Srilanka elephant census: for protection or domestication?

By Olindhi Jayasundere

The domestication of elephants developed into a matter of heated discussion among environmental groups and the Sri Lanka wildlife authorities in the recent past. Days before the country’s first elephant census after the 30 year war was to take place, wildlife groups who had earlier agreed to extend their support, later formally announced that they would boycott the census following statements made by the Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife S.M. Chandrasena. The Minister had allegedly stated that 300 tuskers and elephant calves would be identified, captured and domesticated during the elephant census for the purpose of carrying caskets in Peraheras. Since these alleged statements surfaced the question lies as to whether the wild elephants are being removed from their habitat for domestication purposes.

Wildlife groups critisised Minister S. M. Chandrasena’s statements and claimed that the elephant census, which would have been an ideal step towards conserving elephants, was now being used as an apparatus to identify the whereabouts of elephant calves with favourable traits to capture and domesticate them. Environmental groups said the issue called for serious concern over the elephant population of the country and the threats they face.

Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) President Sajeewa Chamikara said the country harbours 10% of the Asian Elephant population and a better part of these elephants are elderly. From 1990 to 2000 there was an average of 150 elephant deaths per year. During the next decade, this number had reached 200 deaths per year. “Ill-planned developmental projects, the ongoing human elephant conflict, elephant drives, railroad accidents and electrocution are among the threats faced by these endangered megaherbivores,” Chamikara said.

The domesticated elephant population in the country is being used for elephant-back safaris while elephants are still used for transporting logs in areas such as Kalutara, Ratnapura and Kegalle. Tamed elephants are often included in cultural pageants and Peraheras carrying caskets. However, elephants are used in pursuit of lucre more often than for the purpose of serving the temple or cultural needs. Furthermore they are used as symbols of social prestige by influential people, Chamikara said.

“It is important to consider the fate of domesticated elephants. Most of these elephants are ill-treated, suffer from malnutrition and many meet with tragic, untimely deaths,” he said. There have been attempts to tame wild elephants which have resulted in them being beaten to death,  he said.

Owners of tamed elephants, sometimes choose not to breed elephants as they have long gestation and suckling periods and cannot be employed to earn money for the owners until two years of age. Therefore elephants sometimes die without contributing to the breeding gene pool, he said. Height and tusk bearing genes of elephants are now less commonly seen as there is less breeding of wild elephants which in turn is obstructing the circulation of genes in the elephant population, he explained. Consequently, the percentage of tuskers in Sri Lankan has gone down to 7-8% of the males.

He explained that captive breeding is a feasible option to make up for a shortage of tamed elephants. Captive breeding of elephants has been very successful at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and some 50 elephant births have taken place since 1975, he said. The required technical knowledge is available in the country to promote elephant conservation but he said it is not taking place adequately.

“Moreover, the material prepared for the reference of the participants of this census indicates that subjective data such as the orientation of the tusks were to be recorded. In a scientific census such subjective data are not recorded. The dubious nature of the objective behind this census is reflected by this. Capturing elephants from the wild in such a manner paves the way for the extinction of these valuable animals,” he said. The objectives of an elephant census he said should be identification of frequent haunts of elephants, declaration of such identified areas as well ensuring protected areas for elephants.

 Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said according to provisions in the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, it is illegal to domesticate an elephant. According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, only the Department of Wildlife Conservation has the authority to capture elephants from the wild, if an elephant is identified as harmful to the crops or the public.

The Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa Pradeep Nilanga Dela said the allegations made against elephant owners are unacceptable. “Certain NGOs and other organisations have talked about the captivity of elephants but they have only done so to earn money out of it. For them it is something to be gambled with. Their allegations are very unfair. It is a tradition that was adopted by the early kings and even by Lord Buddha. They have no means of proving that these animals are brutally harassed although they claim that this is the case,” the Diyawadana Nilame said.

He said history has shown that bestowing elephants as gifts to the Dalada Maligawa had been very common in Sri Lanka for several centuries. Sri Lankan leaders such as J.R Jayawardena, Ratnasiri Premadasa, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge and even the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa have customarily presented elephants to the temple as they are considered invaluable gifts that symbolize the cultural and historical significance of the Dalada Maligawa.

There are nearly 110 elephants in captivity, in Sri Lanka many of which are over 50 years of age. Owing to their old age, the Diyawadana Nilame explained, the fitness levels of the elephants are slowly deteriorating. The temple is consequently facing a scarcity of young elephants and it is impossible to find elephants of a suitable age, ideally elephant calves of about 25 years, to include in the annual Kandyan Dalada Perahera. The Dalada Perahera traditionally comprises of 100 elephants, an age old custom embraced by the temple.

The Diyawadana Nilame is also the President of the Association of Owners of Tamed Elephants (AOTE) which comprises of 85 members. One of the members, Villangoda Mahaththaya owns the biggest tusker while the elephant owner with the largest number of elephants has some 20 elephants, he says.

“Maintaining an elephant is a difficult task and an expensive one at that and therefore requires commitments and resources to own an elephant. An elephant’s meals for a day costs some Rs.1500. Daily wages for the mahouts and their assistants is an estimated Rs.65,000,” he said. To tame wild elephants a number of traditional methods and new methods are employed. He said the use of a cage more than 5000 square feet long will be utilized in future to domesticate, a system, he said, is being used in many parts of Africa today. 

Wildlife Department Director General H.D Ratnayake denied that the government had any expectations of capturing elephants for domestication during the survey. The Wildlife Department’s mandate, he said, was not to domesticate elephants although allegations have been made to that effect. “We do not have any intentions of domesticating any elephants. Our aim is to ensuring elephant conservation, set up a management plan to prevent the damage to elephant habitats as well as to mitigate the human-elephant conflict,” he said.

The purpose of the census and survey in August he assured was to ascertain the elephant population and its composition. Through this method the number of tuskers, sub-adults (4.5 to six feet in height, adults (over six feet in height), juveniles (less than three feet in height) were determined. He said however that selected rogue elephants and stranded elephants that are currently with the Pinnawala elephant orphanage will be donated for domestication to temples.

For that reason while wild elephants will be conserved and protected in their natural habitat, the wildlife department has identified the requirement of elephants for temples.

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