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Sri Lanka's elephants in serious trouble - action needed!

Ever since our fascinating visit to Sri Lanka in 2003 we have been following the elephant situation on this beautiful island with increasing anxiety. Forgive us for naively thinking that a Buddhist society with a value system that recognises non-human animals as an equal life form would take better care of elephants than others. In truth, the way in which elephants in the wild AND in captivity are managed and cared for in Sri Lanka is in desperate need of improvement. Indeed, in August this year Sri Lankan wildlife veterinarians went on strike to protest the mismanagement of elephants.

In this day and age of Internet communication, every article published is in the global domain. The appalling stories appearing online do not give confidence in the Government of Sri Lanka's ability to either care for the well being of elephants held captive, nor to secure a future for the wild members of a species so culturally and touristically important to the country. Both the Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, and Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife, S. M. Chandrasena, must be informed that people all over the world care about what is happening and that, in addition to the purely conservation and ethical concerns, the continuing mismanagement and mistreatment of elephants has the potential to jeopardize Sri Lanka's tourism industry and must be addressed. The Ministers must also be informed that many of the human-elephant conflict interventions are merely exacerbating the situation. We believe both Ministers should be approached following a Cabinet reshuffle 22 Nov., since Minister Rajapaksa continue to be responsible for tourist-related issues, while S. M. Chandrasena's Ministry from the same date is responsible for Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The death of a Magnificent Tusker - and a call to action

This article and call to action is prompted by the terrible news of a magnificent tusker, "Parakrama", who was killed last week while being translocated, a practice that has led to numerous other heart-breaking elephant tragedies in Sri Lanka. Our readers may remember the story of "the lone battle of a four-legged Brigadiere," for example, who after being translocated, took to the sea, was towed in by the Navy, only to be found dead weeks later having fallen into a well. Like the "Brigadiere", the death of Parakrama has led to headlines around the world, and on Sri Lanka: Tusker tragedy prompts calls for safer transportation and Death of a tusker.

At the time of the incident, we felt that the news of Parakrama's death was just too upsetting to share through ElephantVoices. On reflection, however, and after many emails back and forth with our Sri Lankan colleagues, we decided to post one of many articles last week on Facebook. Parakrama, one of the country's few remaining tuskers, had been called a "National Treasure." His death is a symbol of Sri Lanka's many elephant conservation and welfare woes, and his passing at the hands of the Department of Wildlife Conservation must serve as a wake-up call. Accidents can happen, of course, but in our opinion there are far too many mistakes being made in the management of Sri Lanka's elephants.

No more superficial fixes - long-term solutions needed

More than 50 people and 228 elephants, an estimated 5% of the remaining wild population, were killed last year as a consequence of conflict. Translocating one elephant after another around the country, putting up fences that cause elephants to starve, and "resettling" elephants by driving them to new locations will not solve the problem. Human-elephant conflict is a land use issue that cannot be solved by piecemeal actions of the Department of Wildlife Conservation alone, especially when inspired by misled political pressure. There is an urgent need to come up with long-term solutions, which can only be found by engaging the country's many experienced conservationists, scientists, veterinarians and naturalists as well as individuals representing the Ministries governing land, settlement, agriculture, water and forestry. Lasting solutions must be found and new policies set for land use in order to halt Sri Lanka's further decline into a destructive cycle of violence between people and elephants - with elephants the ultimate losers.

Elephants will continue to try to live in the manner in which they have evolved. Therefore we urge the authorities to include elephant behaviour and movements patterns, and the role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, as a starting point. With open dialogue and a more holistic and compassionate approach Sri Lanka can find workable solutions for the country's wild elephant population that offers hope for a better, kinder, more sustainable future for people as well as elephants. With the current World Bank project focusing on these issues there is no better time than the present to formulate new policies.

Sri Lanka's elephants and the people of Sri Lanka deserve and need to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. Parakrama's death must not be in vain.

Please write to Basil Rajapaksa and S. M. Chandrasena to express your concerns:
Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development, Ministry of Economic Development
Presidential Secretariat Colombo 1 Office: Jagath/Aruna - for meetings/appointments, tel: +94-11-2333268,
Fax: +94-11-2438045, E-mail: arunakgap(at), Political Secretary, tel: 94-777445560

S. M. Chandrasena, Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife, Ministry of Agrarian Services and Wildlife. Govijana Mandiraya, Rajamalwatte, Battaramulla, Sri Lanka, Fax #: +94-11 2887480 (direct).


Better treatment of captive elephants, no more exports

The Sri Lankan Government must also introduce legislation to protect elephants in captivity, as such laws are currently lacking. For example, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage has become a haphazard breeding ground for elephants without proper plans for the future well being of these individuals. People in high places have taken decisions that have led to these babies being abducted from their Pinnawala mothers and gifted to temples or individuals, or sent to the Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo.

Many of the privately owned elephants are malnourished, lonely and abused. Those in the Dehiwala Zoo stand restrained, on concrete, biting their chains, straining against them and swaying in stereotypic behavior. Some of these individuals have been routinely shuffled about between facilities while others have been exported to foreign zoos with callous disregard for the special bonds that exist between elephants.

Since 2002 baby elephants have been shipped to zoos in China, Japan, Croatia and the Republic of Korea; New Zealand is next in line. US Zoos, too, including the National Zoo in Washington DC, are now eyeing Pinnawala as a source of elephants to fill their new exhibits. Indeed Minister Rajapaksa, himself, handed over the babies in Korea. Are foreign zoos really an appropriate destination for baby elephants, an Appendix I listed species, who should be properly cared for on Sri Lanka? We urge the Sri Lanka authorities to address these issues putting the well being of individual elephants before profit and politics. Elephants are intelligent, emotional and social beings not mere commodities to "gift" and do with what we will.

These photos are taken in Dehiwala Zoo (National Zoological Gardens, Colombo) during the last two years, most of them in August 2010. The smallest elephant, Indi, was abducted from her mother in Pinnawala. Joe, the only African elephant, is separated from the others by a wall, which he must reach over to obtain the physical contact fundamental to an elephant's wellbeing. The photographs speak for themselves of the desperation and pain these individuals suffer day in and day out.

Photos provided by: Earl Jayasuriya, Sankha Wanniatchi, Pradeep Kirindage, Michelle Mendis.

Roads to destroy ecosystems

We advise those of ElephantVoices visitors interested in Sri Lanka to read two previous articles, linked through screenshots right and below. We furthermore recommend you to read this article from 21 November 2010 - Uda Walawe: Flaunting laws and fuelling human-elephant conflict.

Screenshot the Sunday Times, Sri LankaThe new World Bank project mentioned in the article linked from the screenshot to the right could very well be an important milestone in the efforts towards conserving Sri Lanka's elephants for future generations. On the other hand - new roads through protected areas without proper environmental assessment is yet another serious threat to Sri Lanka's elephants and sensitive ecosystems. As a side note it could be said that the title "The road to destroying natural ecosystems" easily could have been seen covering the ongoing discussion about a proposed new road through Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Hopefully both the Sri Lankan and Tanzanian governments will realize what's at stake before it is too late. Both countries have a lot to lose!