Environmental Organizations Boycott the Elephant Census Standing against Domestication of Elephants Subsequent to the Census

(Lanka-e-News -10.Aug.2011, 11.45PM) The Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife S. N. Chandrasena stated that 300 tuskers and elephant calves suitable for carrying caskets in peraheras will be identified during the elephant census which is due to commence on 11th August and will be captured and domesticated, during a press conference at his home on 6th August. With this statement, it has been disclosed that the objective behind this first ever island wide elephant count, a ‘could have been’ excellent conservation tool, is none other than identifying the whereabouts of elephant calves with favourable traits in order to capture and domesticate them subsequently. Although the Environmental Organizations previously had agreed to extend their support, with this alarming revelation, all the Environmental Organizations decided to boycott the census. This issue calls for serious concern over the elephant population of the country, conservation of them, the threats faced by them and the impending perils to the elephant population of Sri Lanka.

The wild elephant population of Sri Lanka is estimated to be around 4500. The island boasts of harbouring 10% of the Asian Elephants. But it is a known fact that better part of these elephants is elderly. Only 7‐8% of them are tuskers. Ill‐planned Developmental Projects, Human Elephant Conflict, Elephant Drive, railroad accidents and electrocution are among the threats faced by these Endangered megaherbivores. The average deaths per year for the decade from 1990 to 2000 were 150. During the next decade, this has mounted to 200 per year.

The domesticated elephant population of the island is around 150. These elephants are being used for
elephant‐back safaris in areas like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Matale while they are largely used for carrying logs in areas such as Kalutara, Ratnapura and Kegalle. Tamed elephants play a major role in the cultural pageant, perahera, carrying the casket. However, rather than serving the temple or cultural needs, elephants are being used in pursuit of lucre. Further, they are pathetically being used by influential people as symbols of social prestige.

It is important to consider the fate of such domesticated elephants in the country. Most of these elephants were ill‐treated, suffered malnutrition and many died tragic deaths, untimely. There are several instances where attempts to tame wild elephants resulted in beating them to death! Furthermore, owners of tame elephants take no effort to breed them because they have long gestation and suckling periods and cannot be employed to earn money for the owners until two years past delivery. Thus, these elephants die without contributing to the breeding gene pool. The genes of the individuals with aesthetically appreciated traits like height and bearing tusks are being drained off from the wild populations obstructing circulation of these genes in the population. Consequently, the percentage of tuskers in the Sri Lankan wild populations has gone down to 7‐ 8% of the males.

The Association of the owners of tamed elephants (AOTE) claims that there are only about 150 tame
elephants in the country which is inadequate to cater to the peraheras and that many are too old. However, solution to obtaining elephants for temples does not lie in capturing calves from the wild. Captive breeding of elephants has been very successful at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. About 50 births of elephants have taken place since 1975. Therefore, the required technical knowledge is available in the country. The only deficiency in this regard is the lack of genuinely virtuous elephant owners. Captive breeding is a feasible option to provide for any shortage of tamed elephants.

Moreover, the material prepared for the reference of the participants of this census indicates that subjective data such as the orientation of the tusks are to be recorded. In a scientific census such subjective data are not recorded. The dubious nature of the objective behind this census is reflected by these handouts. This is perceived as the first step of a vicious scheme to wipe out the elephant population from the country. No studies have been carried out so far in the country on the minimum viable population of elephants. Captivating elephants from the wild in an unsustainable manner paves the way to extinction of these valuable animals.

Objectives of an elephant census should be identification of frequent haunts of elephants, declaration of such identified areas that lie outside protected areas as protected areas and to avoid these areas during developmental activities. But unfortunately the objective behind this census is obviously a shameless attempt to captivate elephants and calves from the wild and also, to manipulate data obtained so as to justify this evil operation. It’s pitiful that the subject minister himself should initiate such plans unfavourable to the perpetuation of elephants driven by motives in opposition to his responsibilities.

Ministers are only temporary custodians of the public resources of the country. According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, only the Department of Wildlife Conservation has the authority to capture elephants from the wild, only if, an individual is identified as harmful to the crops or the public, which is unlikely to be caused by calves. Hence, this statement has been made by the minister ultra vires, threatening to violate the stipulations of the Ordinance.

Now, in the absence of qualified resource persons, data collected or produced by the census cannot be
regarded reliable. Environmental Organizations disdain this attempt to domesticate elephants in the absence of satisfactory scientific background for mere political reasons. We vehemently deny our support to and abandon this dubious Elephant Census with scorn.

• Jagath Gunawardana – Society for Environment Education
• Rukshan Jayawardana – Leopard Trust
• Nayanaka Ranwella – Wildlife Conservation Forum (WCF)
• Pubudu Weerarathna – Ruk Rakaganno
• Deepankara de Silva – Sri Lanka Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA)
• Shantha Jayaweera – Elephant Conservation Forum
• Arjuna Perera – Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS)
• Nadeeka Hapuarachchi – Wildlife Conservation Society
• Wimukthi Weeratunga – Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL)
• Ranjith Dayawansha – Nature Exploration and Protection Society
• Ajantha Palihawadana – True Nature Conservation (TNC)
• Sajeewa Chamikara – Environment Conservation Trust (ECT)