‘Hakka patas’ Animal rights and related matters


by Dr Rohan H Wickramasinghe

Some days ago, I received an article on elephant conservation by Jeremy Hance in The Guardian of August 12th. Much of the piece concerned the ‘Elephant Sanctuary’ in Tennessee, USA, which was established over 20 years ago on 200 acres and now covers 2700 acres. It presently hosts 10 elephants and sightseers, parties and casual visitors are unwelcome and not admitted.

The staff is very experienced in the various aspects of the management of the sanctuary. They are, also, devoted to their charges. One such is Otto Fad, Animal Behaviour and Research Specialist (see below), who notes that ‘elephants have deep psychological needs’.

The article on ‘Elephant Conservation’ was published in support of 2017’s ‘World Elephant Day’ (WED2017). This was co-founded on the 12th August 2012 by the Canadian film director, Patricia Sims and the ‘Elephant Re-introduction Foundation of Thailand’, which was founded in 1996 on the initiative of Queen Sirikit. (The latter Foundation was set up to attempt to re-introduce some of the approximately 2800 ‘domesticated’ elephants in Thailand to the wild.) Patricia Sims was the director of the documentary ‘When Elephants were Young’, which was narrated by ‘Star Trek’ actor, William Shatner. ‘World Elephant Day’ is managed by the ‘World Elephant Society’.

The populations of elephants in the wild have been diminishing significantly in recent years. This is primarily due to poaching for ivory and, also, to human/elephant conflict in areas of increasing human activity. Some estimate that the numbers of African elephants (i.e. Bush Elephants and Forest Elephants) in the wild today approximate 400,000 and those of Asian elephants are 40,000. Others view these figures as grossly exaggerated. Be that as it may, it is indisputable that the numbers are declining.

The concept of doing something for elephants has been spreading rapidly in recent years. Animal rights groups, such as PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), have been working on different fronts to improve the ways in which people treat these and other animals. This includes the way animals are treated in some zoos and, especially, circuses.

The three decades-long battle the animals’ rights groups had with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is a case in point. The Bailey Circus was launched in about 1806 by Hachaliah Bailey and was probably the first in the US. It included an African elephant, a trained dog, a horse, some pigs and a wagon. After ups-and-downs and a merger, a revitalized circus began as ‘P. T. Barnum’s Great Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome’ in 1871. The circus developed over the years and came to be billed as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Animal rights groups, including PETA, however, took up in court battles the cause of what they claimed was ill treatment of animals, which included elephants, lions, tigers and kangaroos. Eventually the circus withdrew on 1 May 2016 the 11 Asian elephants they had performing with the circus and sent them to join the approximately 31 others they had in their 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. This was the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America. This move was followed on Sunday 21 May 2017 with the complete closing down of the circus after a history of 146 years due to lack of income to meet expenses. The success of the animal rights organizations in this matter is attributable to the public pressure which had been created.

The foregoing brief account of the history and fate of the Ringling Circus demonstrates the growing concern for the way animals are treated. This includes the way livestock is treated and is not confined to the Western and developed worlds. The urge to do something for elephants is growing in recent years and ‘World Elephant Day’ is now observed in numerous countries, including, for example, Australia, Canada, India, Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, UK and USA. As regards organizations involved in activities and events in relation to ‘World Elephant Day’, the 24 listed in Wikipedia are only a few of the many. Activities related to marking ‘World Elephant Day’ included, for instance, a march in Washington, D.C. and the Wildlife Conservation Society arranging for the ringing of the closing bell at the Nasdaq Market Site in Times Square, New York City. The Wildlife Conservation Society also joined with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in crushing almost two tons of ivory (value: 8 million USD) in a symbolic start to WED2017.

As regards ‘World Elephant Day’-related matters in Sri Lanka, the only event brought to my attention was the launch of a book on ‘elephants’. However, The Island newspaper on Monday the 14th August did carry an elephant-related news item titled ‘Hakka patas injures jumbo calf seriously’. This noted that a young elephant wounded by a ‘hakka patas’ had been found in the Hambantota Port premises. It was noted that the mouth of the elephant is seriously injured. The animal also bears a gunshot wound on its head and it has also lost part of its trunk due to a previous injury. The photograph accompanying the article gives clear evidence that the report does not exaggerate the suffering of the animal.

It is appropriate here to return to the observations of Otto Fad of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. He notes that ‘Welfare is a concept that can be applied to any animal in any situation…….. Does anyone think that a starving elephant who has just had her lower jaw blown off by a hakka pata (a makeshift explosive inserted in fruits and vegetables to injure or kill any animal raiding fields) takes comfort in her ‘wild’ status ?’ It is noteworthy that this observation does not explain that ‘hakka patas’ is a word used in Sri Lanka. In other words, to many if not most elephant lovers worldwide an explanation is already unnecessary that it is in Sri Lanka that this abominably cruel contraption is used.

The excuse will no doubt be advanced that the ‘hakka patas’ (incidentally, a most cynical term which is translated as ‘bang goes the lower jaw’) is used to protect the crops of the farmer. While the writer does not profess to be an authority in the area of protecting crops from elephants, he does not accept that a solution cannot be found, which is more humane than the use of a ‘hakka patas’. The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), which has been established since 2002, is working actively in the area of human-elephant conflict, which it estimates has an economic cost of 10 million USD per year in Sri Lanka. Its field work by local and foreign volunteers is conducted around Wasgamuwa National Park.

Fire crackers have traditionally been employed to scare elephants away from crops and human habitations (particularly when paddy is stored after the harvest). However, this technique is less effective after frequent use. The SLWCS also makes use of solar-powered electric fences. A more recent approach introduced by the SLWCS is the use of bee hives in the path of routes taken by elephants. This has been found in African countries to have a useful deterrent effect. However, this is not universally applicable, since bee colonies may abandon their hives during unfavourable conditions. Again, excessive dependence on bee colonies to deter problems with elephants is inadvisable as honey bees are on the decline in many parts of the world due to problems with pollution and disease. (The pollution problems may include disorientation due to the use of radios, TVs and cell phones.) The SLWCS is also experimenting with planting fences of citrus (i.e. orange and lime trees) to deter elephants as well as to provide additional sources of income to villagers. A further novel approach being tried out by the PAMS Foundation (co-founded by the late Wayne Lotter) is ‘Chillie Pepper Fences’ on the outskirts of Ruanda National Park in southern Tanzania to protect crops during the growing season.

The argument that ‘hakka patas’ is used to protect crops and habitations from elephants ignores the fact that the ‘hakka patas’ is also used to procure the meat of the wild boar. This is often offered in a quiet voice by bungalow keepers managing circuit bungalows etc in relevant regions. (As regards consuming the flesh of elephants, Siran Deraniyagala in his authoritative ‘The Prehistory of Sri Lanka’ (1992) notes that there is no firm evidence that the Veddahs hunted elephants for food. This was probably linked to a taboo among the Veddahs. )

Locations in Sri Lanka where elephants may be observed are the Wildlife Parks, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Dehiwela Zoological Gardens and the various Peraheras. Some elephants are privately kept. Reams have been written on elephants in these locations and it is not the purpose of this article to enter into these discussions, which are freely available for reference by those interested.

The purpose of this article is to focus attention on the outright cruelty practiced in our treatment of our wildlife and other animals on occasion. The packed conditions under which cattle are sometimes transported when some of the animals die of suffocation before arrival at their destination and the indiscriminate killing of friendly street dogs are other scandals which need to be addressed effectively. The use of ‘hakka patas’ in Sri Lanka to kill wildlife is evidently becoming widely known internationally. It is fortunate that the recent incident where a live eagle was reportedly skinned in the presence of others in order to satisfy the sadistic instincts of a few did not receive wider coverage in international circles.

We are already having to defend ourselves internationally against charges of being abusers of human rights. If we don’t take effective action against the practice of employing ‘hakka patas’, wildlife organizations around the world will enter into the picture sooner rather than later and, in the first instance, urge their nationals to avoid tourism to Sri Lanka until we set our house in order. Schools, religious bodies and law enforcement agencies could help. The Ringling Circus matter provides ample evidence that once the international animal rights organizations around the world get their teeth into an issue they do not give up. In the matter of taking effective action against the continuing use of ‘hakka patas’ I would be in sympathy with them.

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