The Delhi High Court on Tuesday termed as "serious" and "shocking" that there was a huge gap in the number of animals found by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), as against those registered with it, when it inspected circuses across the country.
The high court also asked AWBI and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) to find out what happened to the missing animals.
A bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rajnish Bhatnagar directed the AWBI and CZA to file an affidavit disclosing the status of the circus animals registered with the Board and listed the matter for further hearing in January 2021.
The direction was issued after the court was informed by the Federation of Indian Animals Protection Organisation (FIAPO) that according to the survey report filed by AWBI, around 740 circus animals were registered with it, but in the survey only 28 were found.
"It is a serious issue. Out of 740 registered with you (AWBI), you have only 28 to answer for. What happened to the rest of them," the high court asked AWBI during the hearing.
It further said, in its order, that "One shocking state that has been revealed is that of the 740 animals registered with AWBI, information is available only available with regard to 28, leaving a massive gap.."
It asked AWBI and CZA to indicate in their affidavits the status of all the circus animals registered with them and also why the Board only inspected 19 out of the 28 circuses in the country.
It also directed the Board to inform the court how many circuses are operational and what happens to the animals in circuses which have been shut down.
During the hearing, an official from CZA told the bench that animals of closed down circuses and those not registered with AWBI are the concern and responsibility of the respective state wildlife authority.
The high court was informed that the authorities were in the process of withdrawing recognition of the Great Golden Circus in Gujarat, the only circus in the entire country which is recognised under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Action is being taken against it for alleged violation of the provisions of the Act with regard to maintenance and display of captive elephants, the CZA told the court.
The high court was hearing the PILs filed by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and FIAPO for protection of animals in circuses stranded across the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
PETA India, represented by advocates Aman Hingorani and Swati Sumbly, has claimed in its plea that due to the Covid-19 outbreak and resultant lockdown, circuses are finding it difficult to feed the animals which at various stages of starvation.
It has sought a direction to the Centre to immediately notify the Performing Animals (Registration) Amendment Rules of 2018 which expressly prohibit training and exhibition of performing animals in circuses and "mobile entertainment facilities".
FIAPO, which is a group of 100 organisations and works towards the protection of animal rights for over a decade, has challenged the constitutional validity of sections 21 to 27 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act so far as they permit exhibition and training of animals in relation to circus acts.