Stampeding elephants: Tales of hidden cruelty | Sunday Observer

Stampeding elephants: Tales of hidden cruelty

15 September, 2019
Stampeding elephant: Kotte Rajamaha Vihara Randoli Perehera
Stampeding elephant: Kotte Rajamaha Vihara Randoli Perehera

It was only last week that 17 people, including the Gajanayake Nilame (the officer in charge of the elephants) were wounded and hospitalised; a result of the elephant rampage as the 119th Randoli Perahera of the Kotte Rajamaha Viharaya paraded the streets. This seems to be a recurrent occurrence in the recent past, similar elephant rampage incidents at Kelaniya and Bellanvila are but a few examples. However, though a great hue and cry was raised at the time to avoid animal cruelty residing in this ritual, they were to no avail. Just last month the 70 year old female-elephant Tikiri, used at the Dalada Perahera revealed another ugly facet in using animals in religious processions and parades. The Sunday Observer explored the issue with religious and political leaders, conservationists and the general public.

Death, shock, and sadness! “Fourteen people who were watching the Kandy Perahera on its final night, yesterday were killed when ‘RAJA’, the big Maligawa elephant ran amok, 125 seriously injured and many thousands are nursing minor injuries,” stated the Ceylon Observer of August 20, 1959 reporting which could be regarded the most brutal elephant stampede in the recent history of Sri Lanka. The elephant stepping on coal that was fallen on the road, showed its most natural behaviour when in pain. In order to control the situation, ‘Raja’ had to be shot and killed at De Soysa Lane in Kandy. Sixty years hence, little has changed, both for these giant pachyderms and humans who get hurt due to their ‘wild’ behaviour.

Sri Lanka, the island nation, regarded as one of the global bio-diversity hot spots, in its many thousand years of history has a close association with these giant pachyderms. A symbol of strength, prosperity and power, the elephant is placed on a cultural pedestal and regarded as a majestic animal. The significance of elephants in the country is marked by the fact that it had had ‘protected’ status even during the time of ancient kings. It was the highest mode of transport reserved for royalty towering above all other animals, and dressed in armour, were tankers at war. According to ancient annals, killing an elephant was an offence punishable by death .

Today, the elephant is neither used as a tanker nor a mode of transport. The changing culture had brought in more efficient and effective methods for both.

However, parading elephants in religious and other processions continues unabated, the wealth of the institution and the pomp of the parade being measured by the number of elephants.

Hidden cruelty

President of ‘Justice for Animals’, an organisation dedicated to animal welfare, Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera suggests using a decorated van to take the Karanduwa (the casket with the sacred relics) instead of an elephant. “I know the cruelty by experience. Most of the mahouts torture elephants to ‘show-off’ of their talents. They poke the poor animal and it moves with pain, then people think that the elephant is dancing,” he told the Sunday Observer. Realising the hidden cruelty in using elephants at processions was one major reason for Sobhitha thero to stop holding processions in his temple in Ratnapura, for years now.

“Proper regulation is a must in order to stop the harassment of tamed elephants. We must stop enslaving the elephants. A simple registration of elephants is meaningless. Instead, we should compel the Government to take over all tamed elephants to the Government,” proposes Sobitha Thera. He envisions a national pool of captive elephants, where all private owners would keep their captive elephants. According to the country’s law, elephants are a public property. However, currently various individuals and temples hold ownership of a large number of tamed elephants. “By taking over all elephants and homing them at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage or somewhere like that, elephants get the chance to be with other elephants. It reduces their stress level too” the Thera explains. “Once the national elephant pool is created and if someone still wants an elephant to take the Karanduwa, one or two elephants could be used for the purpose. We cannot accept the participation of 25-30 elephants in a single procession,” he said.

Minister of Buddha Sasana and former subject Minister of Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, differs. “Elephants were used in processions for centuries in Sri Lanka. Therefore, removing elephants from processions is not the solution. The history of elephants and of our country goes hand in hand. The only difference is, elephants were looked after like children in those days. But everything has changed now”. He told the Sunday Observer that untrained mahouts are the main problem behind elephant rampages. These untrained mahouts torture the animals,” he explained. “Our proposal is to build an academy for mahouts to get a proper training on elephant handling,” the Minister said.

Captive elephants

Sri Lanka is one of the 13 countries boasting a population of Asian Elephants, and the only country which could offer wild elephant sightings to a tourist within a span of 24 hours. A keystone species, Sri Lankan elephants are a unique sub-species of the Asian elephant, shaping the country’s ecological character. An elephant census is currently underway in many districts in the country to estimate the wild elephant population, which, according to conservationists is seeing a healthy growth.

However, when it comes to elephants in captivity the situation is poles apart. The Department of Wildlife Conservation records the total amount of captive elephants as 263, with 118 in the zoos, orphanages and holds, and 145 with private owners. “Other countries with Asian elephants have captive breeding programs, which are non-existent in Sri Lanka,” conservationist, Pubudu Weeraratne told the Sunday Observer. The reason, the prospective income earned. The gestation period of a she-elephant is 22 months, for the duration of which the owner would lose his or her income.

Though the Fauna and Flora Ordinance, mandates the disclosure of ownership, registration of elephants in captivity and informing when a she-elephant is found pregnant; in reality, it never happens. “Elephant ownership, smuggling is a lucrative business. So is parading them in processions in the guise of culture,” explains Weeraratne. “People only see the pomp and pageantry, the glitter and the religious shroud covering the elephant. But, if you care enough to look inside, you will see how the animal is chained,” he laments. Lending an elephant for a temple procession would bring in an income of more than Rs. 100,000 and it would be used at the procession only a few days. Once the procession is over, the elephants are loaned for elephant walks or safaris, catering to the tourists in areas such as Habarana or Dambulla. “These elephants are worked 365 days to earn money for their owners. Therefore, the owners are not going to release them for a breeding program. They capture baby elephants from the wild and re-register them under the names of old elephants. It is an organised racket run by a mafia,” he claims.

The Asian elephant is a social animal living in herds. Elephant herds act differently and more responsibly than other herd animals when faced with danger to a member, weak or young animals, new births and so on. It had been found that in the wild they form deep family bonds, show a variety of emotions and walk long distances to forage approximately 135 to 270 kilograms of vegetation a day. In the wild they bathe daily spending much time in water. They also spend a considerable time playing and interacting with other elephants. Asian elephants are found to rest during the warm hours of the day and to be active in the morning and evening hours.

If an individual or an institution keeps any elephant in captivity, it is imperative that it should be treated well. Captive elephants need to be exercised with long distance walks; be allowed to spend time in the water once or twice a day and be fed with a variety of vegetation, at the least. However, the current situation of the captive elephants in Sri Lanka is far removed from this basic requirement.

Weeraratne agrees with the idea of creating a pool of captive elephants, managed by a responsible and accountable authority. “Some could be trained for parading in processions and could be used for the purpose. Say, if an elephants spends 100 days parading, it has 265 days of rest. But now what happens is that they are being used for school parades, political parades, weddings, for elephant polo and elephant races, throughout their life. According to the FFPO, elephants could be used for religious and cultural purposes and not for commercial purposes, how cultural are these events?” he questions.

Private ownership

Private ownership of elephants should be banned, says Lumbini Herath, a third year university student. Her love affair with these gentle pachyderms started as a three year old. “I was enthralled by the beauty and majesty then,” she reminiscences. “However, I can never forget the day I noticed the chains underneath, all four limbs bound in heavy chains, and tied together with a heavier one,” says Herath.

Though elephants, taken from the wild and away from their quiet niches in the jungles, are expected to ‘behave’ the way humans want amidst the noise from drums, other instruments and the crowds; the heat from lamps and the light bulbs sometimes connected to the elephants’ costumes itself, “What would we as humans do if we are taken out of our environments and paraded like elephants?” she quips. In a country shaped by Buddhism, Maithree (love) and Karuna (kindness) need be instilled in the hearts and moreover in the actions of its citizenry. “We have to be kind to humans and animals alike. Some other countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and India have started chain-free elephant programs. But, when are we going to see such project in Sri Lanka?” she questions.