Temples covet wild tuskers

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2011:

COLOMBO–Sri Lanka has almost half again
more wild elephants than the national Wildlife
Conservation Depart-ment imagined just a few
weeks ago, but this is not good news to elephant
advocates who hope to thwart pressure on the
department to capture elephant calves for temple
The first survey of the Sri Lankan
elephant population since 1993 discovered 7,379
wild elephants in all, 5,879 of them in or near
parks and sanctuaries, with about 1,500
elsewhere. The survey found 1,107 baby
elephants, but only 122 mature adult males with

Wildlife Conservation Department director
H.D. Ratnayake told media that 3,500 people
helped to produce the data by staffing 1,533
counting posts near watering holes, irrigation
tanks, and lakes believed to be commonly used by
The 1993 survey counted just 1,967
elephants, down from 10,000 to 12,000 believed
to have inhabited Sri Lanka in 1900.
Until the 33-year Tamil Tiger insurgency
ended in May 2009, however, researchers were
unable to seek elephants in nearly half of the
island nation. The Wildlife Conservation
Department expected to find about 5,350 elephants
when the 2011 count began in mid-August.
Sri Lankan wildlife minister S.M.
Chandrasena on August 8, 2011 told a press
conference that the count would identify strong
young calves to be captured and “donated” to
temples. Chandrasena reportedly stated that
elephants would be given to temples that are
politically strong enough to withstand the
criticism of animal advocates.
“Some time back there were more than 300
tamed elephants in the country,” Chandrasena
said. “The number has now dwindled to around
150, of whom only a few are tuskers suitable for
According to the online newspaper
ColomboPage, Chandrasena cited a request for
elephants made to Sri Lankan president Mahinda
Rajapaksa by Pradeep Nilanga Dela Bandara, chief
administrator of the Temple of the Tooth in
Kandy. The temple houses a tooth claimed to be a
relic of the Buddha, SiddhÇrtha Gautama,
brought to Sri Lanka about 200 years after his
death. The tooth is traditionally carried by an
elephant with tusks in religious processions
called Peraheras.
Sri Lanka Tamed Elephant Owners
Association chair Damsiri Karunarathna confirmed
that following the August death of a 60-year-old
tusker named Millangoda Raja, only 19 tamed
tuskers remain in Sri Lanka, of whom 15 are more
than 60 years old.
At least 30 local conservation
organizations reportedly denounced Chandrasena’s
remarks. Twenty organizations withdrew support
from the elephant census. Environmental
Conservation Society director Ajantha
Palihawadana told the Malaysia Chronicle that
captures such as Chandrasena proposed would
remove genetic diversity from the elephant
population, especially if there was deliberate
selection of tusked elephants and young males who
might mature into tuskers.
“Many are also very worried about the
welfare of the elephants subjected to the trauma
of capture and training, and spending the rest
of their lives in captivity,” observed the
Malaysia Chronicle. “Ancient traditions from
cultures all over the world are being reassessed
with our modern understanding of ethics and
morality. We do not believe that cruelty to
animals can be excused by labeling it
“Sri Lanka has a great tradition of
protecting wildlife,” the Malaysia Chronicle
continued. “Arahat Mahinda Thera, who converted
the country to Buddhism, preached in the 3rd
Century B.C. that all animals have a right to
live where they want. Elephants in Sri Lanka are
already under pressure from loss of habitat and
conflict with expanding agriculture; capture for
private ownership must be avoided at all costs.
“Following extensive media coverage and
outrage from civil society, Chandrasena has
retracted his comments,” the Malaysia Chronicle
finished. “The Director General of the
Department of Wildlife Conservation has reassured
the press that the census was not intended as a
preparation for capture and training. However,
the statement still leaves concern that the
government intends to capture and train wild
elephants, possibly in substantial numbers, in
the near future.”
Elephant captures might be billed as an
alternative to shooting rogue elephants. Sri
Lankan authorites killed 220 elephants in 2010
for menacing humans and damaging crops. Wild
elephants kill about 50 Sri Lankans per year.
The Buddhist and Hindu custom of keeping
temple elephants reputedly originated from the
custom of retiring working animals to temple
sanctuaries. But the practice long ago
degenerated into the prevailing tradition of
keeping elephants as visitor attractions, who
spend their days begging for alms. Often temple
elephants are made to stand indoors on paved
surfaces for prolonged periods, getting outside
chiefly to participate in processions.
An Indian government-appointed 12-member
Elephant Task Force in October 2010 recommended
that all use of elephants for entertainment or
commercial purposes should be phased out. The
task force did not address temple use, but
Compassion Unlimited Plus Action and the Asian
Nature Conservation Foundation have asked that
temple use should be phased out as well. CUPA
president and task force member Suparna Ganguly
told The Hindu that there are 34 temple elephants
in Karnataka state, where CUPA is based.
In Kerala state, the temple management
agency, called the Travancore Devaswom Board,
in May 2011 ordered an end to temple rituals
involving elephants, after a string of incidents
in which elephants ran amok during processions,
sometimes killing or injuring human participants.
The Travancore Devaswom Board proposed to license
temples to keep and use in processions only the
elephants they already have. Renting elephants
or allowing devotees to sponsor the donation of
additional elephants would not be allowed.
Apart from the frequent abuse of temple
elephants in capture, training, and traditional
use, temples have occasionally been caught
fronting for elephant poachers. Such a case came
to light in Thailand in January 2011. “Following
news that a Maha Sarakham temple butchered the
carcasses of three elephants and sold the meat,
skulls and tusks, elephant conservationists
called on the government to rescue the remaining
seven beasts [at the temple] and do something
before tourism is affected,” the Bangkok Nation

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.