The Mongolians, historically, are known for their horse-riding skills. Legend has it that the Mongol warriors, as young as 14, could shoot straight arrows while riding a horse backward and even sleep on one! It was no surprise then that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was gifted a horse by the Mongolian Prime Minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg when he visited the country on May 16. “We gave them a reproduction of a 13th century scroll related to the Mongolians while our prime minister was gifted a brown horse, symbolic of their longstanding history,” says an officer in the external affairs ministry.
In May, a Sri Lankan aircraft carrying eight horses made an emergency landing at the Pune airport—the animals were part of a friendly exchange between Sri Lankan and Pakistan armies. Last year, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal received some 'Nachi' breed goats from Pakistan. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, on earlier occasions, got six buffaloes of the 'Ravi' breed and four 'Sahiwal' cows as gifts from across the border.
Animals are also exchanged between zoos across nations. Recently, the Prague zoo requested lions from Gujarat while the Byculla Zoo in Mumbai is planning to get three pairs of Humboldt penguins, native to coastal Peru and Chile, by September. The authorities are said to be spending close to $19 crore for building a special enclosure and upkeep of the species.
Exchanging or gifting animals by nations is not something new. The Saudis gifted two horses to external affairs minister Jaswant Singh along with their passports during a visit in early 2000s and Congress leader H.K.L. Bhagat was given a 'Sahiwal' cow on his visit to Pakistan. In 1949, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru sent a baby elephant named Indira (after his daughter) to a zoo in Japan.
Some people see the recent gifts as the revival of 'animal diplomacy' while reaching out to other countries. Most nations that gift animals choose one that is either native or symbolic to their country or not found in the receiving nation.
The founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, used the cuddly-looking pandas in the 1950s to initiate political relations with nations, which between 1980 and 2000 turned into loans in exchange for resources. “It is to show assets linked to a country's history,” says Shashank, former foreign secretary. “For Mongolians, who once had the largest land empire in the world, the horses were literally attached to the warrior's body. Like the lion in India's case. Once upon a time, they were found all over the country till they were hunted down. Wherever you see the Ashoka Pillar, there will be four lions close to it. They are attached to India's history and mythology.”
According to K.P. Fabian, former diplomat, such exchanges are part of making friends. The Chinese have been practising panda diplomacy with nations they want to befriend. A pair was given to the US in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon visited the country, and later to the UK, Japan, and last year to Malaysia. “When I was the undersecretary in the 1970s, we sent some peacocks and peahens to Thailand,” says Fabian. “A while ago, there was talk of sending elephants to Ethiopia from Kerala. One of the MLAs who had slept off during the discussion vaguely heard it as people going to Ethiopia and promptly said, 'One of them must be Christian'!”
How does one read such exchanges? “It is a symbolic gesture,” says Shashank. “We have on several visits over the years gifted indigenous handicrafts, historical monument artefacts, dance and music CDs and DVDs, and even watches and television sets to show that we are a manufacturing country. Animals would perhaps represent a harmony with nature.”
Some officials even travel with their favourite animals. It is said Muammar Gaddafi, former Libyan prime minister, needed his camels around because he could drink only camel's milk. In India, Mahatma Gandhi had a goat that travelled with him; he drank only goat's milk. Nehru kept two tiger cubs at home, which the grandkids played with at Teen Murti, before gifting them to the zoo. An Indian ambassador is said to have refused a posting to the Maldives because the island nation doesn't allow dogs and the official was particularly attached to his five pets and couldn't bear to travel without them.
In general, animal gifts to another country's zoos are always reciprocal, says a senior official of the Central Zoo Authority. “Animals in these instances are not exchanged for commerce or business or given for free,” he says. “We generally don't give away animals in cases where the mate is left alone.”
The process also varies. While Jaswant Singh received the saddles and passports along with the horses, it is generally the country's ambassador who makes the arrangements for the animals, in some cases with their handlers, to be dispatched to their new residence. Before making the gift offer, the ministry of external affairs has to take the requisite permissions.
However, animal rights activists aren't particularly pleased with the gesture. “These 'goodwill' ideas end up representing animals as objects,” says activist Ambika Shukla. “The mindset is that they are to be given away like toys. Do they take into account its natural habitat, climate or stress of travel? When zoo-to-zoo exchanges happen, they must look at what has happened to the gifted animals in the past. Did it thrive or lead a shortened life? We should consider making it a policy to not gift animals.”
Shukla raises a valid point. Uprooting an animal from its natural habitat may pose a risk to its life. And, officials are also realising it. So, Modi's horse may not come to India. “Owing to differing climatic conditions, the horse may not survive in India and, hence, it is not being brought here,” says a ministry official. “We used to earlier gift elephants, but given logistic issues, we have stopped that now.”
* Narendra Modi got a brown horse as gift from the Mongolian prime minister in May.
* Parkash Singh Badal received some 'Nachi' breed goats from Pakistan last year.
* His son Sukbir Singh Badal got six buffaloes of the 'Ravi' breed and four 'Sahiwal' cows.
* The Saudis gifted two horses to Jaswant Singh during his visit in early 2000s.
* In 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru sent a baby elephant named Indira to a zoo in Japan.
* The Chinese have been practising panda diplomacy for decades now.