Vasantha Nugegoda concerned that movement of elephants out of Pinnawela following a court order could traumatise the newly-born baby jumbos Says not too late to implement project he had mooted several years ago to have separate group of elephants for pageants instead of taking them from herds living in captivity It is a first and Sri [...]


Protecting Pinnawela’s rare twins should be priority, says captive elephant expert


  • Vasantha Nugegoda concerned that movement of elephants out of Pinnawela following a court order could traumatise the newly-born baby jumbos
  • Says not too late to implement project he had mooted several years ago to have separate group of elephants for pageants instead of taking them from herds living in captivity

‘Surangani’ and her twins at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

It is a first and Sri Lanka was overjoyed to have the honour of seeing twin baby elephants being born in captivity, in an open-zoo environment, at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.

While celebrating this momentous event, it is of utmost importance to protect the twins from trauma and disturbance, says well-known international captive elephant expert Vasantha Nugegoda, expressing serious concern over lorries rumbling into Pinnawela on September 7, 8 and 9, to take away several elephants, following a court order.

When asked by the Sunday Times, he points out that even though the twins and their mother are not with the herd, as they are social animals they communicate with each other. Such a “removal” of other elephants should not have been done at this time.

He laments that after taking elephants for the Kandy perahera, five of the seven keepers have tested positive for COVID-19 and now outsiders are being allowed into the orphanage in trucks, putting the other staff at greater risk of catching the virus.

“The elephants being suddenly trucked out of Pinnawela will cause concern and stress among all the other elephants including the mother and the twins,” warns Mr. Nugegoda, reiterating that if these people are so-called elephant lovers, they should have delayed taking these elephants out of Pinnawela. This movement of elephants out of Pinnawela should have been postponed, taking into consideration the welfare of the twin babies.

At least now, the caretakers of the elephants removed from Pinnawela should realize that these animals need to be kept in a herd to give them a good social life, he says, stressing that he hopes the government would take action to prevent the elephants from being chained to a tree all alone for the rest of their lives.

Looking at the possibility of these elephants being returned to Pinnawela, he says that they would have to be quarantined in a separate location. They could be a new breeding nucleus which could provide elephants for pageants under specially-trained mahouts.

The proud mother of the male twins born on August 31 is ‘Surangani’ who had been brought to Pinnawela from Suragalgama in the Tincomalee district way back in December 1997. The father is ‘Pandula’ sans his left ear, reportedly torn off in a leopard attack, from Vavuniya to whom Pinnawela became his second home in 2004.

The only breeding herd of Borneo pygmy elephants out of Borneo at China’s Chimelong Safari Park

“The twins weighing 66 kilos and 55 kilos were born five hours apart. This birth is a first in the recorded history of elephants born in a zoo or safari park,” says Mr. Nugegoda who had told the officials that these rare twins would attract many visitors including foreign tourists. Pinnawela too would be the cynosure of all eyes such as those of the international zoo world.

He says that in Assam (India), Nepal and Thailand twin baby elephants have been born to working elephants but never in a zoo environment anywhere in the world.

This expert recalls how he got to know the Pinnawela elephants including ‘Surangani’ when he was working as an advisor to former Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera. “The twins are Surangani’s second birth. The first calf was very unpredictable and was chained for many years but during Mr. Jayawickrama Perera’s time, we decided to release him in the Horowpothana elephant holding grounds,” says Mr. Nugegoda, “hoping” that the twins will not be mischievous like him.

Looking at the father of the twins, he says that ‘Pandula’ had been brought to Pinnawela as a one or two-week-old baby. He has also fathered another calf from a different mother which was born on the morning of September 10.

Taking into account the need for elephants to be used in pageants, Mr. Nugegoda is of the view that those from a herd living in captivity should not be removed suddenly to take part in such pageants, as it causes much stress to them.

The giant panda triplets at China’s Chimelong Safari Park

“We need to have a separate group of elephants for such pageants. Then they can be trained by staff also trained as to how such training may be carried out,” he says, referring to such a project that he had discussed with the former Diyawadana Nilame Neranjan Wijeyaratne.

He says that did not see the light of day in 1998 because of the terrorist attack on the Dalada Maligawa. But even now it is not too late and he is prepared to take on this project if he is provided the land. The project envisioned breeding elephants that belonged to the Maligawa, other temples and private owners on land provided by the Maligawa. If they had launched it then, by now there would have been an adequate number of elephants.

“The land for such a project should not be less than 100 acres and should have diverse terrain and good soil, allowing a natural environment for these elephants. There should be large trees to provide shade and a stream or a river close by. There would be a need to create grasslands as fodder and an unproductive farmland will be the ideal,” he says, pointing out that in a zoo the minimum habitat an animal requires is 1,800 square feet. The area would also be open to the public – for edutainment and research.

Comparing such an area to Pinnawela, Mr. Nugegoda says that the elephants would be given freedom most of the time except when being trained, would not be chained and would have access to water. The area would be designed in such a manner that staff and visitors would also have maximum safety. Visitors would not be allowed to get close to the elephants, feed the adults or give milk to the calves. When the males come in to musth or males who may be uncontrollable, they would be in specially-created isolated habitats.

Having “associated” with elephants at his grandparents’ and aunts’ homes, Mr. Nugegoda had later taken care of elephants in zoos and safari parks around the world.

He has looked after twins born to giraffes in a zoo in China and giant panda triplets in the Chimelong Safari Park in China, while also playing a major role in the relocation of 12 wild pygmy elephants found in forest pockets by the head of the Wildlife Department in Borneo.

While re-locating the pygmy elephants at the Chimelong Safari Park and breeding and taking care of eight calves in captivity, Mr. Nugegoda is also looking after 23 wild African elephants from Zimbabwe who are now at Chimelong.

“This will be one of the biggest breeding herds in a zoo,” he adds.

Ishini is a true animal lover, says Vasantha

“As her responsibility was towards the animals, I feel that if it were me, I would have stayed and tried to point out the wrongdoings of the authorities,” says captive elephant expert Vasantha Nugegoda, with regard to the resignation of the Director-General of the National Zoological Gardens, Ishini Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Nugegoda who met Ms. Wickremesinghe once, had had a long discussion with her then. He says that she is a true animal lover and “really” wanted to do something for the zoo and the orphanae.



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