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Jumbo shortage hits kandy perahera

Reduced elephant population cause for concern:



Gamini Jayawickrama
Jagath Gunawardene

The scarcity of domesticated elephants needed for upcoming peraheras and other religious events has become a contentious issue in recent weeks. The ongoing tussle reached a boiling point when earlier this week, Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrama Perera dramatically announced that elephants which are not released by owners for religious purposes when requested by the government, will be confiscated through a court order. According to the Minister, while 120 to 140 domesticated elephants are estimated as being available for such purposes, officials from the Sri Dalada Maligawa claim, there is still a lack of elephants for the upcoming Kandy Esala Maha Perahera, the most venerated religious event in Sri Lanka.

Domesticated elephants

"The lack of domesticated elephants for this year's Perahera has adversely affected the perahera," says the Diyawadana Nilame of Sri Dalada Maligawa, Pradeep Nilanga Dela Bandara. According to him of the 132 domesticated elephants in the island, 52 cannot take part in the procession due to various reasons, such as, illness, musth, aggressiveness or other problems.

While 71 elephants are being prepared for the upcoming Perahera, Dela Bandara says it is a far cry from the 105 elephants that took part in the procession in 2005. He says, if the three most venerated Peraheras - Kandy, Ruhuna Kataragama and Devundara - were held concurrently, each would be left with a mere 30 elephants. "Fortunately each Perahera is held at a different time period," he says, lamenting that if this issue continues in the future, the Kandy Perahera will have to be held sans the elephants that have graced the procession for hundreds of years.

Commenting on the statement made by Minister Jayawickrama Perera, Dela Bandara says it is an issue between the Ministry and the owners of elephants. He says, around 20 of the elephants currently in court custody due to permit issues, were used in the Perahera last year, thus causing a further reduction in numbers.

Expressing his views, the Basnayake Nilame of the Kataragama Devalaya of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, Gemunu Walisundara says the government cannot take such a 'high handed' decision. "It is not possible for some of these elephants to take part in the procession due to various valid reasons," he said, adding that a government elected through the mandate of the people cannot act as an absolute monarchy by issuing such threats to the owners of elephants. "While those who held elephants illegally must be prosecuted, the traditions and culture of the country must be protected," he added.

Legal position

However, the law is on the government's side and officials can confiscate the elephants if the owners have violated the terms and conditions of the permits they have been issued. Currently, the main accusation levelled at elephant owners is that they are violating conditions of the permit given to hold elephants, by using them for purposes other than that stated in the permit, specifically tourism.

According to Lawyer and Environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene, under Sections 17, 22 (a) and (12) of the Flora and Fauna Ordinance, the government has the power to confiscate elephants that are misused, i.e. other than for the said purpose, whichwould then become government property under the Public Property Act.

"Therefore, temples must ensure that elephants donated along with permits are only being used for religious purposes," he says, adding that an elephant meant for a temple, was instead, taken to a popular nature park, once. When the fact was revealed the elephant was taken over by the government. Currently, too there are some owners using these elephants for other purposes. "This type of abuse is not acceptable," he says, adding that it is demeaning for the same elephant that takes part in a religious procession held in such high esteem, to be seen taking tourists on rides at tourist spots. "The Wildlife Department must ensure the elephants are being used for the correct purposes under the conditions stipulated," Gunawardene said.

Elephant owners

"This year too we are prepared to provide elephants for main religious processions" says Secretary, Domesticated Elephant Owners' Association, Damsiri Bandara Karunarathna . He says, the Association has no dispute with Minister Perera. "We have no problem in providing elephants for the peraheras as the owners do it willingly," he said.

In fact many elephant owners considers it a blessing and also fulfil vows made to the Gods. "We will not willfully shirk this duty as we consider it extremely inauspicious," Karunarathna says, adding that elephants that are not taking part are either sick or face other issues.

Karunarathna does not deny that elephants are used for other purposes during the rest of the year. "Some elephants through permits, are allowed for tourism purposes," he says. He approves of this, but it must be done with the welfare of the elephant at heart, and without much discomfort for the animal. "The Elephant being a symbol of Sri Lanka tourism, using them in the trade is necessary, but within limitations," he stressed.

Karunarathna says, instead of bickering with each other, all parties should work towards a long term plan to solve the issue of the dwindling number of domesticated elephants, while also more importantly putting in place a program to focus on the welfare of the animals.

Solution

Minister Perera announced that a training facility for elephants intended for the use of temples will be established to counter the issue of the diminishing numbers. The facility will be able to train 30 elephants and will be opened in the recent future, the Minister said. "Mahouts too will be trained at the facility to treat the animals in the correct manner," he added.

Gunawardene supports this, as it will regulate the use of elephants and they will be better cared for in a government facility, with the availability of veterinary services, while also ensuring that these elephants will be available for the breeding program.

Further, to meet the demands, the government of Sri Lanka has now requested an elephant calf from the government of Myanmar and the request is currently being processed. President Maithripala Sirisena announced last month, that elephants will be brought down from Myanmar in order to protect the Perahera culture of Sri Lanka.

According to an official of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division of the Myanmar Department of Forests, the process will take around two months due to red tape, and also the required training and domestication of the elephant calf.

However, Basnayake Nilame Nilanga Dela says tuskers from countries such as Myanmar and Thailand are shorter in stature. "We need tall tuskers to bear the sacred casket and currently there are only four in the island," he says, adding that it should be considered by the authorities.

Even though the Elephant Owners' Association has not been informed yet, as confirmed by the Secretary of the Association, the Minister of Wildlife has announced that permits of owners will be renewed early this month, rectifying a long drawn issue faced by them since 2014, when the issue of illegal domesticated elephants first broke out.

While elephants are a symbol of Sri Lankan culture and traditions it is undeniable that the animals taking part in such processions will suffer some form of discomfort.

Dr. Deepani Jayantha, Country Representative of the Elemotion Foundation and Conservationist says, "If a facility to train elephants is established, the welfare of the animals should be paramount and monitored at all times."

Karunarathna agrees, and says: "Mahouts must be trained to treat the animals kindly, and strict regulations must be imposed for private owners.

"If one requests an elephant for example, I believe it must be refused if he does not own other elephants, in order to prevent the animal from being overworked and misused for various purposes. "We need a solution not only for the low numbers of domesticated elephants but also to ensure the welfare of these animals and prevent their abuse," he observes.

Karunarathna says, strict regulations must be put in place to ensure that elephants given under permits must be available for a breeding program. "It is only then that we can ensure the increase of a herd," he says, adding that it will be a long term solution to protect the perahera culture and mitigate the challenge posed by the dwindling numbers of domesticated elephants in the country.

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