Making all Elephants Visible
By Risidra Mendis
Lush green forests are cleared by the acre to make way for development and human settlement. Waterways are blocked and the water diverted to dry land for agricultural purposes. Gravel roads and elephant corridors are closed to build houses for politicians’ supporters. While all these activities take place at a rapid pace, Sri Lanka’s elephants are losing their much-needed habitat and suffer at the hands of humans.
Many years ago these majestic creatures were hunted and killed when Sri Lanka was under British rule. Today they are killed for their tusks and when they go into villages in search of food. They are also exploited for humans’ pleasure when they are taken in the scorching sun on hot tarred roads with tourists on their backs on safari rides.
Despite their size and strength these majestic animals continue to suffer at the hands of humans while the strict laws in place to protect them from abuse and exploitation are ignored. However, in a new turn of events, a group of environmentalists are on a crusade to have the elephant treated like a human and protected from harm and cruelty in the future.
Oppression of elephants
Arian D. Wallach of the Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology, Sydney,
Co-Founders, Centre for Eco-Cultural Studies, Diyakapilla, Sigiriya, Sujeewa Jasinghe and Sudarshani Fernando and Postdoctoral Researcher, Conservation Criminology Laboratory, Michigan State University, Jessica Bell Rizzolo advocate a rehabilitation programme, Compassionate Conservation and Elephant Personhood that would end the oppression of elephants, not by severing human-elephant relations, but by enabling human bonded elephants to live a full life.
“We consider this programme within a Compassionate Conservation framework, which recognises all sentient beings as persons. From this vantage point, we gaze further into the future to ask what direction human-elephant relations could take. What could emerge from a human-elephant relation once elephants are no longer enslaved and requiring rescue? We envisage a future beyond captivity and rewilding of elephant sovereignty. The captive elephant has long been prized as ‘an object of worship … a beast of burden…the pride of kings… the companion of mahouts… a machine of war… an envoy of peace….’ Today’s human-elephant relations continue on this well-trodden human-centric path. Elephants are the prize of the tourism industry, which holds most of the world’s elephants captive,” Jasinghe explained.
The environmentalists advocate a rehabilitation programme which would end the oppression of elephants not by severing elephants from humans, but by enabling human-bonded elephants to live full lives. The programme aims to transform the tourism industry from exploiter of elephants to fosterer of human-elephant reciprocity. “We consider how this forward-looking programme could lead to the recognition of animal personhood, and eventually sovereignty. Compassionate Conservation takes the standpoint that all sentient beings should be recognised as persons. A person, in an ethical sense, is someone (rather than something) whose moral status is respected. Currently, only humans are widely regarded as persons, while all other beings, including those with emotional, mental and social sophistication, such as elephants, are excluded from this moral community,” Jasinghe said.
He said wild elephants are regarded as units of Elephas maximus, while captive elephants are treated as property and recognising other animals as persons would be, for most current societies, revolutionary. “It will take an elephant to break through the immutable human-animal barrier. Elephants provide one of the strongest justifications for extending personhood beyond humans. Elephant beings are not only sentient, but are ‘psychological beings’ those for whom mental, emotional and social conditions determine their ability to thrive. Rewilding involves not only the absence of cruelty, but also the presence of physical and psychological flourishing and agency. Currently, alongside physical deprivation, the tourism industry creates conditions of such psychological harm for elephants as to cause some of the few known cases of complex post-traumatic stress disorder in another species,” Jasinghe said.
Elephants recognised as persons
He says recognising elephants as persons means that we are, “thinking about human-elephant relations in terms of inter-subjective interactions. A step in this direction was taken in Sri Lanka in 2014, when an illegally captured baby elephant was discovered and taken into State care for rehabilitation. It was the elephant that was considered the ‘aggrieved party’ in the legal prosecution that followed. If elephants are recognised as persons, captive elephants would likely be considered slaves. Some slaves may be better off than others, but all are at the bottom of power relations. Like other slave trades, the tourism industry is interconnected with an, ‘organised wildlife criminal network’ which captures wild elephant calves from Protected Areas,” Jasinghe said.
He said the rehabilitation programme fits within the broader quest to end slavery and establish just interspecies relations. “Just relations can only be formed when power is shared and equalised. A just elephant-human relation is one where elephants can withhold consent. Can just relations be formed between humans and elephants? The answer is ‘yes’. Ending the exploitation of elephants could, after all, also take the form of ending human-elephant relations entirely. But this could cause other forms of injustice. Therefore, rewilding of elephants presents a complex ethical question. Compassionate conservationists have adopted four guiding principles to help navigate such dilemmas,” Jasinghe explained.
He said ‘do no harm’ is a principle adopted from medical bioethics. It is a call to ensure that interventions do not cause more harm than good. “The lives of captive elephants are intertwined with humans. Therefore, any intervention must attend to the relationship. We agree that separating captive elephants from humans risks harming those elephants, the humans that depend on them, and the potential for future reciprocity,” Jasinghe explained.
Abduction of wild elephants
He added that ‘individuals matter’ is a principle that differentiates Compassionate Conservation from other conservation traditions. “It recognises the intrinsic value of individuals alongside their species, calling for conservation goals to be guided by compassion for sentient beings. The rewilding of captive elephants, who comprise around half the global population, could promote the recovery of this species and their ecological function and help end the abduction of wild elephants, while being guided by compassion for the individual elephants and the humans they are bonded to,” Jasinghe said.
He said inclusivity is Compassionate Conservation’s principle of moral expansiveness and it calls for all life to be included in conservation’s moral community regardless of categorisation (for example wild vs. captive). “Currently, many living beings are invisible to conservation, including human-bonded elephants. By making all elephants visible, we are challenging some of conservation’s basic assumptions. Peaceful coexistence is the last principle. The purpose of conservation is protecting biodiversity. The purpose of compassionate conservation is promoting peaceful coexistence. We are calling for a relation with elephants that is exactly that. The historical meaning of mahout is ‘the art of living and sharing life with elephants’. We imagine a world that has abolished elephant slavery and recognised elephant personhood. There will come a time when, thanks to programmes such as these, there will be no more elephants to rescue,” Jasinghe explained.
Double XL Twins Born!
The discovery of twin baby elephants at Minneriya National Park has alerted wildlife enthusiasts to the possibility that this is the first set of twins born in Sri Lanka.The twin elephant calves were observed by Former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya a few days ago.
“The twin calves appear to be about three to four weeks old. Most likely, they may have been observed by people, but behaviour observations confirmed that they are twins on 6 July 2020. They seem to be in reasonably good body condition and have been observed to be very active,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
He added that the birth of twins to an elephant is very rare and there may have been unrecorded births in the wild that nobody knows about.
However, Former Deputy Director of DWC Dr. Nandana Atapattu said this is not the first record of twin baby elephants born in the wild. “Three years ago the carcasses of two baby elephants were found within a close distance to each other at the Maduru Oya National Park. The DWC did not make any attempt to see if both carcasses were from the same mother. There could have been other incidents of twin births that we don’t know about in the wild. The birth of twins are very rare. But elephants are known to have given birth to triplets as well. If three calves are born most often all three won’t survive because the mother doesn’t have enough milk to feed all three babies,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
He said the DWC should take a special interest in the calves and ensure the mother and babies are not harassed when visitors enter the park to observe them. “It is the duty of the DWC to ensure that visitors don’t get too close to the mother and babies at this time,” Dr. Atapattu said.