Call for stopping plunder of Pinnawela elephants, tuskers


Solutions of expert environmentalist

Environment Conservation Trust’s Director Sajeewa Chamikara proposes a series of solutions to combat this menace. He has called for the immediate halt of the plunder of elephants from the Pinnawela Orphanage, from where he alleges elephants are being stolen in the dead of night (!!), to be given to private elephant owners, with political influence. He also advocates that a census be done of all the elephants which are at Pinnawela, the National Zoological Gardens, temples and devales and animals which are in private possession. This might earn the wrath of the Diyawadana Nilames and the politicians, but, it is high time that the Department of Wild life takes steps to arrest this disturbing trend, or elephants in Sri Lanka, might be an extinct species before long!!

By Ravi Ladduwahetty

Institutional conservation and external conservation are twofold methods of conservation of animal species. Institutional conservation is a method of conserving animals with a limited institutional framework. External conservation entails the protection of animals if they are threatened with extinction at the location that they live in or if their existence is threatened in that habitat. Accordingly, the Pinnawela Elephants Orphanage is deemed as the best location in Sri Lanka for the external conservation of elephants, and has won acclaim at both Asian and global levels for conservation of these pachyderms.

The Pinnawela elephant orphanage spanning 23 acres was gifted by the then Minister of Shipping and Tourism P.B.G. Kalugalle on February 16, 1975 for the purpose of conserving and protecting orphaned elephants which are subject to threat in their habitats and also, equally important venue for, breeding and propagation. However, sadly, what is happening today, is that the venue has become a hot spot which has been associated with gifting and distributing of elephants to politicians, businessmen, and Nilames of Devales.

However, on the contrary, the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage has also become a tourist attraction of immense proportions. This is also due to the animals being nurtured properly for breeding in the vast expanse that is available for them to roam freely. It is due to these contributory factors that the Pinnawela elephant orphanage has attracted 728,324 tourists of which foreigners numbered 264,452 last year. Therefore, the total revenue that the orphanage has attracted was Rs. 487 million.

Pinnawela has so far produced 67 baby elephants.

The first baby elephant "Sukumali" was born to "Vijaya" and Kumari on July 5. 1985. Since then there have been 66 other baby elephants have been born there. Another salient feature is that there had also been two baby tuskers born there as well, which has been attributed to the excellent veterinary care and the heridetarial knowledge of the mahouts. It is also moot point to note that whatever the reasons were, only four adult elephants have died in the existence of the orphanage. Vijaya is one of the adult elephants which have died following a brain tumour while another has died due to natural causes. While "Kandula" was nurtured at Pinnawela, was later the mascot of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry Regiment, it later died while engaged in a fight with another male elephant after it was returned to Pinnawela by the Sri Lanka Army. However, the saddest death of the Pinnawela elephants has been of "Neelagiri" who was brutally killed by the use of ankus (henduwas) by mahouts within the premises. The fallout of this has been that all the responsible employees of the orphanage have been terminated from their employment.

There are around 85 elephants and tuskers within the premises as at today, but there are only three tuskers. Blind tuskers Raja and Sampath are also ageing. The only young tusker there is "Sumana"

However, the tragedy is that despite all the effective aftercare, there is a disgusting trend of these elephants and tuskers being gifted to various temples and Devales and businessmen, VIP politicians and even to overseas zoos. By the year 2002, there had been a total of 66 elephants and tuskers gifted in this manner. Thereafter, Diyawadana Nilame Nilanga Dela also acquired two baby tuskers. The years 2006, 2007, and 2010 also saw two elephants each being gifted to Chile, Japan and Korea. Last year also saw the donation of 11 elephants and tuskers, making it a total of 84 elephants and tuskers which have been presented for whatever reasons.

The only male baby tusker which was left at Pinnawela "Sumana" is also in the hands of a powerful politician. Now, external conservation has become a problem.

Now there are arrangements which have been made to gift six more elephants to foreign climes. Six year old she – elephant "Mihiri" and seven year old male elephant "Mahasen" will also be flown out of the country very soon. There are arrangements made to gift another four to the zoo of the Czech capital of Prague. The Director of that Zoo and a photographer of that country have visited Sri Lanka on January 25 to make their selections and also to ascertain their living conditions. So, this level of arbitrary gifting of these pachyderms has resulted in elephants not being available for breeding.

While the exchanges of elephants is usually a measure of goodwill in diplomatic relations, the conservation of elephants and their breeding is a totally different matter. The intention of the establishment of the orphanage was totally different from the mandate of running a zoo. Despite the orphanage being coming under the aegis of the National Zoological Department, it is grossly improper for the orphanage to be run and operated as a zoo. This haphazard practice will lead to elephants being an extinct species in this country.

Elephants and tuskers gifted

to temples, devales arbitrarily

It is indeed sad that there have been so many elephants which have been gifted to temples and devales in an arbitrary manner.

There is also the school of thought that as elephants have been used in pageants and processions and therefore, that practice has to be continued and that it is the anti- Buddhist environmentalists who advocate the practice should be done away with. However, environmentalists say that they have no vehement objection to elephants and tuskers being used only for ceremonial procession.

Training elephants for processions

at Pinnawela

If the grouse of the authorities and various factions of society is that there is a shortage of elephants for ceremonial purposes, then a tangible solution for this deficit was laid down by the then Director of the National Zoological Gardens- Brigadier H.A.N.T. Perera. His proposal was to train a section of the elephants at Pinnawela to be used in processions, peraheras and other ceremonial functions. It was at the time that these training sessions were on that it came to an abrupt halt due to the pressures imposed by elephant owners and their mahouts and the Minister in charge of that portfolio- AHM Fowzie, dropped the matter abruptly. Resistance came from the elephant owners on the assumption that their earnings derived from such practices would be lost for good! Therefore, it is also clear that the motives of these elephant owners were not pure in letting their pachyderms be presented at processions, but to make big time money!! However, on the face of it, they make out that elephants are required for processions and that is too, with ulterior motives!

However these elephant owners have been able to breed only three baby elephants while Pinnawela has produced 67! The late Sam Samarasinghe of Kegalle, also an elephant owner, was responsible for the breeding of a baby elephant. One of the other pioneers of elephant breeding was the late businessman JPI Piyadasa, who saw the breeding of the other two elephants.

Reluctance for breeding

The main reason why these private elephant owners are not well disposed towards elephant breeding is that baby elephants are delivered after 22 months and that they need to be fed with milk by the elephant mother for the next three years. Therefore, mother elephants have to be deprived of work for at least five years. This also is important as far as medical treatment goes. Another reason is that male elephants also become restless and unmanageable at the times of breeding and reproductive phases.

Therefore, breeders are reluctant as they will be deprived of their income. Therefore, the tendency is for them to plunder these elephants from either Pinnawela or from the jungles.

There are also reports that these elephant owners use these animals for various destructive purposes such as the transport of logs from illicit forest felling. This is manifest in the Districts of Galle, Kegalle, Ratnapura Matara and Kalutara Districts. Old and blind elephants are also wickedly used to carry tourists on their backs- which is also another money spinner for the elephant owners and their mahouts, without their food and water, making their owners rich and heartless.

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