Nandi,a second baby elephant, eight years old, will soon take a flight to New Zealand, where her new home will be the Auckland zoo.  The first was five-year-old Anjalee, who left our shores on March 13 last year, amidst appeals to the authorities by conservationists and animal welfare advocates to halt her relocation.  The conservationists [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Why are we parting with our elephants?


Nandi at left at Pinnawela. Pic by K. Athukorala

Nandi,a second baby elephant, eight years old, will soon take a flight to New Zealand, where her new home will be the Auckland zoo.  The first was five-year-old Anjalee, who left our shores on March 13 last year, amidst appeals to the authorities by conservationists and animal welfare advocates to halt her relocation.  The conservationists express concern that relocating elephants outside Sri Lanka is ill conceived, unsustainable and depletes the country’s fauna, while animal rights activists are concerned that separating babies from mothers is an act of cruelty.

Anjalee was sent to the Auckland zoo as a companion for Burma. As for Nandi, a spokesperson for the zoo is reported to have commented that “the immediate aim is to provide an elephant family for Burma and now Anjalee and subsequently, the plan is to breed elephants to ensure their long-term sustainability at the zoo.”  However, Burma, Anjalee and Nandi are all females.

The nation’s elephant, acknowledged as the “Star of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife” should be in the wilds, not in zoos, vulnerable to chronic physical ailments due to lack of exercise, and being social animals, to severe emotional  trauma when separated from their herd. Premature death and extinction in captivity are other major concerns.  And, in their distant homes, they will live in strange climatic conditions, deprived of their natural habitat where they forage, bathe, frolic in rivers and wander vast territories.

Anjalee’s gifting caused not only local protests, but also international criticism.  The SAFE for Animals website features an article on Auckland zoo’s import of elephants, stating that after years of debate and controversy the zoo has attracted renewed criticism for continuing with their plans to import elephants from Sri Lanka. Several distinguished animal behaviourists and international animal advocates had urged the Auckland Council not to support elephant imports, since removing elephants from Sri Lanka, is not helpful in securing better outcomes for elephants and negates efforts to promote conservation and welfare.  It is reported that during the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted by Sri Lanka, the then Minister of Economic Affairs, Basil Rajapaksa,  while defending Sri Lanka’s human rights record had offered an elephant to a zoo in New Zealand.   This offer was described as “an unusual gift being signalled as a symbol of the two countries friendship”, while attracting a comment in New Zealand’s mediathat “Prime Minister John Key appears to have won over his Sri Lankan hosts during CHOGM and New Zealand is being rewarded with an elephant.” Hans Kriek, a member of SAFE, a key animal welfare organization in New Zealand comments that “elephant gifting is more about politics and international relations than animal welfare.”

As for Anjalee the issue is not whether the Auckland zoo is able to give her a “great home”, as believed by Jonathan Wilcken, the zoo’s Director or that Anjalee had gained 700 kilos since her arrival at that zoo, one year ago, as  Prime Minister Key, stated at a ceremony when accepting the documents gifting Nandi .The issue is whether elephants should be in zoos at all.

Our Fauna and Flora Ordinance Protection Ordinance (FFPO) enables elephant exports with a permit from the Director General of Wildlife Conservation.

In the recent past, many baby elephants have been gifted to foreign States by our Heads of State as symbolic gestures to demonstrate goodwill between the two countries or to mark occasions, such as anniversaries of establishing  diplomatic relations or even  as gifts from the children of Sri Lanka to the children of other nations to celebrate Children’s Day.  These may all be gestures of goodwill, but should not the welfare of the elephant be the guiding principle in determining whether the animal should be moved out of Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has a long history of elephant exports.  Renowned conservationist Jayantha Jayawardene, tracing the history of elephant exports observes that from the earliest times there had been a significant demand for our elephants, for use in wars or ceremonial occasions or as  tributes from ancient kings.  He highlights the commercial element in elephant exports referring to the Portuguese who captured the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka in 1505, finding it to be a flourishing trade.

Should we blindly perpetuate such practices today, when animals are increasingly being recognized in many jurisdictions as sentient beings with feelings, and not as chattel.

Sri Lanka signed CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 1979.  CITES aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  CITES lays down conditions to be fulfilled when trading in such species.  “Trade” is defined to include export, re-export and import.  Although nearly forty years have lapsed since Sri Lanka signed CITES, no domestic legislation has yet been enacted to  implement  CITES at national level.  The least we have are some Guidelines issued by the Wildlife Department (DWC). This too was the result of a public interest petition filed by the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights (SPAR) which in 2007, petitioned the Supreme Court when an elephant Asokamala was to be sent to Armenia, contending that the animal’s welfare will be gravely threatened having to endure the harshly cold climate, in an enclosure in the Yerevan zoo which had a bad record of the death of two elephants – one being shot and the other of malnutrition.  In that case, a settlement was reached that the DWC will formulate Guidelines on animal transfers overseas. Though formulated in 2009, an undertaking to convert these Guidelines into Regulations, remains unfulfilled, and therefore without force of law. Besides, without a monitoring mechanism, one can hardly assume that post -export, the welfare of the animal will be assured.

There are allegations that some gifted elephants, end up in private zoos, and there is a commercial element in these transactions. Corruption is also alleged in negotiating some deals.  There is no access to the Agreements governing the exports.  So there is no transparency. And, the allegations continue.

The FFPO was amended in 2009 to add another objective to the law – the prevention of commercial and other misuse of our fauna and flora.  Since the reason for this particular amendment was not explained during the Parliamentary debate, one can only assume that such misuse had become an issue requiring legislative intervention.

Elephants are an integral part of the heritage of Sri Lanka.  They are also public property.  The Constitution of Sri Lanka obliges the State to protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the people.  Our policy makers should give this obligation serious thought and ban the export of elephants, as did India,  when activists protested against the gifting of an Indian elephant to Armenia.

The current Minister in charge of wildlife, the affable Gamini Jayawickreme Perera, on assuming office, assured a group of conservationists and animal rights advocates that during his tenure of office he will not permit elephants to be exported.  Yet, he laments that his hands are tied, when it comes to Agreements negotiated by his predecessors.  But, since  Agreements are not cast in stone, the good Minister is free to unfree himself from those elephantine chains in order to conserve the “Star of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife” for prosperity  and  ensure the  welfare of this majestic animal – and it is hoped that Nandi will not have to take that long flight to New Zealand.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.