In recent years Sri Lanka has developed a new business, that of the baby elephant trade which is an unethical, inhuman business and against any religious observances. This newly emerged business is directly linked and supported by powerful politicians and some corrupt government officers. They and the new-rich business community (imitating the Walauva and feudal families) were able to own an elephant in violation of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance 1937 (Amended 2009). This illegal business was easy to carry out by paralyzing the work of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).
The officials of the DWC who were dedicated to the subject were not in a position to stop these perpetrators who violated the law, backed by powerful invisible hands of politicians. The number of elephants taken illegally in recent years is unknown and yet to be revealed to the public by the DWC. This article looks at the past, present and the future status of privately owned tamed elephants in Sri Lanka and the reasons for the need to disclose the Elephant Registry to the public.
Elephants should be in the jungle
Elephants always tend to live in forest jungles and are not happy to live under human custody. As elephant experts pointed out, “even if they live in the jungle they are highly intelligent, self-aware, and socially complex animals. They feel joy and grief and are capable of empathy. Like humans, their emotional well-being depends on being cared for and raised in the context of close family relationships” (Joyce Poole).Elephants eat grasses, trees (foliage), fruit, roots and bark, and they eat large quantities of these things. An adult elephant can consume about 150kg of food, around 150litres of water in a single day. An elephant can walk long distances, sometimes over 80km per day. Information indicates that, those basic daily needs and routine of an elephant is a thousand times bigger than that of a human.
Colonization and encroaching into elephant habitat by humans
Sri Lankan elephants lived happily in the forest jungle of Sri Lanka in the pre-colonial years.Sometimes elephants were tamed and used for labour activities, religious purposes or kept to enhance the personal status of the wealthy. There was also an Elephant Kraal a method of capturing wild-elephants in Sri Lanka and taming them. After Sri Lanka came under the British colonial rule, elephant habitats came under severe threat for their survival. At that time the killing of wild elephants was not only the strategy for the reduction of the elephant population but it was also a ‘sport’ of British hunters in Sri Lanka.
Post-independence and wild-elephants
Since 1948, Sri Lanka has been struggling to come up to the level of a developed country, from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. The commercial plantation economy was unable to transform its fundamentals to become an industrial economy and became a service economy as we experience today. In this transitional period, successive governments carried out many development projects in various parts of the country which directly and negatively impacted on wild-elephants in the forest jungles. The human-elephant conflict has been aggravated to its maximum level in Sri Lanka in recent years. Each year over 60 humans and over 200 elephants are killed.
Elephant populationin Sri Lanka
Apart from the natural death of an elephant, there are several other reasons whereby elephants are killed by human activities in recent times. Since humans are encroaching into the elephant’s habitat, humans kill them by various means such as shooting and poisoning. In 2011, the elephant survey carried out by the Department of Wildlife Conservation found that 5879 wild-elephants are living in the forest jungles of Sri Lanka.
Who owns the elephants in Sri Lanka?
The DWC is the sole authority to manage, control and look after wild-elephants in Sri Lanka. The Act of Fauna and Flora has given these rights to the DWC on wild-elephants. Most of the wild-elephants live in the National Parks and in the forest areas of Sri Lanka. In the past (before the DWC), there was no registration with regard to privately owned tamed elephants. Those tamed elephants belonged to Buddhist temples, ruling and wealthy families and were used for labour purposes (mainly carrying timber from the jungles to the saw mills and also for transport of goods), and for ceremonies at that time. Now tamed elephants are used for tourism purposes as well in Sri Lanka.
The elephant registry at the DWC
The unauthorized capturing and keeping of wild-elephants began during the last 10 years, as we read in the media. The Fauna and Flora Act of 2009 clearly stated that under the section 23, ‘Any elephant which has not been registered under this section shall be presumed to be taken or removed from the wild without lawful authority or approval and such elephant shall be deemed to be public property. The provisions of the Offences Against Public Property Act. No.12 of 1982 shall accordingly apply in respect of such elephant.” By following the legal procedure and meeting the criteria set out by the DWC, private individuals can own an elephant in Sri Lanka. Buddhist temples, institutes (government and private) and individuals can register with the Elephants Registry at the DWC.
Abuse of State power to own elephants
Without following the existing government procedure, abducting of baby elephants has aggravated the baby elephant trade in recent years. This news story brought shame to Sri Lanka and particular to the previous government. “The notion of forcibly taking babies away from their kin is horrifying. Abducting baby elephants from their families are traumatic for the entire family and causes great and long-term suffering to the captured calf. Confinement of these large and highly social animals in captivity causes a myriad of physical and psychological ailments and early death” as elephant’s experts says (Elephant Voices).
It was revealed in the Sri Lankan media that most of the baby elephants were kept by powerful politicians, new-rich businessmen linked to the powerful politicians, political Buddhist monks and temples linked to politicians. The illegally captured baby elephants live under appalling living conditions (starved, tortured and deprived of their mothers’ love). It has been reported that those illegally captured elephants were registered at the DWC by producing forged documents and claiming the baby elephant’s mother was registered at the DWC and that the mother had passed away at delivery or soon after the delivery. The question is did the officers at the DWC accept any of these forged documents? The Act clearly motioned that (section 23) in the event of a pregnancy and at birth, miscarriage or still birth of elephant within seven days the Director-General or any authorized officer has to be informed. The question is was this followed by both the parties?
Elephants in Buddhist temples today
Neither in Buddhism nor any other religion are there references to elephants or to donating or keeping elephants at religious places or using them for any religious activity and same with the ivories. As far as Buddhism is concerned “Nalagiri Damanaya” (control of a drunken elephant) is the only reference that can be found with regard to an elephant. The Buddha always preached “Siyalu sathwayo nidukwethwa, nirogiwethwa, suwapathwethwa” (May all beings be free from fear and worry, may all beings be well and happy). Popular Buddhism has made many changes to religion in recent times. Today there are many rich and famous Buddhist temples that have a number of elephants including tuskers.
They use them for processions (peraheras) and also to show off the owner’s status. In order to tame a wild-elephant it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirits. This involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they’re unable to move (M. Karsten). The Buddhist temples must think of replacing elephants from their processions with a more secured vehicle to carry precious relics. It has been reported in the media that, some Buddhist temples in the cities have kept elephants illegally on their premises. These elephants face severe physical and mental trauma with elephant handlers often abusing elephants. In Buddhism elephants are not religion icons any way.
Empower the DWC and elephant registry to go public
The most important factor in this regard is that there should be no political interference in carrying out any duties vested under the DWC. The previous regime had used and abused state power and had disabled DWC officials from carrying out any duties with regard to the baby elephant trade. If any wrong-doing officials at the DWC are found out with regard to the baby elephant racket, they should be removed from the service immediately with severe punishments under the law.
On-going raids on the illegal elephant trade carried out by the DWC should continue and perpetrators brought before the law irrespective of their status. Strict rules and regulations should be in place for those who abuse the system of registering elephants under the law. In the case of those who get registered elephants (to be carried out DNA and genetic testing on already registered elephants), the DWC officials should visit them on a regular basis to check the elephant’s health and other facilities provided by the owners. If the criterion for keeping animals is not met,the licence should be revoked promptly.
To own an elephant the process should have been that the first reference should come from the Gramasevaka in the area (who should assess the needful to meet the criteria to own an elephant) and that letter had to be approved by the Divisional Secretariat (DS) along with the Police report from the relevant Police station in the area.
Those documents should have been the source documents to start process of issuing licenses by the DWC. Then only the DWC should start the process of registering elephants with the use of latest technology. The elephant registry should not become a secret document any more. It should be widely available to the general public. On the DWC’s web site, its annual reports and media releases should be available to the public. When the Elephant Registry goes public, the public can provide and assist the DWC in many ways. Such as mainly, providing information on illegal possessing of elephants and those who abuse the elephants and or any other information that is vital to curb the illegal elephants trade in Sri Lanka.
The way forward
Sri Lanka should limit the ownership of elephants to individuals, temples and others. Under the current circumstances of saving and conservation of elephants, they should be restricted to live in the wild gradually but not under human custody. The public should be more aware and educated on this. The villagers who live near the elephant habitats should be the main partners in this regard to provide information to the relevant authorities. The zoos run by the government and private persons need to gradually remove elephants. Currently animal rights activists around the world are calling for the closure of zoos, stopping the use of animals for recreational and promotional activities including sports. Elephants are getting abused mentally and physically and starving at the zoos around the world today. Government should not gift elephants to foreign zoos.
The Maithree Manifesto stated that “the Flora and Fauna Act will be strictly implemented without fear or favour” (P.32). Wiser elephants and elephant-loving humans are eagerly waiting to see how the state will work to allow them to live in the forest jungle without any fear.
The writer is a volunteer in the field of Wildlife Conservation. He can be reached at
Clytemnestra Stone Thursday, 19 February 2015 10:13 AM
Thank you for a very thoughtful and illuminating article about elephants and the conditions under which they live when in captivity.I agree that there should be no private ownership. An elephant registry that is accessible to the public is a good first step in improving the lives of these wonderful creatures.
Tessa Vanderkop Friday, 20 February 2015 10:25 PM
This is completely inhumane. Elephants need to be protected by law internationally from this kind of abusive treatment, Shame on Sri Lanka.
nicole Tuesday, 24 February 2015 03:53 AM
Elephants need to be protected and free.
louise Thursday, 19 February 2015 03:20 PM
No animal should be captive.When are humans going to wake up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sandra Hale Friday, 20 February 2015 12:58 PM
Elephants need to be protected and free.
firstname.lastname@example.org Monday, 23 February 2015 09:03 PM
Rationalist Wednesday, 18 February 2015 02:34 PM
How would we humans, like it if we were tethered to a tree or post, and taken out only once in a way?We are treating Elephants and other animals, as if they were not living creatures.
Comments will be edited (grammar, spelling and slang) and authorized at the discretion of Daily Mirror online. The website also has the right not to publish selected comments.