15th February 1998


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Saga of Rajah continues with an animal activist group protesting over the sale

Performing at three, a "killer" at 21

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Rajah was not in good humour. Swaying restlessly on his chain-bound feet, the animal ignored the fodder that had been laid out for his consumption. His large, majestic head was raised, but if one could have detected the expression in his small eyes, no doubt, there would have been vexation, maybe even anger. Perhaps it's because the 21 year old jumbo has yet not adjusted to his new surroundings.

Rajah who was earlier a performing elephant at the Dehiwala Zoo, is famed, as we know, for all the wrong reasons. Two dead mahouts behind him, Rajah was auctioned off by authorities who deemed the animal unsafe for the Zoo. Last Friday's auction drew a large crowd, including many monks and their dayakayas, bidding for the well built, if unpredictable Rajah. 28 individuals bid for the animal, but in the end a young gem merchant from Ratnapura with a distinguished lineage won the day and bagged the deal at a little over Rs. 9 lahks.

When we visited Rajah last Wednesday, he was yet to become accustomed to his new surroundings. The elephant was first taken to the Saman Devale of Ratnapura, for blessings. "Most people bring their elephants here first," the Basnayake Nilame's clerk told us. "The elephant is considered the vehicle of the Saman Deviyo so it's felt appropriate they should get his blessings upon a newly purchased elephant."

But the saga is not to see such an easy end. The Animal Rights Group, Sathva Mithra who vociferously objected to the sale of the animal, is now seeking legal recourse to nullify the sale of Rajah and ensure proper rehabilitation for the hot tempered elephant. Activist, Sagarika Rajakarunanayake, President of the organisation told The Sunday Times they are in consultation with their lawyers and would be looking at invalidating the sale and helping the animal to obtain proper rehabilitation.

"The Director of the Zoological Gardens has a duty as the custodian of the animals in the Zoo to ensure that they are not treated unfairly," Rajakarunanayake said.

She explained the aim of their protests was not to say that the animal should be kept in the Zoo, but that he should be afforded the chance of being looked after by an experienced elephant keeper who would be able to tame and train the animal.

In the spacious garden of the Devale, the jumbo seems to have found a home, an atmosphere of calm which he could not have enjoyed at the Zoo. But his calm was often shattered by roaming cattle and dogs. "He is afraid of the dog and cattle," the new mahout, Gunesekera said. The mahout, 52, who introduced himself as "Ali balana Gunesekera" (the one who looks after elephants) hails from a family of mahouts, his father and grandfather both being traditional elephant keepers.

Gunesekera is yet unfamiliar with the animal. "Rajah has not been taught the correct commands at the zoo. The way we train elephants is different. There is a code of commands that have been handed down by our forefathers. Rajah has been taught mainly English commands," he said.

The Dela family is obviously proud to own the majestic Rajah. One member claimed that the animal was a very good specimen, with a large upright head, long trunk and tail.

But Rajah's restlessness appeared to bother them somewhat. Even the mahout is wary of him, and would not approach the animal in front. With much difficulty Gunesekera and several other mahouts have managed to hose down the animal. "He is not tame enough to be taken to the river."

When asked whether he has handled killer elephants before, Gunesekera said stoutly, "yes."

Zoo officials said they had little alternative but to auction off Rajah, since the Coroner reporting on the death of the second mahout had ordered the animal to be "disposed". "We couldn't send him to Pinnawela because there are many visitors including school children. Rajah is very unpredictable."

Raja was not allowed to perform since the death of the first mahout, an year ago. The man was pinned to a wall and crushed under his foot, as Rajah was being led to the performing arena. The second mahout, whom the Zoo officials describe as a long standing, very experienced keeper was crushed to death when cleaning Rajah's enclosure.

"On the death of the first mahout the Coroner ordered that he perform no more," an Additional Director of the Zoo said.

The after- auction journey from the Zoo to Ratnapura was a tedious, nightmarish affair. The jumbo was transported in a truck owned by the Delas, and the journey took nearly 12 hours. "He was agitated, and every so many minutes we had to give him kitul and banana to eat," the mahout said.

"The Zoo should have at least ensured veterinary support for transportation," Rajakarunanayake said. "It showed that the Director's concern for public safety ended even as the auction ended and the animal was sold off."

Sathva Mithra said that the progress of any animal "sold" by the Zoo should be monitored by the authorities. Rajakarunanayake also added that Zoo cannot justify the sale of Rajah on the report of the Coroner. "The Coroner's report does not bind the Zoo authorities to sell an animal under its care."

Rajah comes with a chequered history. He was found abandoned in a hole in the Puttlam district, rescued and sent to Pinnawela. When he was three years old, the jumbo was taken by the Zoo and began his life as a performer. At 21, he is branded as a killer and auctioned off. As things stand, no stable end is apparent to the story of Rajah.

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