Carrying Coals to Newcastle?

Toby Ninan retired from Delhi Zoo about two years back. With his varied experiences with the wild animals in the zoo, he is the right person to direct your queries to. Hear what Ninan has to say about his life and chosen career!


The year 1974. The pair of baby elephants had to go to Zanzibar. This was a gift of the Vice President of India to the Tanzanian government and they had to go by sea.

This was the first time that I had carried elephants without crates & that too by sea.I had two mahouts to help me ship them to Africa. I wondered why take elephants to a land where they were in plenty but soon I came to know that these were being sent to a hotel in Zanzibar where hey would be giving joyrides to tourists.

We hired an eight wheeler railway wagon (postal van as it was called) to transport them from Delhi to Bombay. Housed in the Byculla zoo temporarily, we were told that 'Mapinduzi' was arriving in Bombay harbour in a couple of days.

The elephants had to travel on the deck and had to be hoisted up by a crane. I had only seen elephants hoisted up in films where it looked an easy enough task. Here I learnt the hard way that each elephant had to not only have a belt around its middle but also one on either side of the side of the head which passed from under the fore-leg pits. Finally all the belts joined above the back to the hook of the crane. Hoisted by a crane, the youngsters boarded the ship and were soon tied securely to poles on the deck.

I was given a beautiful cabin fully air conditioned with a fine bathroom fitted with a bathtub and bubble bath. I also had a small fridge which contained six beers which would be replaced daily throughout my voyage. The Captain was Japanese. He wanted the deck to be spotlessly clean at all times. This meant that any pile of dung coming down from the rear of the elephant or a sower of wine had to be cleaned up no sooner than it hit the deck. This was OK by me but to my horror both my mahouts came down with a bout of virulent sea sickness and i had to bear the brunt of 'operation cleanup'.

The sea sickness improved after a week and I sat back to enjoy a wonderful voyage though I had to settle for either uncooked fish of the Japanese style or boiled meat of the Tanzanian style as the crew consisted of six Japanese six Tanzanians and one Indian engineer. The ship, built in Japan, was on its way to be delivered to Zanzibar at a cost of 63 million schillings. There were no other passengers besides the elephants, the two mahouts and me.

After a voyage of two weeks we reached Zanzibar. After unloading the elephants I was asked by one of the Zanzibarian officials as to what the elephants would eat. I asked what was the staple food of their people and they said it was rice. You can give them rice, I said casually. This however proved to be a bombshell. Unknown to me, there were two groups at Zanzibar -one pro Indian and the other anti Indian. The anti -Indian group started spreading rumours that the Indians had sent the elephants so that they ( elephants) would eat up all the rice produced and all the people would starve. This was told to me by the Chief Engineer of their Electricity Board who was an Indian! This was horrifying news indeed and I immediately called up the Zanzibar official to clarify. The elephants can be fed sugarcane tops available in plenty as waste from the sugar cane factory. They could also feed these animals with leaves and branches from the mango and jackfruit trees which grew in abundance on these islands.

Once the presentation ceremony was over and all misconceptions ruled out, common people poured in large numbers to see the elephants. Surprisingly, very few had seen an elephant though just forty miles across the ocean from the mainland there were elephants (African Elephants) galore. There was a belief among locals that burnt elephant dung was a cure for colds. So it was very easy to get rid of dung and the premises of the elephant yard were kept spotlessly clean.

After a month's stay I had settled the animals in their new set up and returned to India with the satisfaction of a job well done.

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