One is found here, two more found there – these baby elephants are not emerging from the wilds but from home gardens, from behind walls and other places where they have been kept surreptitiously after being abducted from the jungles, in clear violation of the law. Comparing this heinous crime to those committed against the [...]


Raising his voice against “a stolen generation”

Traditional jumbo owning family member and Millennium Elephant Foundation Vice President Sandith Samarasinghe decries the illegal capture of elephants

One is found here, two more found there – these baby elephants are not emerging from the wilds but from home gardens, from behind walls and other places where they have been kept surreptitiously after being abducted from the jungles, in clear violation of the law.

Comparing this heinous crime to those committed against the indigenous people of Australia, Sandith Samarasinghe, Vice President of the Millennium Elephant Foundation, warns that now in Sri Lanka there is “a stolen generation of elephants”.

With concern growing not only among environmentalists but also among the public, he raises a strident cry over this crime against the pachyderms and comes up with some relevant suggestions on how to deal with it.

Sandith Samarasinghe: People need to understand the gravity of capturing a baby elephant. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Mr. Samarasinghe should know what he is talking about not only because the Millennium Elephant Foundation located on his ancestral property at Randeniya off the Pinnawela Road in Kegalle is looking after 11 elephants but also because he comes from a family which has been elephant-owners down the years.

It had been his father, Ariyananda (Sam) Samarasinghe, who as Chairman of the Pinnawela Village Council allocated land in 1976 to set up the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.

While as a little boy he had watched closely how his father handled elephants, including wild ones the family got on permit even in the last officially-sanctioned capture in the 1970s, Mr. Samarasinghe Jr. himself has worked with elephants in Sri Lanka and also China and East Malaysia (Sabah).

Heeding not requests to keep mum, Mr. Samarasinghe, now heavily into politics had voiced serious concern over the illegal capture of wild baby elephants, when many chose not to, speaking out loud and clear as a UNP member of the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council.

Pointing out that no one has had access to wild elephants since 1977, Mr. Samarasinghe quotes provisions of CITES to underscore that no endemic species can be taken out of its habitat. “It is only the second generation that can even be gifted by the government and even those should have been born in captivity,” he says. (CITES or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is an international agreement between governments which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival).

Reiterating that elephants are an endangered species, Mr. Samarasinghe is quick to point out that the illegal capture of baby elephants from the wild began after 1994, with powerful people including politicians of the then regime keeping them hidden.

“Gradually, in the last two to three years it became a huge business,” he laments, stressing that people need to understand the gravity of capturing a baby elephant when it is still suckling. Both the mother and the baby are traumatised.

Mr. Samarasinghe compares and contrasts legal and illegal elephant captures. Usually, when the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) wishes to capture a wild elephant, it would tranquillise the animal, making it immobile and letting it fall on its side. Later, the elephant would be revived. However, the illicit elephant-capturers are cruel and would dart the cow-elephant with a drug that would keep her standing but paralysed, watching in agony as her baby is torn away from her, unable to do anything about it.

The other modus operandi of these abductors is to lure with a bottle of milk, the baby elephants which had been brought to Ath Athuru Sevana at Uda Walawe, treated and released into the jungle after the insertion of microchips. “The abductors have used to their advantage the human contact the babies have had and capture them by showing bottles of milk and then gouging out the chips from the babies’ flesh to prevent the trail leading to the culprits,” he says.

The DWC has been under tremendous political pressure to keep quiet while permits were manipulated, according to him and there are still illegally-held baby elephants being kept hidden. He also believes that there are about 80 baby elephants that have been captured from the wild illegally and that when the crackdown began by the authorities some have even been poisoned to prevent the culprits being prosecuted. Many cow-elephants would also have been killed at the time of the capture of their babies.

“The excuse of some of these culprits that they had a cow elephant which died after giving birth, is very easy to verify. Find where the cow elephant is buried and get a DNA sample to check whether the baby is hers,” he says.

Thereafter Mr. Samarasinghe deals with the drastic consequences of such illegal captures — the elephant mothers are so threatened and traumatised after losing their babies that they would begin to attack humans, while the captive babies when they become adults would turn very aggressive and even kill their mahouts.

Dealing with captured baby jumbos

The solutions to the current dilemma of illegally-captured baby elephants are also provided by Mr. Samarasinghe.

An evaluation needs to be done whether the babies can be sent to Ath Athuru Sevana at Uda Walawe and subsequently released into the jungle. If not, they would have to be sent to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, is his contention.

Dealing with the demand for elephants for peraheras, he urges that captive breeding needs to be promoted among elephant owners, going back in time to 1986 when Lakshmi, a cow-elephant owned by his family gave birth to baby Pooja. It was the first time that a baby elephant had been born to private owners but not a single thereafter.

“There are about 126 legally-held elephants,” he says, among whom would be about 15 cow-elephants which could be used in a good elephant breeding programme, where the government works hand-in-hand with private owners. As there is a 22-month gestation period and no birth thereafter for five years, owners could be requested to send their cow-elephants to Pinnawela to mate with the bull elephants there.
With regard to wild elephants which are incorrigible and boisterous, Mr. Samarasinghe suggests that they should be brought to a special centre where professionals work with them, treating gunshot and trap-gun wounds, and also taming and training them for various purposes. There can then be a pool of elephants which the government can lease to temples for peraheras. Another set of elephants from the same group could also be used by DWC rangers for patrolling the jungles because they are very agile.

The traditional way of handling captive bull elephants has been to chain them and hit them into submission, he says. Especially when they are in musth, the mistreatment becomes worse and their efforts to free themselves sometimes result in injuries. Some tuskers face tusk-breakages.

“It is necessary to keep domestic elephants (when they are not in musth) unchained at least for two hours each day with plenty of fodder available in ‘an enrichment area’ similar to the environment from which they have originated. This allows them to release tension and relieve stress,” he says, adding that then they can be handled better. “We need to educate our owners and also mahouts to give these elephants space, for however much they may be trained, we need to remember that they are wild.”

Mr. Samarasinghe speaks through experience. He has worked closely with 10 wild elephants in China, training them in eight months using a different method to the traditional way done in Sri Lanka. Of another 14 wild elephants rescued in Sabah he had dealt with, some had been sent back to the wild after their gunshot wounds were treated, while the rest had been kept in a zoo.

“These wild elephants come out of the jungle because they are injured, troublesome or orphaned. We didn’t hit or prod them with the ankus (goad or henduwa) because they are very ticklish and it will upset them. One way of building up a good rapport with a wild elephant is to bathe it from a distance and tend to its wounds. The bathing should be from the rear of its body, moving to the front gradually. Then you have to feed it, all the while talking to the elephant and also spending a lot of time with it. This helps to build up trust.

‘Target training’ is another way, he points out, explaining that under this system, the elephant is in a protective area, with the keeper on the outside, training the elephant to follow instructions and when it does giving it a small treat. Here both the elephant and the keeper are protected and it is a good methodology. You need to read elephants properly. They are temperamental, their mood-changes have to be observed and they also need to be respected like children.
When working with calves born in captivity, it is good for the mother to be close-by, as they too are similar to human families.

Rules for capture of animals

Strict rules were applied in permitted wild elephant captures in 1976, says Mr. Samarasinghe, stressing that if by chance a baby got noosed, it had to be released into the wild.

Only elephants which were 6’ in height could be captured and tranquillising was not done those days, only noosing. The team which was out in the jungle to make a capture, would measure the size of the footprint after elephants had passed by and from that gauge the height of the elephant, before setting the noose in place, it is learnt.

The guidelines for such capture were clear, with stringent monitoring by the DWC. When an elephant was trapped, the DWC would check the permit and if everything was in order ensure that rules were also followed on how it was loaded onto a truck for transport, he says.

“While sometimes a tame bull or cow elephant would be mobilised to walk with the captured elephant, it would be handled with much sensitivity, without the use of the goad. An effort would be made to bring down the stress levels of the captured elephant,” adds Mr. Samarasinghe.

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