Temple elephants approach extinction

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1999:

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka– – Eleph-
ant hunting and capture have been banned in
Sri Lanka since 1960.
Now the Sri Lankan tradition of
temple elephant keeping is at risk. None have
been born in captivity in five years; only
seven have been born in half a century.
Often hired to lead processions,
and a magnet for visitors and donations, temple
elephants have long been a mainstay of
the Sri Lankan religious economy. And the
ostentatiously devout like to keep their own
yard elephants. Of the estimated 2,000 elephants
in Sri Lanka, about half are privately
owned. Most are beyond their prime reproductive
years, even if they could be induced
to mate in captivity.
When a baby elephant vanished
from the Pinnawela elephant refuge circa
November 1, wildlife conservation department
deputy director Nandana Atapattu
observed to Susannah Price of the South
China Morning Post that, “Owning an elephant
is extremely prestigious––he could be
sold for a million rupees,” or about $37,000.

“I have been asked to find elephants
by several Buddhist temples,” Atapattu continued,
“but there are none available. We
understand we can buy elephants cheaply in
Thailand,” he added hopefully, “but under
international agreements we have to check
that these have also been bred in captivity.”
Among the few elephants who
came up for sale last year was Raja, a 22-
year-old bull, who killed one trainer at the
National Zoological Gardens in Colombo during
mid-1996, and killed another on
Christmas Day, 1997.
“There were lots of discussions and
debate and we decided to call a public auction,”
said zoo director Senarath Gunasena.
“Our country is predominantly Buddhist, and
putting Raja to sleep would invite lots of criticism.
All of us make mistakes,” Gunasena
told Dilip Ganguly of Associated Press. “I
know Raja has made two. But we really do
not know why, do we?”
Added 25-year mahout Maya
Danna, “Perhaps he was provoked, or perhaps
it was just the fate of those mahouts.”
After 45 minutes of bidding,
Nilaga Dela, identified as “son of a wealthy
gem dealer,” won Raja for $14,836, ten
times the average Sri Lankan yearly wage.
“We will give him enough love to
start over,” Dela said, taking Raja to roam
the family estate in Ratnapura.
Giving elephants second chances is
also a Sri Lankan tradition. Since 1983 the
wildlife conservation department has been
rehabilitating elephants at Pinnawela who
have been wounded or orphaned as result of
the long civil war with Tamil guerillas.
The Tamils are Hindus, to whom
elephants are also sacred, but in the early
1990s one now quiet guerilla faction reportedly
supported itself by ivory poaching, and
viewed killing a temple elephant as a blow
against Buddhism. Government elephant
conservation projects, the guerillas argued,
were a pretext for invading Tamil territory.
Three young cow elephants and two
young bulls who had formed their own small
herd at Pinnawela were returned to the wild in
March 1998––the first to leave the facility
except to live at temples or enter zoological
conservation programs abroad. Another 56
elephants remained behind, soon joined by
two more young war victims.
Atapattu meanwhile tried to capture
and relocate several bachelor elephants who
had killed eight people at tea plantations in
the Poonagala mountains. Moving just one
elephant to the Yala National Park, 40 miles
away, took a week.
“The plantation workers detest and
fear the elephants,” reported Niresh
Eliatamby for Associated Press. “No elephants
have been slain, but one has been
found with wounds from shotgun pellets.”

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