The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) has informed the Colombo Magistrate Courts that there was no basis to continue with the cases against those who were charged with the illegal possession of elephants because a recent gazette notification allows for the registration of the animals. The CID’s stance and the court’s order to release the elephants [...]


Trumpet call against rescued elephants’ return to captivity

Activists decry gazette notification, vow to go to court; elephant owners welcome court order

It may be a happy reunion for this little girl with a young elephant; but activists say keeping elephants in captivity in private premises is a form of animal cruelty. Pic by M. A. Pushpa Kumara

The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) has informed the Colombo Magistrate Courts that there was no basis to continue with the cases against those who were charged with the illegal possession of elephants because a recent gazette notification allows for the registration of the animals.

The CID’s stance and the court’s order to release the elephants from state custody to the suspects have drawn strong protests from wildlife activists.

In 2015, action was filed against 13 suspects following a complaint by the then Deputy Tourism Minister Wasantha Senanayake that the Elephant Registry at the Wildlife Department had been altered enabling the suspects to take possession of the elephants. The elephants were later rescued and transferred to the Pinnawala orphanage and the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe. (See box for the names of 13 people against whom cases were filed.)

In addition to the elephants found in the possession of these 13 people, another elephant was rescued from a person identified as N.G. Rajapaksa of 26 A, Pangriwatta Mirihana Nugegoda. He had claimed that he received the elephant through a presidential ‘Sannasa’ or a decree. The elephant was handed over to the Pinnawala orphanage that comes under the Department of the National Zoological gardens.

In a report filed on Monday, the Special Investigations Branch Officer in Charge told courts that the CID was seeking a court order to release the elephants to the supects as the Inspector General of Police had been advised by the Attorney General that the August 19 gazette notification made provision for the registration of the elephants.

Colombo’s Additional Magistrate S. Prabhakaran on Monday issued a directive to the National Zoological Gardens Director General to release the elephants to the original keepers.

Most of the elephants were released by yesterday to their original keepers and they are required to register the elephants under their names within three months.

Decrying the Attorney General’s advice and the CID’s move as cruelty to animals, wildlife activists are of the opinion the ruling will encourage the capture of baby elephants from the wild.

They say they will seek a stay order on the implementation of the gazette notification as a first step.

Pointing out that the gazette notification was contrary to the law, Ravindranath Dabare of the Center for Environmental Justice said they would file a case to obtain a stay order against the handing over of the remaining elephants and an order to return the elephants that were released to state custody.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said that very term elephant ‘owners’ was problematic. He pointed out wild animals such as elephants could not be ‘owned’ by anyone. “An elephant can only be held captive by a person who has proper legal permits given by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and such persons are elephant caretakers,” he said.

Mr. Gunawardena said therefore, those who kept elephants illegally should not be identified as owners and handed over the elephants as though a property was being handed over to its previous owners.Outlining several other issues with regard to the the August 19 gazette notification, Mr. Gunawardena said that although previous wildlife regulations had banned the use of elephants in commercial activities, this gazette had laid out guidelines to use elephants for rides.

Wildlife researcher and activist Supun Lahiru Prakash said he believed that handing back these animals to the so-called owners would lead to a situation where the animals would be subjected to more cruelty.

“We should remember that the baby elephants which grew up while in state custody, had enjoyed freedom in large government-controlled parks for the past five or six years and had been trained to live in herds,” he said.

Ven. Magal Kande Sudatta Thera, speaking on behalf of an ad hoc group called Tamed Elephant Owners’ Association said a meeting was held at the Colombo Gangarama temple to discuss the next steps to be taken to regain the custody of 15 more elephants. He said that they would continue their campaign to get the elephants released from state custody.

The Thera said that for Buddhist culture to be preserved, the elephants should be returned to the temples.

The association’s secretary, Dhamsiri Bandara Karunaratna, said more domesticated elephants were needed to maintain the Buddhist traditions such as peraheras.

“We do not expect the state to capture animals from the wild and give them to us. But elephants could be released to us from orphanages which are overcrowded,” he said.

However, activists disagree.

The Young Zoologists Association’s former president, Parami Vidiyarathna, said the elephants were not meant to be bred in captivity in private premises or temple. “She elephants have a gestation period of 22 months during which they should not be used for activities such as rides and peraheras. Even after the birth of a calf, the mother elephant cannot be used in such activities for couple of years as the baby depends on its mother. Private elephant owners do not consider these factors when parading the elephants for pageants or similar activities,” he said.

He added that since 1985 no elephant had given birth in captivity in private premises. “The only place where captive elephants breed is at the Pinnawala orphanage.”

As concerns grow over the gazette notification, activists questioned the silence of the Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department. They said he should be the first to go to courts against the magistrate’s court order.

They said there was little surprise in the lack of action as the department was in a pathetic state. It has been mired in controversies over the missing register of captive elephants and forgeries. They pointed out that during the previous government, it was the CID, not the Wildlife Department, which filed the cases during the previous government against those who kept elephants in their premises illegally.

When asked Wildlife Director General Chandana Suriyabandara said the concerns raised by environmentalists were largely speculation.

“We  can’t just work according to speculations and ideologies. We  would carry out our work as usual. We cannot just increase security due  to these viewpoints,” he said referring to allegations that the new gazette notification would lead to more  wild elephants being captured.

He said seven elephants under state custody at the ‘Ath Athuru sevena’ would be released to the owners in keeping with the court order.

Matale court orders release of elephant

The Matale Magistrate Courts has also ordered the release of an elephant held in state custody at the Pinnawela orphanage.

The elephant was taken into custody from K. Tillakaratne, a resident of Ukuwela in Matale. Police who filed the case said he had not registered the elephant.

This week, the CID told court that the Attorney General was of the opinion that in terms of a new gazette notification, elephants could be registered to be kept in private premises and requested that the elephant be released to Mr. Tillakaratne. Accordingly the Magistrate ordered the release.


Those who got the elephants backThe names of the 13 people to whom the elephants were returned this week:  

Dishan Wickremaratna Gunasekara – Matara (Kataragama temple)

Suneth Chathuranga Weerasinghe – Alawwa

S.N. Roshan – Pannipitiya

W.P.H. Deepthi Kumara – Biyagama

I.B. Kamal Kithsiri – Kottawa

W.M.B. Samantha Udaya Wijemanna – Amithirigala

Buddhika Deshapriya Mirihella – Hingula

Ajith Siri Kumara Gallage – Hokandara

Hasanthi Champika Samarasekara Karunaratna – Opatha, Ganegoda

Bharatha Deshapriya Amaratunga – Meegoda

The Chief Monk of the Sri Sambodhi Viharaya has claimed the ownership of two elephants, the permits for which were under the name of previous incumbent, the late Ven Dharanagama Kusala Dhamma Thera.

Ishini Wickremesinghe

I was helpless, says Ishini

National Zoological Gardens Director General Ishini Wickremesinghe who tendered her resignation on Thursday, said she was helpless when it came to protecting elephants from forcibly being taken away from Pinnawela.

In a post on her Facebook she said,  “Sri Devi is a very loving and affectionate elephant…. My favorite in Pinnawela…. I was helpless in protecting her and the other elephants being forcibly taken away from Pinnawela …. what cruelty it is to take away their freedom for one’s individual interests.”

On the same day she had posted a picture of her with her favorite elephant at Pinnawela.

Environmental activists say her resignation was a protest over the return of captured elephants.

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