File photo of the Kerala High Court.
Kochi: Quashing a lower court order directing payment of compensation to the owner of an elephant killed by a police officer after it ran amok, the Kerala High Court has held that a public servant must give preference to protect the lives of humans, rather than that of animals.
A division bench gave the direction while allowing an appeal by a police officer, relating to him killing a captive elephant to save several human lives during a temple festival in the state.
"A public servant shall never be a coward or a doubting Thomas in such a dangerous circumstance where human life is in peril," the court said in its judgment.
It said a public servant, who is on duty, to prevent or obviate danger to human lives caused by a dangerous animal, must give preference to protect the lives of human beings, which stands guaranteed under the Constitution, rather than that of an animal.
The appeal was filed against a trial court order allowing a suit filed by the owner of the elephant, claiming compensation from the police officer and district magistrate for the killing of the animal.
In its judgment, the High Court said a public servant can shoot an animal to save a human life if he is empowered and authorised to use firearms, but added that "the circumstance must justify the shooting of the animal".
"In other words, if he has no other way to save the lives of human beings, (there is) nothing wrong in shooting the animal so as to kill it in order to save a human life, whatever be the nature of the animal, even if it is a lion. "In such situations, we have no hesitation to hold that preference must be given to human beings rather than animals," it added.
The court also expressed "deep concern and anguish" about the plight of captive elephants and the recurring incidents of killing of several persons and mahouts by such pachyderms during temple/mosque festivals.
"We are of the opinion that processions and exhibitions exposing the captive elephants for a long time to a hostile atmosphere is tantamount to cruelty to the elephants," the court said.
Observing that the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2003 were not sufficient to prevent cruelty to captive elephants, the court said, "It is high time for the legislature to act for liberating these poor wild animals from the processions and exhibitions in connection with festivals of temples/mosques and allow them to live freely in the jungle."