Elephant Tikiri, from a life of hard work to hopefully some peaceful last years

Very skinny elephant, her bones are visible
Elephant Tikiri, photo: Save Elephant Foundation

UPDATE: Sadly, Tikiri died two weeks after this article. She never had peace in her life, hopefully now she found it.

The world was in shock when pictures emerged of the 70-year old female elephant Tikiri who was forced to walk in The Festival of the Tooth in the city Kandy in Sri Lanka. She was so skinny you could see her bones through her skin.

The annual Buddhist festival is very popular with locals and tourists featuring dancers, fireworks, drummers and around 60 elephants that have to parade around fully decorated. This year it was held from the 1st till 15th of August.

Lek Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, posted pictures of a very skinny elephant walking in the festival: “This is Tikiri, a 70 year old ailing female. She is one of the 60 elephants who must work in the service of the Perahera Festival (The Festival of the Tooth) in Sri Lanka this year.  She walks many kilometers every night so that people will feel blessed during the ceremony. No one sees her bony body or her weakened condition, because of her costume.”

Shortly after that post and online outrage, a new picture appeared. Tikiri had collapsed during the festival. She was very ill. Animal rights activists all over the world demanded her release. They also stressed tourists in Sri Lanka to boycott elephant attractions because they cause elephants to suffer tremendously.

Elisa Allen, director of animal welfare charity PETA, told CNN that elephants were frequently exploited at tourist destinations and in temples: “Tourists visiting Sri Lanka can help elephants by refusing to ride them and by avoiding any attraction that offers or endorses elephant rides, keeps the animals chained, or forces them to perform.”

Lek Chailert asked people to write to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to end this cruelty done to Tikiri. It worked. She was pulled out of the festivities. “Following the outcry over Tikiri, the elephant has been withdrawn from the closing parade”, organizers of the festival said.

Tikiri’s owner brought her back to their home in the city Kegalle. They said Tikiri had been suffering for a while from an eating disorder, that’s why she was so skinny. The owner is a business man who bought her about 10 years ago to use her for safaris. Until very recently she was still used for safaris.

Plea to help Tikiri last year
Before the picture went ‘viral’ Carolyn Valentine had already expressed concerns about Tikiri to the government of Sri Lanka. A year ago Carolyn and her friend were volunteering at an elephant park in Pinnawala in Sri Lanka.

They drove past Tikiri most days as she was kept in a yard by the side of Kegalle Road and was hired out to give rides to tourists. They noticed then already how painfully thin she was. They thought about Tikiri a lot when they returned home. Carolyn decided to contact the government of Sri Lanka in October 2018 concerning Tikiri:

I have not long returned from holiday in your beautiful country and felt I had to write to you with my concerns regarding a working elephant in Pinnawala.

My friend and I noticed that she was looking very thin and tired. She is kept alone in a baron yard next to the road side without shelter or visible supply of water. On Wednesday 22nd August (2018) we decided to visit and pay to have some photos taken with her. Her owner also happened to be present – he said that she is ‘a very happy elephant’ of a ‘high cast ‘ denoted by her ‘sunken forehead’. Her name is Tikiri.

Her plight has really concerned me and I have thought about her a lot since returning to the UK. As you can see from the pictures she is very frail and I don’t think she should be hired out for people to ride. I would be very grateful if you could ask Mr Sarath Fonseka, the Wild Life Minister, to intervene. If you are able to relocate her I would happily make a monthly contribution towards her upkeep so that she can spend the rest of her life in retirement.”  

Valentine never got a response from the government and was heartbroken when she saw pictures of a collapsed Tikiri online: “Tikiri is a lovely gentle old soul but I believe she has been made to work most of her life. There are several elephant parks in the vicinity and the mahouts (elephant riders) all know of her. Apparently she was made to work in the logging industry before being bought by the current owner.”

Life of Tikiri back home with her owners
Animal rights activist Champa Fernando who lives in Kandy decided to visit Tikiri on the 19th of August. According to her Tikiri was doing better. She got a lot of backlash however from people not believing it was Tikiri. But also a lot of support that she took the time to go and see the elephant for herself.

She visited Tikiri a second time on the 29th of August. Champa met with the owners and reported on how Tikiri was doing. The owners told her they wouldn’t use Tikiri for safaris anymore and would hive her proper care.

Domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka people own elephants as pets in their home. They’re usually used to work so their owners can make money. They’re kept in chains so they can’t walk away and it’s really hard for home owners to give them proper space. Elephants in the wild can walk up to 15 km a day. They need to be able to move around freely. Elephants are considered sacred in Sri Lanka and protected as an endangered species, but the government sometimes turns a blind eye to elephants owned by individuals and temples.

Crushing a baby elephant
To make an elephant do what their owner wants, the very cruel practice of crushing is used. Young elephants are pained so much physically and emotionally, such extreme torture that eventually they’re broken and will do whatever the owner wants. It had been proven that elephants never forget this torture, so they go through life broken.

So what happens to Tikiri
The owners of Tikiri told Fernando they will not give Tikiri away but will take care of her at their home. Fernando has visited her twice already and she says she sees improvement. She’s happy the owners are open about their care and hopes Tikiri can enjoy some final happy years. Valentine wishes the same: “My hope is that she can retire to a safe environment ideally with other elephants and live out her days in peace.”

Fernando also stresses that there are many elephants that suffer even worse and hopes they get help as soon as possible too. There is a lot to be done to rescue all elephants from the cruel elephant tourist industry.

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