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Author Topic: Tamed elephants dwindling  (Read 499 times)
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« on: August 22, 2011, 05:54:15 pm »

Sri Lanka still boasts about its majestic tusker who enthralled audiences in any event that it took part in and was considered. Asia's number one pachyderm is no more. Before him, his colleague with similar features, also bid adieu.

The country lost the two magnificent tuskers - Millangoda Raja, Asia's longest tusker and Nawam Raja, a few weeks ago.

"It is a beginning of a sad saga where the country is loosing its tame elephant population, which is aging, in the absence of new elephants being added to the tame level.

In a country, where elephants play a major role in many cultural and religious ceremonies, it is a 'jumbo issue' which needs some serious attention to add more elephants to continue its traditions.

When the perahera season is on the issue emerges but after it is over, the authorities turn a deaf ear and proposals made to resolve the issue are ignored

Once again temples and elephant owners lament the lack of elephants to deploy in the parahera this year while elephant conservationists are urging the government to find methods to train elephants as the number has decreased to 100 elephants in less than a decade.

The issue gets serious with over half the tame elephant population is over 50 years old, only four tuskers, with the required features remain out of the seven who were there last year to carry the Sacred Tooth Relic, over 10 tame elephants died in the past two years and some are suffering from various illnesses and injuries.

Imagine a perahera without a magnificent elephant carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic ... with the elegant dancers, fire stalkers, the giant traditional drum beats and everything that goes with it lose its glamour without the perahera will surely the giant pachyderms walking majestically in the procession.

At a time when the Asian Elephant is struggling to survive due to loss of habitat, poaching and the human-elephant conflict, tame elephants are too have a survival game, capturing elephants, was practiced by ancient Sri Lankan kings as there were plenty of elephants in the wild.

The elite close to the kings were also allowed to capture wild elephants for themselves. This gave birth to the private ownership of elephants.

The Sunday Observer spoken to some well-known elephant conservationists who attributed the decline of tame elephants to abandoning captive breeding by elephant owners, urge the government not to capture wild elephants for domestication.

Jayantha Jayawardena has been studying elephants for over 30 years and is the author of the comprehensive book 'The Elephant in Sri Lanka'. He, who carried out surveys in 15 districts on tame elephants in 1997 with Sunil Rambukpotha and in 2002 he himself said the number of tame elephants (214) found in his survey in 1997, decreased to 189 in 2002 and now it has decreased to a mere 100 elephants.

Jayawardena said the one of the main causes for the dwindling domesticated elephants were the ban imposed on capturing wild elephants in 1970 and no captive breeding by owners.

At this rate there will be only a few elephants available to take part in peraheras like the Kandy and Navam.

Lose glamour
Now there are many temples all over the island that have elephants of their own. Without elephants, peraheras will lose their glamour", he said.

Jayawardena said that there are over 80 elephants at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and suggested to auction some of the elephants to private individuals.

However, those interested in getting an elephant should be in a position to feed the elephant, be able to hire a good mahout, and also allow a veterinary surgeon to inspect the elephant every three months. It costs over Rs. 45,000 to feed an elephant a month.

Those persons who should be allowed to bid at an auction should satisfy the above criteria", he said explaining the situation of the domesticated elephant population in the country.

Jayawardena said many mahouts and elephant owners were known to ill-treat their elephants.

As a result the elephants get angry and when in musth kill the mahout or the owner. Elephants were captured in many ways, one is the noosing method. There are three methods of noosing.

Kannangara Ralahamy and A.B. Millangoda are well-known elephant catchers of recent times. Mahouts in Sri Lanka still practise the old methods of elephant management. Sometimes these methods border on cruelty," he said.

Jayawardena said to be eligible to own an elephant, owners should have at least ten years experience in the care and management of elephants, have at least ten years experience of having owned an elephant, have sufficient land and access to food and water for the elephant, have the services of an experienced mahout to look after the elephant, demonstrate the financial capability to maintain an elephant without depending on it having to work to earn its keep, agree to a four-monthly check on the health of the elephants by a panel appointed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and most importantly need to agree to participate in captive-breeding.

The country's largest annual procession - the Esela perahera of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, where over 100 elephants are paraded, and other peraheras, the 'Nawam', Bellanwila peraheras - have been affected with the dwindling domesticated elephants population. Some peraheras have only one elephant participating.

Sri Dalada Maligawa Diyawadana Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dela Bandara said: "Finding elephants for the Kandy Esala Perahera is difficult as the tame elephant population keeps on decreasing. Over 70 elephants are taking part in this year's perahera.

Matured tuskers
The government is donating some elephants to the private sector and temples. Out of 100 tame elephants, only the matured tuskers can carry the sacred Tooth Relic and there are only four tuskers - Indi Raja of the Dalada Maligawa, Kataragama Vasana, Nadungamuwe Wijaya Raja and the Wewala tusker who are capable of carrying the Tooth Relic".

"The best solution is to import tuskers from India, Thailand and Myanmar, elephants are not suitable as they are short and unable to carry the Tooth Relic", he said.

Domesticated elephants are mainly fed on kitul, coconut, jak and other indigenous leaf varieties found mainly in the jungle.

Finding food for elephants has also become increasingly difficult for owners, with the scarcity of food.

The scarcity of land, after the Land Reforms Act in 1972, where a person is allowed to own only 50 acres of land, for domesticated elephants to roam was another major problem faced by elephant owners.

This situation has made owners to chain elephants until they are taken for their baths or deployed for some task.

With all these constraints, maintaining an elephant has become a huge task, just as buying an elephant, which has also become an expensive deal.

With the role played by elephants in the construction field where sophisticated machinery has taken over, domesticated elephants have less work. They are mainly used as tourist attraction, to transport timber and in gem mining fields.

The Director General of the National Zoological Gardens (NZG), Bashwara Senanka Gunaratne said theoretically he agrees with the proposal that a herd of elephants in Pinnawala should be trained to take part in perahera processions, but practically this is not a task of a government institution. " We can offer the technical know-how for captive breeding.

But hiring elephants from Pinnawala for religious and other cultural events is not a practical solution to the problem", he said.

He said there is a need to prepare a well-established management criteria for private elephant owners to manage the tame elephant population.

But he suggested the 58 non governmental organisations, which deal with elephant issues should take custody of at least two elephants each for better management.

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where elephants are being bred, in a twenty five acre coconut land near Maha Oya has successfully carried out a captive breed and there are over 90 elephants at the moment.

Established in 1975, as a conservation breeding centre for Elephants by DWLC, it was taken over by the NZG in 1978.

Gunaratne said the NZG had started a mahout training program for 50 youth, who have a love for elephants, to have better management of captive elephants.

Denying allegations that over five elephants went missing from the orphanage, he said they were given to temples and to the Defence Ministry following the required criteria. He also denied that an elephant was given to a Minister.

But environmentalists question as to how five elephants including two baby male elephants were given to the Public Coordination and Public Affairs Minister Mervyn Silva, 'Sama' to the Ven. Udduwe Dhammaloka Thera's temple Allen Methiniyaramaya in Polhengoda, another to the Defence Ministry, Lasanda to the Natha Devalaya in Devundara and Haritha and Charaka to the Vimalarathanaramaya Deniyaya.

They claimed that the 'donation' was made overlooking stipulated guidelines of the agreement.

The Army needs an elephant for their parades and according to the Defence Ministry request we gave one and the others are in temples which submitted their requests to get elephants some years ago. Minister Silva co-ordinated the request to get the elephant to the Vishnu Devale of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare.

These politicians are in temple committees and the chief priests forwards the requests through politicians in their respective areas. We don't give priority to such requests but if they fulfill the set criteria , the animals will be given to eligible applicants. But these animals can only be used for cultural or religious events. We recommend mahouts, veterinary surgeons, our officers inspect the animals monthly and elephants need to have a suitable environment for the elephants. Otherwise we take the elephant back", he explained.

Gunaratne said in addition to the cost of medicine, vitamins, the daily cost of food for an elephant is between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 6000.

Pubudu Weeraratne, an environmentalist accused elephant owners for not engaging in captive breeding and using animals for maximum work such as transporting illegal timber, in gem mining sites and as tourists attractions in areas like Habarana.

He revealed that baby elephants from Eth Athuru Sevana were illegally taken by some individuals under the influence of certain priests in temples. Over 35 such young elephants are now given to some individuals.

In one such incident, a baby elephant, which was seen on site in Horrowopathana, where its mother was ill and was receiving treatment, went missing. Six months ago, DWLC officials detected a lorry carrying a collared baby elephant, which was released from the orphanage to the Lunugamwehera National Park, he said revealing another incident where an elephant known as Kapila, died of starvation as he was not given sufficient food.

Weeraratne, who suggested a system, where a herd of 20 elephants at Pinnawala should be trained for peraheras and could be hired for religious ceremonies, also proposes artificial insemination like in Thailand to improve captive breeding.

"If Pinnawala was able to give birth to over 50 elephants during the last 30 to 40 years, the question arises as to why private elephant owners were able to breed only three elephants. Unfortunately the unique Navam Raja and Millangoda Raja could not pass on their unique genes to give rise to another generation", he said.

Discourage captive breeding
According to Weeraratne the elephant owners discourage captive breeding as elephant pregnancy is over 22 months and calves need to be looked after for the next seven to eight years. Shantha Jayaweera, Co-ordinator of the Elephant Conservation Forum denied that there were insufficient tame elephants for peraheras and claimed that the elephant-human conflict would be aggravated if the government implements a plan to capture elephants from the wild to ease the shortage of domesticated elephants.

He said there are 24 tuskers including nine from India, Thailand and Burma. He said 15 tuskers either died accidently or were killed on purpose.

Jayaweera, who has photographs of 12 tuskers which were killed, requests local and foreign tourists not to encourage elephant safaris as the animals are being exploited to the maximum.

He said elephants hired for safaris are given little food and on days when vehicle bringing food do not return the animals have to wait till the next day to have their meal.

"Athula, the tusker became aggressive as the mahout ill-treated him. But within a few days he was killed by the same mahout. He was badly injured. Chandru, one of the most magnificent tuskers, died due to starvation and he was also badly treated while being trained by another mahout.

Chandru's mahout had a problem with the chief priest of the temple and he left the job, the animal began missing him and stopped eating.

He was given to another temple and the mahout is alleged to have ill-treated him to train him and this elephant too died within few days, due to starvation and injuries.

Another baby elephant which was captured illegally from the wild and tied on a river bank died due to heavy floods on the same day. But later, his body was thrown onto a nearby electric fence to show that the animal was electrocuted", he pointed out.

He questioned why private elephant owners, who are given over 65 elephants from Pinnawala since 1975 have not bred a single elephant. Jayaweera who opposes capturing of elephants from the wild, proposes to establish another location similar to Pinnawala for captive breeding in the south.

Shortage of elephants
Environmentalists and elephant conservationists are up in arms against Minister of Wildlife S.M. Chandrasena's announcement that healthy elephants would be given to temples to ease the shortage of elephants in peraheras.

Over a dozen NGOs to pulled out 200 volunteers the first-ever islandwide elephant census.

When contacted Minister Chandrasena denied that he said strong elephants would be picked from the wild. He said the media had misquoted him. "What I said was that there were nearly 300 tame elephants in Sri Lanka and were reducing gradually and the need to have a system to give elephants to those who can afford to look after the animals.

I did not mean that the census was being conducted to hand pick the best 3000 wild elephants to give them to be domesticated", he said.The Minister said as a strong animal lover, he would not take any hasty decision that would harm the country's fauna and elephants would only be given to those who could look after them well and who have a stable economic situation.

"The DWLC will frequently monitor the situation of these elephants that are given away and if the animals are found not being looked after well, we will take them back", he said.

The Minister also refuted allegations that an elephant was given to a government minister and said no Minister would be given elephants but those politicians whose generations looked after elephants and have licences would be given elephants.

Meanwhile, Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation H. Daya Ratnayake said the best solution to have more domesticated elephants was not by capturing wild elephants but there were several proposals came up in the dialogue between the DWLC and private elephant owners.

He said the elephant census was carried out purely to establish a good data base of the country's elephants.

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