‘Captive’ Not ‘Tame’
By Risidra Mendis
Captured from the wild against their will and taken away to a life of captivity, cruelty, and exploitation they suffered in silence, until the day when they were freed from a harsh and brutal life in chains. They have already lost their freedom to roam free in the wild but managed to live their lives in a peaceful environment, in the comfort and care of their caretakers since the shackles came off.
They didn’t know what kindness was until they were shown what it was like to be loved. But then came the day when they were once again snatched away from their familiar environment. These are the 14 elephants who were released on a Court Order to their illegal owners despite their ongoing Court cases. But the battle goes on, for their freedom and the freedom of many more who may suffer the same fate in the near future.
The nightmare for these elephants began soon after a gazette was released a few months ago. A gazette that is in total violation of their rights and which provided no protection for these captive elephants. “Elderly elephant Kumari in the custody of Kamal Kithsiri from Kottawa is forced into hard labour and beaten. Kithsiri is also the keeper of one of the returned illegal young elephants named Panchali....Is this the life she too has to look forward to? Is this how an elderly elephant should be treated in Sri Lanka,” Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE) Panchali Magdalena Panapitiya questioned.
No Army mascot
However animal welfare activists did have something to celebrate. Commander of Sri Lanka Army, General Shavendra Silva has promised to end the tradition of taking another baby elephant from Ath Athu Sevana, the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) at Udawalawe to replace the Army mascot elephant Kandula. The Sri Lanka Army uses an elephant as their within a certain age limit. When the elephants gets older he is replaced by another younger elephant calf from the ETH.
But activists are against this procedure as all orphaned baby elephants at ETH go through a training process to be released back to the wild. Taking a baby elephant from the ETH will deprive that animal of its freedom to be released to the jungles one day. But all these years the Sri Lanka Army turned a blind eye to this issue, until General Silva decided to make that much wanted change to the existing system.
“This is a historic day for elephant lovers in Sri Lanka. Ending a cruel tradition of five decades General Silva promised the nation that whilst he is the Army Commander no elephant will be held captive by the Army. Further, he confirmed that the decision to take a new baby elephant from Udawalawe ETH has been reversed and the preparation of the cabinet paper halted,” Panapitiya said.
Illegal kidnapping and smuggling
Although primarily a conservation society whose efforts are focused on mitigating the human elephant conflict (HEC) and other wildlife related matters, it is our society’s firm belief that captive elephants are essentially wild animals and the practice of keeping them captive, must come to an end in the near future.
“Captive elephants have a long history in this island, today in the 21st century, we are in a position to re-evaluate the impacts of that industry, to the emotional and physical wellbeing of these elephants over time. The captive elephant industry in our country in recent years has displayed its dark underbelly, which involves the illegal kidnapping and smuggling of baby elephants, sometimes killing the mother elephants in the process.
These things have been in the news and in courts in the past several years,” Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) officials said regarding the issue of captive elephants. They say in light of all this, it is commendable that Sri Lanka Army has taken this giant step on compassionate. “Thank you General Silva on behalf of Sri Lanka’s elephants – both wild and captive. Let’s hope the practice of elephant captivity can come to an end across all of Sri Lanka in the near future,” they explained.
Meanwhile commenting on the gazette issued on the ‘Protection, Wellbeing and Regularisation of Registration of Tamed Elephants’, Attorney-at-Law Aruna Laksiri Unawatuna said in this gazette there is no benefit or protection for the elephants. This gazette allows these animals to be used for various activities and is in violation of their rights. Airing his views Director of the Centre for Eco Cultural Studies (CES) Sujeewa Jasinghe said the gazette refers to these elephants as tame elephants. “In Sri Lanka we don’t have tame elephants.
Elephants were never domesticated. They are in captivity. If these elephants are tame, then why are they chained? We have wild elephants in captivity. This gazette is purely based on the irregular justification of using elephants in captivity, for commercial and profit making under the blanket cover of religion, culture, and tourism,” Jasinghe explained. “The gazette says, ‘when such elephant behaves violently and abnormally not obeying the commands of the mahout due to musth or any other cause, reasonable steps using minimum force in keeping with the traditional methods shall be taken to control such elephant’.
If the elephants are tame then they don’t need to obey the commands of the mahout. We also know that traditional methods include cruelty,” Jasinghe said. “The gazette also states that, ‘When such elephant is used for tourism or such other activity, not more than four persons shall be allowed on such elephant’. This allows elephants to be used for work and commercially. It also authorises the transportation of two elephants in one lorry. In a 10-wheel lorry. It also says an elephant shall not be transported for more than eight hours and for 360 km an elephant can be transported without stopping,” Jasinghe said.
He added that, “Earlier if an elephant was transported and was looking tired and thirsty we called the Police and said the elephant is being transported without water, but now an elephant can be taken for less than 12 hours without stopping. It also says, no elephant shall be deployed to tow any vehicle for a period of more than four hours per day without any rest’. In the future the elephant owners will use the elephant to tow vehicles. We have vehicles to tow other vehicles. If a vehicle transporting an elephant breaks down, the driver and mahout will get the elephant to tow the lorry,” Jasinghe explained. Jasinghe’s views are that elephants will be used for illegal timber harvesting will be allowed by this gazette.
“It further justifies the use of firecrackers in peraheras – a violation of the animal’s rights. This gazette is legally accepting that elephants can be used for cinemas and films. There are no traditional elephant doctors that treat elephants in this country. What is the agency that is registering traditional elephant doctors? But the gazette says registered traditional doctors are allowed to treat elephants,” Jasinghe said. According to the gazette it is allowed to cut a tusk or a tush of an elephant in order to prevent any threat or damage to the health of the elephant, only condition being the Director General of DWC should be informed about the tusk or tush cut within one month and the incident being duly recorded.
Jasinghe is of the view that the hassle-free nature of the legal proceedings related to something grave as cutting a tusk of an elephant could actually encourage thieves and ivory trade. He said the traditional bull hook used was a blunt one, but now it is pointed. “The gazette says the bull hook can be used to control the elephant with the minimum powers. The mahout will hit the elephant with the bull hook and then say he used minimum powers. The Director General Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) cannot issue licenses for elephants that were illegally caught from the wild. So how are these elephants going to be registered,” Jasinghe questioned.
Elephant issue in Parliament
State Minister of Estate Housing and Community Infrastructure Jeevan Thondaman was also commended by environmentalists and activists for raising the elephant issue in Parliament recently. “In Sri Lanka religion is held in high regard. Let it be Buddhism, let it be Hinduism. It is shameful that the elephant God who we worship, we keep in such high regard and yet we are the ones who abuse these so called elephants. And I think our mindset needs to change. Mahatma Gandhi had once quoted that the greatness of a nation lies in the way the animals are treated,” Minister Thondaman said.
Addressing the issue the Chairman of Sri Lanka Wildlife Veterinary Surgeons’ Association Dr. B.A.D.S. Jayawardana, Deputy Chairman Dr. E.P.A. Priyasad, Secretary Dr. H.P.R.N.S. Karunarathne, Deputy Secretary Dr. Kalani Samarakone, and Treasurer Dr. Thulmini Diyagoda in a letter dated 8 September 2021 to the Director General of DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara say their Association is totally against the release of the elephants back to their illegal owners while in the custody of the DWC.
“From the day these elephants were taken into custody of the Department, wildlife veterinary surgeons and officials worked towards the best interests of these elephants. While the cases were been heard wildlife officials gave their full commitment towards taking care of these elephants while risking their lives in the process. The officials also tried to stop the cruel methods used to illegally capture these wild baby elephants from the wild. But now these elephants were given back to their illegal owners with pending court cases,” they said.
They said that they request the Director General to ensure that these innocent elephants that were in the custody of the DWC be given the justice they deserve. Copies of the letter were also sent to the Wildlife Minister, Wildlife State Minister, Secretary to the Ministry, and Secretary to the State Ministry among others. President of Justice for Animals and Nature (JAN) Dr. Ven Omalpe Sobitha Thera has also pledged his support to end this cruelty imposed on captive elephants “It is two years since the passing of Tikiri, the emaciated elephant that captured the world’s heart and shone a bright light on the suffering of captive elephants in Sri Lanka.
Tikiri died on 24 September 2020. In those two years there has been little in the way of progress, only regression. There can never be any hope of better conditions for captive elephants whilst the leaders of the captive elephant industry attempt to justify cruelty, detract from abuse or simply hide the suffering of elephants,” RARE said. They say if these people really do love elephants as they claim frank and honest conversations need to be had, some of those conversations may be painful but this is the only way that real progress will be achieved for our elephants - This should be Tikiri’s legacy.