There is a raging debate today on how we should deal with Elephants, and from that of other animals and the list is as long as a piece of string! We have had international examples of the famous Tiger Temple being closed down last week, ostensibly due to a public outcry about the welfare of the Tigers in chains, an attraction where people were allowed to touch and take tiger selfies!
HISTORY OF ELEPHANTS IN CAPTIVITY
So here in this essay let me look at the case of the Elephant, and let me say at the outset that I am not an elephant expert, and am merely an interested and caring bystander, who has never owned an elephant, and NOT likely to ever own one either. I may also add that way back yonder, in the era where bulldozers were NOT available, we used elephants to cut down trees for cultivation, and carry logs to be put on lorries for transport. My recollection then was that they would ONLY work from 7.30am to 12.30pm and from that time they get into the Deduru Oya, which was on the border of the Estate, and lie in the water for 3 hours, to be cleaned brushed and rubbed by the mahout, and then eat coconut and jack palms for the rest of the day. That was the life!
If I go back further, I presume these elephants were captured using other tame elephants at an elephant KRAAL, and then tamed using means that may today be found to be cruel. They may have been forced to SUBMIT, whatever the mental and physical restrictions were meant in that context.
These tame elephants that have now dwindled massively, as they are NO longer the workhorses of the past, used to be lent to Temples for Pereharas all around the Country, and some had to travel, walking for days to reach their destination. Today, they travel in large trucks, some two at a time!
THE CURRENT DEBATE
It is now considered cruel to capture elephants from the wild and tame them, no matter what means you use. There are further abandoned baby elephants, found in many places, and are brought up with the help of elephant sanctuaries with the intention of sending them back into the wild, and there is a raging debate if they cannot be tamed and used by wealthy people as PETS registered, and welfare checked up on annually before renewal of the license to keep the pet!
CITES the international treaty forbids capturing elephants from the wild for taming purposes, and I am not sure how abandoned baby elephants are treated under this convention.
It further states that breeding from captive elephants is the ONLY basis on which Elephants can be kept in future, for zoos as well as for personal pleasure! I believe our veterinarians at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage are knowledgeable in breeding captive elephants, but have NOT done so, as there has been a veritable supply of wild Babies available to be transacted!
Clearly this is illegal, and all of them have been obtained illegally by their owners, who are now in the process of being prosecuted. The Minister of Sustainable Development said that he will shortly expose ALL the names of those who have bought stolen elephants, and within hours of this news item coming on the National Press website, it was withdrawn, presumably because the Paper was threatened or influence used to take that statement away, and NO DOUBT the intent will also be silenced with a santhosam.
Interestingly, there is a campaign worldwide for tourists not to ride on elephants as it is damaging to their backbone, no matter that kings of the past, used to ride elephants on Tiger Hunts to the Jungle! Added to this the Elephant Polo Tourist attraction is also supposed to be banned, as being cruel!
Circuses where Elephants were used are gradually sending them away to retirement homes, with many inhuman treatments exposed on the net, and happy endings where lonely elephants are sent to farms with other Elephants, shown relishing the company of their mates and having a fulfilling retirement to natural death.
Zoos are facing the wrath of activists. I believe the Elephant Circus at the Dehiwela Zoo, that I saw as a youngster, has been done away due to the new ethos. Of course there is a campaign to close zoos! Safari Parks may be next!
Then there is the Perehara that is facing the wrath of the Elephant activists saying that chained elephants, with lights on their backs and thousands of onlookers along the way are stressing them unfairly. The JURY is still out on this, and there are religious undertones, though I believe we MUST keep religion out of it. I was surprised then when the President said that due to the shortage of Tuskers in Sri Lanka, he will be getting Burmese Tusker Babies to be kept by temples for their festivals, as it was a traditional practice.
I can assure you that NO temple kept elephants. It was the wealthy landlords that kept them for their use, and lent them to Temples for processions! Now the majestic tuskers are dying out, and I believe there is ONLY one left of the casket carrying size, and is OLD!
We have kept out of this argument, the existing 150 elephants in captivity who with their owners, who have a relationship with them, having brought them up since childhood, believe that they are treating their charges well, and do not wish to hand them over. They are properly licensed and legitimate.
These elephants along with the Elephants at Pinnawela, and those bred under the NEW breeding program can be sold, and used for temples. Technically then as things stand now, it is ONLY these elephants that can be used in Peraharas. I presume NO elephant is NOW used in Sri Lanka for pulling logs.
In Thailand there are still many working Elephants, and with the advent of logging equipment, families of elephant owners there, who are poor professionals are left destitute for the lack of work. I am told it is a similar story in Myanmar, where elephants are still used for logging, and work. Presumably captured using cruel means and forced to submit to a work schedule, losing their freedom along the way.
Will the traditional perehara, using 100 elephants die away, along with the dwindling numbers? Should elephants be used in Peraharas? Should the Zoo in Dehiwela get rid of their elephants? What do we do with Pinnawela? How should we operate elephant transit homes adjoining National Parks?
These questions have now come onto the front burner. You should think about it, and depending on your definition of cruelty take your position. Add to this the new knowledge on elephant behavior, and traditional herds, and immense memory, where do we go from here?
Into this argument one needs to think of Human induced cruelty or happiness, and forest induced cruelty arising from fights, young males being thrown out of herds suffering injury in battle with others. The question of HUMAN ELEPHANT conflict in the wild, where HAKKA PATTAS and shootings are injuring elephants some extremely painfully, must be addressed as a separate topic from this discussion. Then the annual train kill of about 100 elephants. and the precautions taken to reduce this number enter the debate there.
The role of the VETs in the Department of Wildlife is another, in saving injured elephants from train accidents, and human elephant conflict, and transporting particularly difficult elephants to the Elephant Prison in Horowapothana for their own safety. They are incarcerated in 3,000 acres with many uncontrollable elephants, and is also a recipe for a disastrous outcome.
We must restrict our debate here only to the Sri Lankan context, so we don’t lose the wood from the trees and get into an IVORIAN conflict amongst us!