Nabbed, Imprisoned, Tortured, and Sold
By Risidra Mendis
They are forcibly taken away from their mothers at a very young age, to be exploited by those interested in using them for their personal gain and to be kept as showpieces. Over the years hundreds of baby elephants and young adults in the wild have suffered immense cruelty and in some cases even death at the hands of humans for no fault of their own.
In a predominantly Buddhist country that boasts of a rich culture and heritage, the suffering of elephants continues, due to the corrupt practices of some, whose only interest is making maximum use of these majestic creatures by illegally capturing them from the wild.
The recent release of a document for the first time on the illegal capture and internal trade of wild elephants in the country from January 2008 to December 2018 explains the corrupt practices of the trade and what measures should be taken to protect the remaining elephant populations for future generations.
The research conducted by the Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle of Sri Lanka, T. G. Supun Lahiru Prakash; Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) W. A. A. D. Upul Indrajith and A. M. C. P. Aththanayaka; Nature Explorations and Education Team, Suranjan Karunarathna; Biodiversity Conservation Society, Madhava Botejue; Department of Social Sciences, U.K., Vincent Nijman and Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences USA, Sujan Henkanaththegedara says the illegal wildlife trade is considered one of the major threats to global biodiversity and 55 cases where elephants were illegally traded was documented.
Illegally taken from the wild
“Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) have been highly valued by various cultures for use in religious and spiritual contexts, as a draft animal, and more recently, as a tourist attraction. Wild Asian elephants are taken from the wild, often illegally, to maintain these captive populations due to the unviability of captive breeding programmes. Data was collected from case records maintained by the court system where the suspects of the illegal elephant trade were prosecuted. This is probably an underestimate due to the mortality rate of elephants during capture operations and challenges in collecting data on this highly organised illicit trade. Nearly equal numbers of male and female elephants were traded and more than 50 per cent of them were juveniles, aged below five years,” the researchers explained.
They say significantly more elephants were found to be seized in 2014–2015 and smugglers have been using sophisticated methods and operate under strong networks involving corrupt wildlife officers, politicians, Buddhist monks, high-ranking Government officers, magistrates, businessmen, tourism entrepreneurs and even military personnel. “This is a very lucrative business and a single elephant could be sold for between Rs 7.5 million and Rs 12.5 million in 2018 (US$ 40,500–67,500). Our study, for the first time, has provided the best available information regarding the extent, mechanisms and the potential impacts of live wild Asian elephant smuggling in Sri Lanka,” they said.
The researchers said the wildlife trade is one of the most profitable multi-billion dollar enterprises, involving direct exploitation of wild plants, animals, other organisms and the rarest species may incur great demand, high prices and high profit margins and species susceptible to harvesting from the wild are pushed further towards the edge of extinction.
“After India, the largest remaining elephant population is found in Sri Lanka. In 2019, this was estimated at 5,900 individuals or about 13 per cent of the global total. Habitat loss and fragmentation have been historically considered the key driving forces of the population decline of Asian elephants. A recent survey showed that elephants occupy over 60 per cent of land and people reside in 69 per cent of the elephant range. The human-elephant conflict in the country has increased, claiming 263 elephants per annum, the global highest annual elephant death rate in 2010– 2019,” Prakash said.
“Efforts to breed Asian elephants in captivity appear to be lagging behind with the noteworthy exception of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (PEO). A long gestation period, low birth rates in captivity, the purported abundance of wild populations, and the previous widespread availability of Asian elephants in the wild have hindered interest in captive breeding, as it takes well over 10 years for newborns to serve as draft animals, hence the capture of wild individuals to maintain captive populations has long been preferred over breeding in captivity. Thirty nine criminal proceedings filed before 15 Magistrate’s Courts by the DWC and Criminal Investigation Division (CID) were utilised in this study,” they explained.
The suspected smuggled elephants were seized by the authorised institutions and kept at the PEO or Elephant Transit Home (ETH), Udawalawe. The last elephant birth in captivity was recorded in 1994. “However, the report submitted to the Magistrate’s Court by the Director General (DG) DWC on 9 July 2015 stated that 37 applications have been submitted for registration of elephant calves born in captivity during the period of 2000–2015. This report mentioned that the DWC has registered 68 elephants under private ownership after the year 2009. Therefore, we find that at least 31 (that is 68 minus 37), and up to 68 elephants have been illegally captured from the wild. According to the same report, no elephant conception, birth, miscarriage or stillbirth in captivity was reported since 2009 in accordance with the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO),” they explained.
They say the last elephant registration in December 2014 as per the same report is also problematic because the average gestation period of an Asian elephant is 22 months. “We recommend the Auditor Generals’ Department to investigate the illegal live wild elephant trade. This includes the fraudulent registration of elephants by tendering false and forged documents regarding the birth of elephant calves and matters in respect to the mother elephants, entering false minutes in files and altering entries and replacing photographs in older files. Original entries were erased and new entries were typed over these erasures. Photographs of elephants in the older files have been removed and these were replaced by new photographs of other elephants. To facilitate the fraudulent registrations and issues of licensing, the corrupted officers at the DWC have maintained files without elephants and files where elephants have been reported dead without closing or revoking the said files,” they explain.
Highest number of seizures
Elephant seizures were reported from eleven administrative districts with the highest number of seizures being reported from the Colombo District with 16 cases. The highest number of seizures during the study period occurred in 2015 with 20 followed by 2016 with 14 cases and in 2014 with 11 cases.
“We found direct photographic evidence for the illegal capture of wild elephants from wildlife protected areas and State forests including Ruhuna (Yala) National Park, Udawalawe National Park, Katagamuwa Sanctuary and State forests in Managed Elephant Ranges – Hambantota, Galgamuwa, Maho, and Weeravila. We also suspect that wild elephants were illegally captured from Minneriya National Park, Kaudulla National Park, Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, Sigiriya Sanctuary and Hurulu Eco Park. 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 tranquilising guns, injecting tranquilisers into young elephants, pit-fall trapping and noosing. It is also suspected that culprits have traded elephants in rehabilitation under the authority of the DWC at the ETH with or without the knowledge of the resident Wildlife Conservation Officers,” Nijman said.
They said wildlife traffickers are unlikely to provide any veterinary care for illegally captured elephants. “Additionally, the licences maintained by the suspects without elephants show a range of ages from one to 20 years old. We suspect that they may have held these licences with the expectation of smuggling elephants from the wild in the future. According to the FFPO in the event of a pregnancy of a captive female elephant, the owner has to report this to the DG DWC including information such as the details of the sire, an uneventful death of the mother elephant during birth and so forth. However, elephant smugglers and corrupt officers have adopted devious methods like falsely backdating their applications and tendering fraudulent documents and affidavits containing false material to obtain registrations. The minutes of the files had also been altered. The applications made in 2012, 2013, and 2014 were backdated to dates in 2008 with the involvement of corrupt officers of the DWC,” the researchers said.
There is no legal provision given to any private entity to capture elephants from the wild for any reason in any circumstances without prior permission granted by the DG DWC. Elephants are protected under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No.13 of 1907, FFPO No. 2 of 1937 and the Public Property Act, No. 12 of 1982. International protection against live elephant trade is afforded by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Asian elephants have been listed in Appendix I of CITES since its inception in 1975.
“Government officials responsible for elephant conservation, under the influence of political pressure or influenced by bribery, either avoid making an honest attempt to combat this illegal trade of wild elephants or offer only limited resistance. On several occasions, attempts were made to release the suspected smuggled elephants to the offenders with only minor penalties. The DG DWC was pressurised by high ranking politicians to release the elephants using loopholes in the legislation and even Cabinet memoranda were presented to release the elephants to the offenders. The climax of these organised wildlife crimes can arguably be considered to have been the August 2013 misplacement of the register of captive elephants archived at the head office of the DWC,” they said.
They added that the illegal live elephant trade specifically targeted males and such targeted extractions interfere with the herd’s complex social structure and can cause long-lasting psychological effects on individuals as they have strong social networks. “We urge 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,” the researchers said.