To Free or not to Free

By Priyangwada Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 25 2021
Echo To Free or not to Free

By Priyangwada Perera

 The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calls the Sri Lankan subspecies the largest and also the darkest of the Asian elephants, “With patches of depigmentation (areas with no skin colour) on its ears, face, trunk and belly.” Going by the scientific name Elephas maximus maximus, the WWF has flagged them ‘Endangered’. Elephants have been one hot topic during the last two months in Sri Lanka, for various reasons: yet definitely not for the right reasons. Yes, we had discussions and raging debates on elephants and tuskers being used in peraheras. 

Yet, how much do we know about the background? Do we even care about the wellbeing of elephants or is it just that we are happily jumping on the bandwagon trying to be ‘radical’? Intensifying the debate further, in came the wave of ‘temple elephants’. Even though so many activists – local and foreign – screamed at elephants being used in processions, hardly a hum was heard on temple elephants. Who can ask for elephants to be taken care of, at temples? Is this animal welfare? Instead of just pointing fingers at each other, we spoke to Prof. Rangika Umesh Halwatura from the University of Moratuwa. 

With his years of study, practical work and close association with every possible aspect of the human – elephant conflict (HEC), Prof. Halwatura is an expert on the issue. “Even though we call them ‘Asian elephants’ in general, there are three types of elephants in Sri Lanka. They differ from where they come from, where and how they are raised. This is exactly what we spoke of when discussing the issue of Nedungamuwe Raja.

We cannot take and ‘release’ a domesticated elephant, ranting he deserves to be in the jungle. This is common to animals starting from a tiny squirrel or a parrot to elephants. Once you domesticate them, their life changes. But, we have to get this demarcation clear,” Prof. Halwatura explained. “However, what is crucial to remember is that we cannot bring the wild elephant to a village nor can we dump a domesticated elephant in the jungles,” he said at the base of the argument. It is essential to understand the existing situation before we address the question. 

Prof. Halwatura explained that we have had years of relocating people in newly established villages. “These ‘new villagers’ have started their cultivation and suddenly the age-old routes of the elephants are blocked. Both villagers and elephants have no choice but to opt for an adaptive resolution. Whether we like it or not, both parties, even the elephants, have to reroute themselves. The elephant will naturally realise if it comes on its old trails, it is going to be shot,” started Prof. Halwatura. “We have no choice but to direct the elephant to the spaces which have opened up anew. After all, people are not going to budge.” 

Sorry, elephant-road closed! 

How do we redirect an elephant? Is it by putting a board saying ‘Road Closed’? Prof. Halwatura said that we have to find scientific methods of rerouting the elephant. “The elephant took that old trail precisely because that road provided him with food, water and safety. Hence, no matter what fence we put up, as long as the elephant knows this road has what he wants, destroying the fence is a piece of cake for him.” There are two tasks; safeguarding the wild elephant and protecting the people of border villages. This is a challenge. 

Rerouting also means growing the favourite food of the elephant in that area. It has to have water. Scientific rerouting of the elephant is as important as fencing solutions for the HEC. Bio fencing and geo fencing, enables detection of the elephant heading towards the village and redirecting it to the forest. But turning the elephant back will prove to be futile if the elephant cannot find food in the forest. Ultimately, he will break the fence and come back. Prof. Halwatura mentioned a sad truth. “The places we are going to relocate elephants do not have open fields. 

That is not the habitat of the elephant. The carrying capacity is bigger in an open field where more elephants can be kept. But we are talking about thick jungles. Elephants do not and cannot live in thick jungles. We have terrible mismanagement because we have not studied the elephant correctly.” The elephants have not done PhDs. One has to get into their skin and resolve it. When an elephant and a man die per day, it is a huge issue. Sri Lanka is fed by the people in the bordering villages and if a herd of elephants come and destroy acres of paddy fields in an hour, the entire country will suffer. That is not understood by the people in Colombo or elsewhere in the country. 

“However, taking this as an excuse if we are to think that all wild elephants should be brought to temples, it is absurd.” Traditionally, we have had elephants being raised by certain families, like present day dogs are raised. If someone says that this is wrong, that elephants should not be chained; that once again, is a messy argument. We need to check whether the elephants are taken care of instead of whether they are in chains. Just like a dog which comes to heat, an elephant also has its seasons. At such times, they have to be controlled in a proper way. 

This is how evolution has happened. We have become ‘civilised’ in our ways and made our own clusters inside that civilisation. This is a natural, biological phenomenon that we are trying to control artificially which causes a huge environmental imbalance. HEC is also the same. Prof. Halwatura explained. “If we take a tusker like Nedungamuwe Raja, he is different from other wild elephants. It might be his food, his way of living and behaviour or his genes. He is now conditioned to a way of life, bonding with humans. 

If we release him to a jungle he might die of sheer heartbreak. Instead, we must create another generation from him. We have to find a way of doing so. Unlike African elephants, only a limited number of our Asian male elephants have tusks. If you are so compassionate about elephants, come and look for a way to safeguard this particular type of elephant. We have to find the science to not let its genes go wasted. Genes should be taken forward.” The forced ‘temple elephants’ are a new trend; a dangerous one: A highly problematic one. Elephants will get used to people, that is a different matter. But to get elephants from the jungle and do so is dangerous. 

Wild, domesticated and temple elephants 

Prof. Halwatura said, if we are going to force the baby elephant away from its mother and say, “We will look after the elephants in the temple,” or have it at our homes, it is incorrect. Yes, the elephant will get used to people. That is not the point. Removing such a domesticated elephant again to the forest is ridiculous. On top of it, where are the 13 elephants that landed from nowhere? Who are the owners? Where were they raised? Where did they come from? What Alfred Hitchcock mystery is this? He pointed out that there are parentless baby elephants at Pinnawala and Udawalawe. 

“If you take them, look after them very well and make use of them to do some work, it is not a crime. If your dog protects your house you do not say you deprive him of sleep, if your cat kills mice you don’t accuse the owner of making the cat sin; these are ridiculous demarcations. If you have hens at home and do not use a single egg for your consumption but get chicks out of all, that again becomes a menace. Elephants are the same.” It takes a lot of money to raise an elephant. Even if you release an elephant which is used to humans to the wild, it may keep coming back. 

That might even get it killed because people do not understand that it is coming for companionship. “In Wilpattu, the leopard cub we raised started coming to people because it was tame and used to people. But people got scared and in the end the leopard had to be taken to Ridiyagama. If such an elephant is taken and raised at a temple or somewhere, we know his demarcations.” The country has laws for such things. If snatched from its mother, it is against the law of the country and against the Buddhist philosophy that the elephant is not a domesticated animal. 

It is violating its rights on unlawful grounds. These elephants are different from the two former sets of elephants. In terms of case material they cannot be given to someone else till the case is over. One cannot violate the law be it a politician, clergy or anyone. “I believe this is a threat to both the elephants that are lawfully kept in temples and also the elephants in the wild. This encourages someone creating a loophole in the legal system to kill the mother elephant and bring a calf and still get away. Animal lovers should speak against this. 

On top of it, all law abiding citizens should reject this, demand justice by recognising its potential to bend the law and adapt to many more things.” Pointing out other dangers, Prof. Halwatura said that this gives ample room to convert this into a fountain of money. “We cannot say that now the elephants are used to people. They belong to the jungle. That is their natural habitat. They should be returned to the forest. Tomorrow, the very people who go to the forests and kill elephants will bring the calves and sell them to the temples or wherever. 

It is abduction and an animal does not deserve this. In other countries, for instance when illegal ivory is found in Africa, it is destroyed. They are valuable but if we tempt people to keep them, the next person will kill the tusker to get the calf to offer the temple. Even if you were to raise a stranded elephant, it has to be entered in a registry. There is a methodology to follow.” Keeping all this in mind, this matter would have to be looked into with more understanding and knowledge. (Pix courtesy Prof. Rangika Halwatura)

By Priyangwada Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 25 2021

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