End Captive Elephant Suffering
By Risidra Mendis
The Buddha has said “Be kind to all creatures, this is the true religion.” In a predominantly Buddhist country where equal compassion towards all living beings should be practiced, what we hear is just the opposite. Every day we hear of elephants being tortured and harassed in Buddhist temples all in the name of culture and tradition.
Many temples have tuskers to be used in peraheras and to carry the sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. In the last few weeks animal welfare activists (AWAs) have voiced their concerns over the cruelty imposed on the tusker Miyan Prince, belonging to the Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara. A video that went viral showing a mahout senselessly beating Miyan Prince with a stick while the tusker was in the water, has brought the prominent temple bad publicity in recent weeks.
Buddha never said his Tooth Relics should be taken on the back of a tusker and yet, most temples still use tuskers in peraheras to do just the same.
AWA Visakha Tillekeratne said after the Chief Priest of the Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera passed away, there were stories that the elephant was responsible for the monk’s death and as a result the animals had been tortured. “Chairperson of Animal Welfare Trust (AWT) Irangani de Silva and I immediately went to the Myanmar Embassy and told them to take the tusker back or give the animal to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). But they were not interested and said once they give an animal they can’t take it back. From that time onwards the AWAs have been following this case,” Tillekeratne explained.
She said after the priest died the tusker was found in a temple in Wadduwa and the elephant was very closely confined in isolation. “Then we heard he was moved to an area in Avissawella and people had seen him being assaulted. He had been ill-treated. I spoke to the late Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera’s brother and told him there are reports of the tusker been beaten. The priest denied these reports. Earlier the tusker was ill-treated, now the animal is neglected. The DWC says the elephant belongs to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The DWC can take action but they are not doing anything. This elephant has to be put in a sanctuary because he is very thin and not taken care of by the temple. The Chief Priest Ven. Dr. Bellanwila Dammarathana Thera should have let the AWAs see the baby tusker anytime if they had nothing to hide,” Tillekeratne said.
“Being kind to animals is not a fashion. A person should know something more about animals because compassion alone is not enough. Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara is one of the best temples in the country that treats its elephants well. Miyan Prince is given a bath regularly and fed well. He is treated very well by the temple. We have to put a chain on the elephant in case of an emergency. When the baby tusker is given a bath a mahout has to get on top of the animal to scrub and wash the animal. When the AWAs see this they say it is animal cruelty. When the tusker is in musth he has to be kept tied. This elephant has no chain cuts on his legs because his chains are changed regularly from one leg to another. We don’t let our elephants’ legs get festered and rotten by chain cuts and wounds. There was a time when the temple had six elephants. Nobody needs to teach us about compassion to animals,” Ven. Dr. Dammarathana Thera said in response to the allegations made.
The Thera said some elephant owners hire out their elephants for hard labour and that they also give out elephants for peraheras for a fee. “We don’t hire Miyan Prince for work and we don’t charge a fee when the tusker participates in peraheras. The Director of National Zoological Gardens Dehiwela Ishini Wickremesinghe sent two of her officials to secretly take photos of the temple elephants. It is not ethical to send people like this. Wickremesinghe should have told me she wanted to see the elephants and I would have let her see them,” Ven. Dr. Dammarathana Thera said.
Love for elephants
Ven. Dr. Dammarathana Thera was informed that Hema Premadasa wanted to see Miyan Prince and the former first lady was allowed to see the tusker. “The late Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera was very fond of elephants. In the old days people used to come and give the late Ven. Prof.Wimalarathana Thera their elephants. The late Thera looked after these animals very well. A sick elephant was given to the late Thera and he looked after the animal for more than a year. When the animal was too weak and fell down the late Thera brought a crane to lift the elephant. After humans the next intelligent animal is the elephant,” Ven. Dr. Dammarathana Thera explained.
The Thera said the video clip that was circulated on social media of a mahout hitting Miyan Prince with a stick while having a bath is an incident that took place two years ago. But the AWAs are circulating this video now and saying the temple is ill-treating the tusker. When this incident took place Dr. Jagath Jayasekera and officials from the DWC were brought to see the tusker. DWC officials and Dr. Jayasekera concluded the tusker had no injuries from the incident. “So many elephants are dying in the wild by eating hakka pattas, by gunshot wounds, by getting knocked down by trains, by falling in wells, and by electrocution. The AWAs don’t make a fuss about elephants dying in the wild. They are finding fault with a temple that is treating their tusker very well,” Ven. Dr. Dammarathana Thera said.
The Thera further said that it is very sad that some Buddhist monks have also voiced their concerns about the way the temples are treating the tuskers. “I am asking all those monks to come to the temple and see Miyan Prince with their own eyes. They will then understand how we are taking good care of the elephant,” Ven. Dr. Dammarathana Thera voiced an open invitation.
No injuries on tusker
Dr. Jayasekera - Miyan Prince’s Veterinary Surgeon - said Miyan Prince was five years old when he was brought to the temple and from the time the baby tusker was brought to the temple he had been the tusker’s doctor. “Now, the tusker is 13 years old.
He is a very friendly animal. When this incident was highlighted in the media I personally went and examined the tusker and there were no injuries. Recently when there were complaints that the animal was being tortured I went and examined the tusker and there were no injuries.
The temple is taking care of the tusker well. The animal is taken for a walk of 2 kiometres for exercise. For an animal of this age this walking distance is sufficient,” Dr. Jayasekera explained.
He went on to say that he suggested to the monks that the tusker should be removed from the temple during the funeral of the late Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera because there were large crowds coming to pay their last respects to the monk.
“The baby tusker was not used to large crowds at that time and I didn’t want people going to see the animal and upsetting him. There were stories that late Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera was pushed by Miyan Prince and he fell and later passed away. This is not true because I know that the Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera slipped and fell, and later succumbed to his injuries in hospital,” Dr. Jayasekera said
He added Miyan Prince was not tortured by his mahouts or taken away because he was responsible for Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera’s death. He was taken away from the temple for the safety of the people and Dr. Jayasekera said that he could vouch for the fact that Miyan Prince was not abused or tortured during or after the funeral of the late Ven. Prof. Wimalarathana Thera.
Director General of DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara confirmed that wildlife officers had seen the tusker about a year ago and had found no injuries on the animal.
Animal Welfare Bill pending
Commenting on the law, Lawyer and Animal Welfare Advocate Lalani Perera, said if there are regulations to provide for the welfare of elephants in captivity, those having the custody of such elephants can be held accountable for non-compliance. “But there is none. If at all, it is the archaic Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 that may be used in such a situation – a law where the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals is a fine of Rs 100 or a jail term extending up to a mere three months. An Animal Welfare Bill to replace that outdated Ordinance is unfortunately pending for over 15 years,” Perera said.
She added the public uproar caused in 2009, subsequent to the forcible separation of two baby elephants, Sindhu and Raju, both under three years of age, from the mother elephants, was a turning point. “Their forcible removal from the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage by Diyawadana Nilame Sri Dalada Maligawa Nilanga Dela, and their tragic plight in his custody, received wide public condemnation and media coverage. This led to AWT seeking an order from the Court of Appeal to have Sindhu and Raju returned to Pinnawela. The AWT has also been attempting to get the Government to introduce regulations for the welfare and protection of elephants in captivity and through court has submitted a set of such regulations to the Wildlife Ministry,” Perera explained.
She added that although the then Minister of Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera submitted these Regulations to Cabinet for approval as far back as 18 October 2016, they still remain without legal force. “The AWT has met some other Wildlife Ministers as well, who readily agreed to take the necessary follow up action; yet, these regulations continue to remain without Parliamentary approval and thus unenforceable. Who is responsible for the delay? Is it politics, bureaucratic lethargy or vested interests?” Perera questioned. She said conservationists and the AWAs do not support the concept of captivity. “However, age-old traditions, whether their origins are within or outside the country cannot be changed overnight. Therefore, it is essential that regulations are introduced without further delay to prevent cruelty and exploitation of captive elephants and ensure their welfare. It is also essential to bring our laws into conformity with humane animal welfare standards,” Perera explained.
(Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)