Domesticated to what extent?


They belong in the wild with their kith and kin, free to roam the lush green forests in search of food and water. Not in chains and captivity, and made to work like slaves, in fear of been pricked with the bull hook or cut with a knife.

Sri Lanka’ domestic elephants, for many years, have suffered the brutality of humans and still continue to suffer through, despite the heavy criticism and pressure by animal welfare activists demanding the animals should be freed to live a life free of chains and cruelty.

Mothers are killed and their babies forcibly snatched away from the jungles to be trained and used for hard labour, peraheras, and safari rides. Their spirits are cruelly broken by torture and fear and made to obey the commands of humans. This cruelty to elephants still goes on when some Buddhist monks ignore the plight of the animal and instead, use the majestic creature to earn money. With the death of Nadungamuwe Raja – the iconic tusker that carried the sacred tooth relic in the annual Kandy Esala Perahera – there was an outcry from the public and animal welfare activists regarding the death of the tusker. The owners of the tusker were criticised for not taking care of the tusker well and letting him participate in the perahera despite his age and problems with his legs.   

Convener of the Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle of Sri Lanka, Supun Lahiru Prakash shares his ideas with Ceylon Today about the domesticated elephant population in the country and what should be done to make their lives more comfortable. 

Demise of Nadungamuwe Raja

“After the demise of the celebrity tusker Nadungamuwe Raja, the general public widely expressed their sympathies in many ways, especially via social media. However, attention given to the death of this tusker was not focused properly on the bitter truth behind the domesticated elephant industry in Sri Lanka. The domesticated elephant population in Sri Lanka has shown a serious decline and is limited to about 100 specimens today. Lack of elephants for Buddhist cultural events is a leading topic among so-called Buddhists, yet no one talks about increasing the domestic elephant population in the country via a proper breeding programme, which is the main reason for the rapid decline of the domestic elephant population,” Prakash reveals.

According to him even Nadungamuwe Raja was not subjected to such a breeding programme and its fundamental right to experience sexual interaction was violated. “On the other hand serious issues with regard to proper nutrition, healthcare and welfare of domestic elephants have been reported from time to time which led to the untimely deaths of elephants kept under captivity. A number of elephants under private parties and temples have died due to a lack of concern on proper nutrition, healthcare, and welfare,” Prakash explains.

“The use of elephants is being shifted rapidly from cultural purposes to commercial uses such as tourism and logging. This is a violation of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) because, according to the basic interpretation of this Ordinance, it is referred to as an ordinance to provide for the prevention of commercial and other illegal purposes of animals,” Prakash says.

A new regulation

He says the Government enacted a new regulation entitled ‘The Regulation on the Protection, Welfare and Registration of Domestic Elephants No. 1 of 2021,’ published in Gazette Notification No. 2241/41 on 19 August 2021, which provides indirect permission to promote the use of elephants for tourism and logging. “The use of elephants for elephant safaris is a major reason behind the untimely deaths of domesticated elephants. On the other hand, a number of elephants have died during logging operations, most of which are illegal logging activities. However, those who have been saddened about the death of the Nadungamuwe Tusker did not talk about these issues,” Prakash said.

Some people including the Minister of Environment called this tusker ‘Bodhisattva,’ Prakash says. However, they did not pay attention to the exploiting of these elephants for labour and until they died from tiredness, hunger, and thirst. “According to the controversial regulation on the Protection, Welfare and Registration of Domestic Elephants No. 1 of 2021, elephants should not be used for any purpose after the age of 60 years. However, the Nadungamuwe Tusker who died at the age of 69 was used for the recently concluded religious festival at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic last year,” Prakash reveals.

He says this is allowed by the above gazette through an exception of the main regulations, yet can anyone justify the use of an older animal that should be retired at the age of 60 years, under any circumstance? “However, so-called Buddhists and those who have been saddened with the loss of Nadungamuwe Raja did not utter a single word on these issues. Furthermore, we are aware that illegal wildlife smuggling rackets are functioning in the country even today, to fulfil the demand for domestic elephants by trafficking elephants from the wild, due to the unviability of captive breeding programmes. For the first time, we documented the extent to which wild elephants are being illegally captured and traded in Sri Lanka and a scientific research article was published in 2020,” Prakash said.

According to him culprits have used various methods to capture live elephants from the wild, including capturing young elephants by either killing or sedating the maternal elephant by shooting or using tranquiliser guns, injecting tranquilisers into young elephants, pit-fall trapping, and noosing. “Yet, no one has been penalised for these illegal and inhumane acts and smuggling attempts are being continuously reported. In addition to the illegal elephant trade there were some attempts to domesticate problem causing elephants, which have also ended up in disaster,” Prakash says.

Taming problem elephants

Practically all ‘problem-elephants’ are aggressive adult males and taming of such males takes a long time (months to years). It is difficult and extremely expensive task which likely to have a high mortality rate. “The last two times ‘problem-elephants’ were captured and taming was attempted are illustrative. In the first instance a captured male was taken to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage but could not be tamed after more than two years and was finally released into the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground. In the second instance a captured male was given to the Dalada Maligawa and after immense expense for treatment, died of chain cut injuries on the legs,” Prakash reveals.

Prakash urges the enactment of a national policy on captive elephants which introduces a scientific and transparent process regarding the registration and renewal of licenses to hold captive elephants. “This should lead to a limit on the use of captive elephants for cultural, religious, and tourism purposes. I do not oppose the using of domesticated elephants for limited, unique, and iconic religious and cultural festivals while ensuring proper nutrition, healthcare, and welfare. However, using them for tourism, logging, political events and wedding ceremonies should not be promoted. Even using them in small processions in temples, Dhamma Schools, and Katina Pinkamas should not be promoted,” Prakash explains.

He says the authorities responsible for the welfare and conservation of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka should adopt the standardised captive elephant registration protocols and best practices proposed by the 17th Conference of Parties of CITES in 2016 and the second Asian Elephant Range States’ meeting in 2017.

“These guidelines include; DNA registration, monitoring protocols for captive populations, guidelines for the management and welfare of captive elephants, disease management including zoonotic diseases, training and capacity building of staff and mahouts, and a specific national policy to manage the captive elephant population to avoid the illicit live elephant trade. These new protocols may discourage the malpractices associated with the illegal trade of wild Asian elephants and secure the welfare of captive Asian elephants in Sri Lanka,” Prakash said.

By Risidra Mendis