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Elephants on parade: India pumps new life into livestock fair sapped by ban on elephant trade

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SONEPUR, India - Fortune-telling parrots. Elephants on parade. Trick ponies, rare songbirds and dancing girls behind barbed wire.

Hoping there is something for everyone at the Sonepur Mela, one of India's largest annual livestock fairs, organizers admit they are struggling to revive a festival that has been sapped by a ban on elephant sales and changing economic realities.

In decades past, the festival drew hundreds of elephants — and hundreds of thousands of people hoping to watch the animals revered in India as an earthly incarnation of the Hindu god Ganesh bathe in the river or do tricks for a crowd.

But a 2003 ban on buying and selling elephants has left owners little reason to cart the heavy beasts to the fair. Buyers of other livestock now use cellphones and the Internet to make deals rather that trek out to this livestock market on the banks of the Ganges River in Bihar, one of India's poorest states.

"This is our Indian heritage. This festival is unparalleled. We can't let it go," said Rahul, a local government official who goes by one name, running down attractions that include an exotic bird market, traditional folk music concerts, hundreds of food stalls and eight caged stages featuring writhing girls in heavy makeup and sparkly spandex.

In size, the festival eclipsed the smaller but more famous Pushkar camel market in Rajasthan. By theme, it was thought to be the largest elephant swap in the world, situated at the site of a mythological battle in which the Hindu god Vishnu helped an elephant defeat a crocodile.

Brisk trading saw elephants bought and sold by Indian loggers, army outfits and temple administrators.

This year, dozens of elephants still showed up, technically only for exhibition, although Rahul noted that "someone can still give an elephant as a gift."

About a dozen of them — chalked up with colorful decorations — galloped on Sunday for a lumbering race over a dusty track, lined by thousands of cheering spectators under a hazy winter sun.

"This fair is famous for its elephants. But now people with money, they want a BMW, they want a Mercedes. Soldiers have jeeps. No one needs an elephant anymore," said veterinarian Brajbushan Prasad Singh.

While the 21-day fair may be past its heyday, the government and private companies together still spent more than $222,000 to hold it in November and December, with creaky carnival rides, booming loudspeakers and more than 1,000 police officers deployed. Some 10,000 people show up daily.

Crowds filed past wire cages crammed with writhing puppies and emaciated pedigree dogs, looking for the healthiest and fluffiest of the motley bunch to take home. Others sold cows, horses, birds or other animals sought today more as household pets than beasts of burden.

Lawyer Krishan Gupta sized up a bony bay colt selling for about $400 as a possible pet to "make my children happy."

Student Bikas Kumar snagged a bright green parrot for $3.20 because, he said, "It's cool."

India banned the sale of elephants to clamp down on the ivory trade and because, like cows, they are considered sacred. But the country's 26,000 or so wild elephants are threatened by speeding trains and shrinking habitat as human settlements expand. Last month, a passenger train slammed into a herd of elephants and killed seven, including two calves.

At the dusty fair grounds, children giggled as a 3-year-old elephant named Rani draped garlands of marigolds over the heads of those who paid the equivalent of 32 U.S. cents for a photo of them being blessed by the baby elephant.

Despite the shrinking numbers of elephants at the fair, visitors who interact with them gain an appreciation for them and the dangers they face amid India's burgeoning growth, said Santosh Kumar Singh, one of four farming brothers who own Rani, three other elephants and much of the land where the festival is held every year.

"It disturbs me that they're not safe in the jungle anymore," Singh said. "These animals are our lives. I have more faith in the elephants than I do in people. An elephant will never betray you."

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Follow Katy Daigle on Twitter at twitter.com/katydaigle

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