Elephas Maximus Maximus or the Sri Lankan elephant in other words has a closer relationship with us Asians. As depicted in Hindu mythology, the much revered elephant-headed God, Ganesh, itself highlights the importance of this majestic being. Over the years we have been delighted to see elephants in pageants (peraheras), but not once have we thought of the troublesome experiences these majestic beings have to endure. As a result little do we know about how these animals have been exploited during various instances.
In a controversial turn of events, an unexpected overcrowding of elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage has prompted the Government to giveaway elephants to private individuals and institutions. Following this, a cabinet paper too was dispatched to release 33 cubs back to their owners. These cubs had been illegally captured from the wild. The Daily Mirror spoke to several individuals of varied expertise in the field of wildlife, thus shedding light on the darker side of this issue.
Highlights of the cabinet paper
Recently a cabinet paper was issued with a request being made to give away elephants cared for at the Pinnawala Elephants Orphanage and National Zoological Gardens.
The highlights of the paper are:
- Elephants from the Pinnawala Orphanage were used as the ‘stock of elephants’ to be presented as ‘State gifts to other countries’ and to religious institutions and individuals in the country by the ‘Head of the State’.
- However, the maintenance of the present number of elephants (88) in a restricted land area of 27 hectares has become a difficult task.
- The temperament of individual animals vary, when male animals come in to ‘musth’ their maintenance and attention become difficult as numbers increase.
- Further, the global campaign to house captive animals without chains (chainless animal populations) is effecting the tourist visitation negatively and the image of Pinnawala is also being tarnished.
- Considering these factors it has become very clear that some animals will have to be given out to ensure that the captive population is maintained within the ‘carrying capacity’ of the facility.
The request therefore was to give away elephants with a ‘non-refundable financial bond’ of Rs. 10 million. However the cabinet paper also states the following; “The animals are NOT sold to individuals or institutions as elephants in accordance to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance amended in 2009, Section 22A (12) are ‘deemed to be public property’. Thus they are given to be cared ‘for and on behalf of the State’.
“I dispute the fact that Pinnawala is overcrowded”
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Environmental Specialist and Ex-Wildlife Chief, Dr Sumith Pilapitiya said that the Government has released a cabinet paper requesting the release of elephants due to overcrowding in Pinnawala. “This too is for a sum of Rs. 10 million. I would dispute the fact that Pinnawala is overcrowded and if overcrowding is the problem, there is a land adjoining the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which could be used as well. If not, some elephants could be sent to the Ridiyagama Safari Park because that too comes under the Zoological Department. The ownership and custody of these elephants should remain with the Government. Why do private individuals or institutions need to own elephants? There’s nothing called a domesticated elephant. Unlike cats and dogs, that are bred to be domesticated, elephants can’t be domesticated. These private owners are trying to own elephants as a status symbol. Elephants are very social animals,” said Dr.Pilapitiya who has spent a number of years researching on this majestic being.
“So once they are taken out of Pinnawala, they will have no social interaction because that elephant is now alone. Pinnawala has one of the best elephant breeding programmes and breeding can’t happen just because there’s a male and a female elephant. They need to have space for interaction as well. We need to think of what is best for the elephant. It’s time that we look at this situation in Sri Lanka in a more realistic way. Take the pageant for example. We didn’t have elephants at these processions till the rise of the Kandyan Kingdom. Therefore the Government should seriously think why temple processions need elephants. Today we see elephants in even small pageants done for a ‘katina’ (A religious ceremony) as well. Hence the Government has the added task of legally catering to this demand. Elephants in pageants are not a religious requirement because Lord Buddha never said that there should be elephants in a pageant. Therefore the Minister and the relevant authorities should look at this issue in a more practical manner. Now it’s time that these measures are implemented,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.
‘Giving ownership of elephants to private individuals reflects badly on the law’
- Jagath Gunawardena
“The entire decision is wrong,” said Jagath Gunawardena, environmental lawyer and wildlife enthusiast. “Their intention is to give these elephants back to illegal owners and these actions reflect badly on the law. Elephants are public property and once these elephants are handed over to owners, nobody will abide by the law. Hence it’s giving a wrong message to the country. I also don’t believe that Pinnawala is overcrowded because there are no facts or statistics to prove it. If that is the case, then why can’t they send these elephants elsewhere?”questioned Gunawardena.
“Individual owners will not have 100% ownership”
- Gamini Jayawickrama Perera
Wildlife and Sustainable Development Minister, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera said that since two Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOS) have filed cases with regard to this issue, the decision is still pending. “Although the cabinet paper says Rs. 10 million, it is a rough estimate.
However, the individual owners won’t have 100% ownership of the elephant. They have to sign a deed and officially take the ownership of the elephant and if we find out that the elephant is being ill-treated we have the authority to take it back,” said Perera.
‘Elephants are public property’
Airing his views to the Daily Mirror, Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) President and wildlife enthusiast Rukshan Jayawardene said that as much as elephants are protected under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, they also become public property at times. “Private individuals need elephants because it’s a prestige symbol. Elephants are living sentient beings, but unfortunately, protection is limited to the statute books. Also what is overpopulation? If there are more leopards, bears and elephants we need to protect them because they are our natural resources. Why should they be given to private owners? Can we be sure that the elephant will be treated well? Once the elephant is in the custody of a private owner, there’s a high tendency of it being smuggled as well. If these individuals could pay Rs. 10 million for an elephant, how many more bucks would they need to keep the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and other authorities away? This is more like a mafia because these people still have connections with those who are in power and those who were. Back in the day elephants were trained to build tanks and other massive structures, but at this day and age of industrialisation we don’t need elephants for these purposes and therefore they shouldn’t be kept in captivity. So this is a wake-up call for the Government. Hope this issue doesn’t fall on deaf ears,”said Jayawardene.
The plight of Elephas Maximus Maximus
In an investigative video released a couple of weeks ago by LT Magazine - a Sri Lankan magazine that highlights matters of human interest- revealed the plight of the Sri Lankan elephant. A team of wildlife enthusiasts including Dr.Sumith Pilapitiya, Rukshan Jayawardene, Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando – Chairman, Centre for Conservation and Research, Dr. Eric Wickramanayake, Chair and Science Advisor, Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) and OtaraGunawardena, Founder of Otara Foundation pooled in their concerns. Some of the highlights of these concerns are:
- The Human Elephant Conflict is a human created problem because most HEC mitigation methods are confrontational and leads to more aggression of elephants towards people.
- Reckless driving of safari-goers.
- “Salaries of DWC officers aren’t enough and they work 24 hours. I need more people,” says subject minister.
- Other Ministries create problems and expect this ‘poor’ Government department to solve the issues.
- Udawalawe National Park, once an elephant sanctuary, doesn’t seem to be one anymore. The video further highlights how the elephants are trapped in due to fencing and are starving to death.
- As a result cattle have encroached on this land and are feeding on the grass. According to the Minister, once cattle feed on grass the entire plant is removed. Therefore the grass has to be regenerated again and for that the cattle have to be removed first.
- Elephants in the wild are given a low value and that is why people think that they are better off being captured for our own purposes.
- Dr.Sumith further states that if an elephant is used in a Buddhist or other religious procession, then the elephant has to be taken care of compassionately and the elephant’s welfare has to be taken in to consideration.
- Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera emphasizes on how elephants suffer due to ill-treated by mahouts.
- Orphaned elephants that came in to the custody of the DWC were sent to the Zoological Department which opened up an elephant orphanage to release them back in to the wild, but that never happened.
- Elephants in Sri Lanka undergo Dominance-based training, where people get their tasks done through coercive means.
- Trading elephants is illegal in Sri Lanka.
For more information watch the video at
The Daily Mirror also learns that a request has been made to release 16 elephants provided that permit holders place a guarantee worth Rs. 10 million. The request is valid till September 20. However, attorney-at-law Sujeewa Jayasinghe further said that elephants with permit numbers 203, 209 and 231 will not be released.