New Sri Lankan elephant law might not help all elephants, critics say

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

The proposed new elephant protection law in Sri Lanka that garnered positive press around the world earlier this week will not necessarily benefit all elephants, national and international animal welfare organisations say. 

The new law, yet to be voted on but expected to pass, introduces a range of elephant protections, including a ban on riders using drugs or alcohol and stricter regulations for working elephants.

“The Sri Lankan government’s recently gazetted regulations [are] a study in moral incoherence,” Rosemary Alles, president and co-founder of the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, told The Animal Reader. Alles is a Sri Lankan currently living in South Africa. 

“The new law is eyewash,” said Rukshan Jayawardena, a Sri Lankan conservationist and wildlife photographer. Jayawardena is the former president of the 128-year-old Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, Sri Lanka’s largest and the world’s third oldest conservation body.

“On the face of it, [the new law] looks good, but there are problems,” Jayawardena said. “For example, it legitimises the ownership of the 30 to 40 elephants that were illegally kidnapped from the wild, mostly between 2010 and 2015.” 

“These elephants should be kept in state custody and allowed to live as freely as possible or be sent back to the wild. They are all juvenile elephants, captured when babies,” Jayawardena said. 

Capturing wild elephants in Sri Lanka is a criminal offence punishable by death, but prosecutions are rare. Over the last 15 years, more than 40 baby elephants have been stolen from national wildlife parks, animal rights activists and elephant experts have said.

Alles is also concerned about the captive elephants, noting that the law transferred the jurisdiction over them from the Department of Wildlife Conservation to the Buddhist Affairs Ministry. 

It is feared that the transfer and ownership possibilities opened up by the law could mean the elephants will undergo a highly controversial training method known as the crush.

Even where the law introduces improvements, such as the biometric DNA profiling of captive elephants, or a ban on elephant handlers using drugs or alcohol, Alles and Jayawardena believe enforcement will be impossible. 

Alles added that punishments for violations were ill-defined.

Audrey Delsink, elephant biologist and wildlife director for Humane Society International (HSI) for Africa, was equally sceptical, noting several conflicts in the law and saying legal “improvements [are] only as good as the enforcement capacity.” 

Protections lifted for elephant parades 
Another concern for critics is the range of protection exceptions the new law makes for elephants in processions.

In one example, the law says: “No person shall light crackers or shoot near any elephant except the traditional gunfire, which is essential in traditional processions.” 

It also forbids using electric bulbs to decorate elephants but excepts “light decorations used in cultural activities including processions or tourism activities”.

HSI’s senior manager for Wildlife and Disaster Response in India, Sumanth Bindumadhav, highlighted a third. “The regulation also says elephants in musth [a high-testosterone phase in male elephants] cannot be used for any activity, and yet provides language for their use in processions.” 

Bindumadhav said that the use of elephants in musth for processions “is quite frankly a risk for the public”, adding that to control them, “excessive force will invariably be used by mahouts [captive elephant handlers].”

Festival of the Tooth elephant parade 
The publication of the new law and its procession exceptions coincided with what appeared to be chaotic scenes at one of the country’s most famous elephant parades. 

The annual Buddhist festival Kandy Esala Perahera, known as the Festival of the Tooth, is held in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy and involves heavily decorated elephants.

The parade made international headlines and sparked outrage in 2019 when pictures of one of the elephants, the emaciated female Tikiri, were shared around the world.

The 70-year-old Tikiri, whose bony frame was reportedly hidden under her costume, was retired from parade work but died shortly afterwards. 

Videos from this year’s Festival of the Tooth, which began 14 August and ended 23 August, appeared to show handlers struggling to maintain control of their animals and people running away.

“Throughout the two weeks of the Kandy Esala Perahera procession, we saw many welfare issues,” said Maneesha Arachchige, founder of the activist group Rally for Animal Rights and the Environment (RARE).

Arachchige said they saw an old elephant showing signs of ageing and foot swelling, who was used in all days of the parade. The elephant had to walk eleven days to get to the festival. 

She said that all elephants at the parade had their back legs tied together. “Some elephants had the back chains tied unbelievably short and so tight that elephants could not even walk,” Arachchige added.

The legs of elephants are tied together so that they’re forced to walk slowly in parades.

“On the last day of the procession, we saw many elephants go amok. The procession came to a halt. This was as if the elephants made their own rebellion against abuse of their kind further,” Arachchige said.

“One mahout was pinching hard and pulling hard on the painful pressure point behind an elephant’s ear. And there were incidents where many men were pulling elephants by their tails,” she continued. 

“The excuse that Perahera organisers give for this continuation of this abuse is ‘culture’,” Arachchige said. “However, the educated modern thinking younger generation feel that animal abuse should not be culture and that perahera should be done without the participation of elephants.”

the teaching of the Buddha does not justify cruelty to any animal

Rukshan Jayawardena

“Yes, there was chaos at Kandy,” confirmed Jayawardena. “The elephants’ broke ranks and they had to be caught and tethered and probably beaten later we believe,” he added. 

Although the new law does introduce guidelines for elephants in processions, Jayawardena said instead of guidelines or exceptions, “we should be phasing out the use of elephants in processions.”

“I am a Buddhist, and I oppose their use in processions, like the one in Kandy. I will be attacked for saying this, but the teaching of the Buddha does not justify cruelty to any animal,” he said.  

“We have so much science now about elephants, and we are understanding them better. They are highly intelligent, sentient animals. The whole practice of using elephants in processions should be under review because the way they are kept and looked after has deteriorated.”

“A deliberately ‘tamed’ elephant is a creature whose spirit has been broken,” said Alles. “He or she is not a religious symbol. He or she deserves sanctuary, not [these new regulations].”

‘Good first step’
“It [the law] specifies some important regulations, but whether they can/will be implemented remains to be seen,” Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman and Scientist at Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka, said.

“It [the law] also does not address some important issues that are stressful and detrimental to elephants, such as the covering of ears with heavy cloth [elephants mainly regulate body temperature through ears],” he said about the use of elephants in parades. “And the chaining of all four legs so that the elephant can only shuffle along and not walk properly, which are commonly observed.”

“The law is a good first step in regulating the keeping of captive elephants. However, the law will remain merely a law on paper if it is not implemented properly and remains to be seen whether it can/will be fully implemented or not,” he said.

Domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka
Many wealthy Sri Lankans, including Buddhist monks, keep elephants as pets, but complaints of ill-treatment and cruelty are widespread. It is estimated that over 200 elephants are kept as domestic animals in Sri Lanka. 

The wild population is estimated to be about 7,500 elephants, but this number is shrinking. Sri Lanka has one of the highest elephant kill rates due to the growing human-elephant conflicts in the country. 

Calls and e-mail from The Animal Reader to the office of Wimalaweera Dissanayake, state minister of wildlife, who signed the new elephant protection law, were not immediately answered. 


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