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The Pinnawela Baby elephant ‘Abduction’

Due to my profound interest in elephants, and the numerous interactions I have had with many people during my ‘Elephant Talks’, and the book that I wrote about the elephants of the Uda Walawe National Park (Tranquil Footsteps), I have perhaps earned a reputation for being somewhat of an ‘Elephant Enthusiast.’

Consequently to the recent incident, where two juvenile elephants at Pinnawela were removed to be taken to the Dalada Maligawa, there has been a huge cry of protest from all and sundry. I have been inundated with telephone calls by many of my friends urging me to ‘do something’.

Of late, I decided to take a ‘back seat’ in all this, rather than hit my head against a blank wall and get frustrated. With over 3-4 elephants being killed each week in Sri Lanka, and no cohesive plan or effort in place to at least try and address this problem, I felt that educating young people and motivating them to think about this problem, would be time better spent, for the future. Some may say that this is perhaps the defeatist attitude.

 However, I thought I would lend my ‘two cents worth’ to the current issue by trying to summarise the known scientific information and studies on behaviour of elephants, particularly related to juveniles and family life.

Elephants and their life history, are in many ways inextricably linked to humans. In fact there are some surprising similarities:

* Elephants have a complex, and closely bonded social life based around the family unit led by the most senior, mature female and her close relations.

* An elephant calf is born after a long gestation period of about 22 months and remains closely attached to its mother, until sexual maturity at the age of about 10 to 14 years.

* This allows for a long learning period and transfer of experience until the offspring is in its ‘teens’.

* Males are gradually eased out of the herd on reaching maturity, and spend the rest of their lives away from the herd, interacting with females of other family units for mating only.

* Females on the other hand spend their entire life with the mother and the herd. A typical family unit will therefore consist of the matriarch, her daughters , sisters , aunts and nieces. Only males who have not yet reached sexually maturity will be attached to the herd.

* Females are fertile and reproduce up to about 50 years, but still continue to remain and play an important role as senior citizens in elephant society.

* Elephants and humans have one of the longest life spans among mammals, of around 70 years

* Elephants have no natural predator in the wild (except man!)

*Elephants and man have similar types of disease, such as cardiovascular and dental problems and arthritis.

Hence, it is quite evident that a juvenile elephant’s life is one of complete happiness, love and utter bliss. It is indeed very fortunate to be looked after, not only by its own mother, but a retinue of aunts, sisters and cousins! In the wild, it is not a rare sight to see a baby elephant suckle from another lactating female . For an elephant, the family is all important; its very existence dependent upon its mother’s milk for the first two years of life and a life that should span three score years and ten, equivalent to that of man. In a perfect world that elephant life would be filled with fun and joy through the companionship of friends and a close-knit and loving family, whose love is pure and unconditional all the days of its life. (David Sheldrick)

So, when this tightly knit world of serenity, affection and reassurance is suddenly disrupted, there would be very serious repercussions to a juveniles’ psychology. Scientists have now found that early traumatic experiences do have an effect on an elephant’s later life and behaviour. This has been identified in captive elephants who, suddenly, for no apparent reason, attack people. This is said to be due to some random incident that triggers the latent trauma experiences, lurking deep within, to manifest itself.

"Like people, Elephants can also become victims of past traumas and exhibit symptoms of PTSD years after the experience Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that describes anxiety-based responses to life-threatening events.

Traumatic stress is different from other types of stress because the individual’s existence is physically and emotionally threatened and s/he is unable to escape. While environmental threats such as hurricanes can be terrifying, in many cases they appear to cause less ill effects than do human-caused traumas. Victims are usually able to anticipate natural disasters and make attempts to avoid harm. Events or "stressors" that underlie the development of PTSD include threat of death; physical abuse; deprivation; torture; isolation; forced incarceration (captivity); and witnessing the loss, death or threat of death to a loved one…." — Post-Traumatic Stress and Elephants in Captivity, G.A. Bradshaw Ph.D., Ph.D. & Lorin Lindner Ph.D., M.P.H

I have personally not had any accurate information of what really has conspired at Pinnawala, but it appears that the two juvenile elephants, possibly born at Pinnawela, and still under the age of 4 years, have been removed and gifted to the Dalada Maligawa. The issue is more compounded by the fact that that the two juvenile elephants are supposed to have been still suckled by their mothers, when they were removed from Pinnawela. If this is so, it will indeed cause great stress and trauma on the young elephants, as is evident from the foregoing.

Another aspect was that is reported is that these two juveniles are tuskers. To my knowledge, it would be difficult to establish whether these two young juveniles are really tuskers, so early in their life. Many Asian elephants sprout ‘tushes’, which are really not tusks. They do not grow more than 5-6 inches even when they the elephant is full grown.

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