giant elephant. Seeing an animal of such size and poise was a wonder for them. I could only admire how well Ganga has represented India in a far-off land and stood tall as a test of friendly India-Central European ties.


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