Deadly situations are taking place for both humans and elephants in Sri Lanka, as competition with wild elephants and farming for agriculture, forestry and other forms of human development create serious issues for all involved.
One-hundred years ago, more than 20,000 wild Asian elephants inhabited Sri Lanka.
They were indiscriminately captured, hunted with cross bows for ‘pleasure’ and slaughtered as agricultural pests, catastrophically reducing them to only 2,000 elephants. Today, the population still only numbers 4,000.
Elephas maximus, the largest of the Asian elephants, native to Sri Lanka, have been listed as endangered by IUCN since 1986. The biggest issue affecting Sri Lanka’s wild elephants is human-elephant conflict. Also, land mines are still occasionally being stepped on by elephants, leaving them horribly crippled.
For Sri Lankans living in the rural countryside, close encounters with elephants during their day-to-day activities are commonplace. Crop raiding by elephants and the harsh retaliatory measures subsequently taken by people whose livelihoods depend on their farm products feeds a vicious cycle of violence. Each year, between 50 and 80 humans and between 150 and 200 elephants are killed due to human elephant conflicts. Read more: click here
A couple of weeks ago I spent a full day at Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, home to 88 elephants. Each day at the orphanage, herds of wild elephants walk up and down the main street to bathe in the Maha Oya River twice a day. While there were many positive things taking place at the orphanage, sadly not everything was positive.
On a positive note: a massive adult male elephant – the size of a house – stopped right alongside me as the herd was walking along the main street, literally only inches from me. I was staring up at his front right shoulder and as I stood perfectly still I felt the giant animal’s kind eyes observing me, as his trunk waved around a little.
When he was ready he slowly moved off, as the earth seemed to rumble under his tremendous mass. I may have even stopped breathing – partly from excitement and partly from awe! Inside I was screaming to myself: “this is incredible!!!”
Sadly, the elephants were all wearing chains draped around their neck, but a two separate elephant incidents stood out as unacceptable cruelty.
The first incident (lesser of the two), was a young elephant in the river, chained by a front and back leg, to boulders. He was unable to move as his friends all played in the distance, in the water. He was in the full sun, which was over 100F and was chained for hours, as he screamed and bellowed to be released. Hours later, his mahout (handler) made him lay down flat in the water and he was given a bath. The elephant was behind a barrier which I could not cross, to speak to his mahout.
The second incident was distressing!
When I arrived to witness this incident approximately 25 tourists were standing in silence and many were on the brink of tears. I could hear the distressed roars of the young elephant long before I could see him. As soon as I saw the youngster’s distress I spoke up for him, telling the mahouts and tourists that this was animal cruelty and needs to be stopped immediately. The mahouts jeered at me and every one of the tourists walked away, not wanting to be involved.
This is what I witnessed:
A young elephant was shackled on short chains with a front leg and a hind leg splayed apart for FOUR hours, as he bellowed non-stop in distress and pain. He had no access to water and was completely separated from the herd, who were kept quite a distance from him.
The youngster’s distress increased to the point that his young legs began quivering. Unable to continue to support his weight any longer, screaming and at the point of collapse, he began to fall sideways, which could have caused him serious injury, including possible broken legs, due to being chained.
The chains had already wounded his legs and split open the flesh on his skin.
It was now only myself, two mahouts and the distressed young elephant, everyone else had gone. By this stage I was shouting at the mahouts to immediately release the elephant before he severely injured himself. They were muttering to each other and glaring at me.
The youngster’s mahout angrily yelled something offensive at me in Sri Lankan, and the other man laughed. I abruptly told him he can swear at me all he likes, I am not going until he releases that young elephant from those chains!
The youngster was now reaching a crescendo of distress! He was falling sideways and catching himself at the last moment, but how long could he keep this up before he went right down? In an attempt to intimidate me, the youngster’s mahout came over to me, stood next to me and glared into my face. We both exchanged heated words which neither of us understood what the other one said – but the tone from each of us was anger.
After more heated exchanges from the mahout and myself, the youngster’s mahut shouted the following words at me: “$10 US dollars!” and he pointed to the chains! I yelled at him where he could stick his $10 dollars and demanded he get the chains undone now! Unleashing a barrage of rage, the mahout begrudgingly undid the chains and released the young elephant.
The young elephant realized he was free and began coming straight to me. While this may sound cute – this youngster was still highly stressed and could easily have injured me without meaning to. Being an experienced animal rescuer of large animals, I knew to stand perfectly still and not to move a muscle. Because I didn’t move, the youngster stopped and just stood there, looking at me but not knowing what to do. His mahout came over and got him and led him away. But this story didn’t end there!
Before leaving the orphanage my elephant expert asked me if I saw anything which I didn’t agree with or thought could be done better. He then took me to a private meeting with the head person in charge of all the elephants at the orphanage and the person in charge of the 48 mahouts. They both listened intently to my stories and watched my footage.
Both men were shocked and disappointed at what I revealed and gave their word it would be acted upon. My footage is being sent back to Sri Lanka, to the minister in charge of Sri Lanka’s elephants, to review humane methods of training. In time I look forward to bringing an update on this situation.
Sri Lankan authorities recognize the cultural and natural significance of the elephant and are working assiduously to ensure the survival and health of both wild and domesticated elephants on the island.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is not a sanctuary. It is an orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian Elephants. The mahouts carry ‘ankus‘ (known in Sri Lanka as a heduwa), the traditional elephant long training stick with sharp metal points at one end, which are used to control the elephant. “It is this threat of pain that makes elephants trainable.”
Pinnawala began captive elephant breeding to provide animals for the captive market (where the welfare of the animals cannot be guaranteed), such as temple elephants, where elephants are kept as status symbols and confined in very small spaces, often in shackles.
Decisions should be made that benefit the elephants, not the tourists. Facilities should be judged against the best standards of welfare and care, not the worst.
How Can You Help Sri Lanka’s Elephants?
Support Sri Lanka’s first elephant sanctuary New Life Elephant Sanctuary (NLES), which focuses on captive elephant care and support of wild elephant conservation, including bull elephants in musth; full veterinary care for all captive elephants; conservation-based alternative livelihoods for elephant owners and mahouts and responsible, elephant-friendly ecotourism and volunteerism. Read more: click here.
Go Orange And Help Sri Lanka’s Wild Elephants! Help donate grafted orange trees to farmers, to grow tall barriers of citrus trees around their rice and vegetable crops. Citrus trees are a strong deterrent to elephants. Read more: click here.
Read wonderful 2016 wild elephant encounter stories from visitors to Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWWCS); no chains, just wild elephants being elephants.
Leaving Sri Lanka, I then traveled to India. Please be sure to watch for my upcoming article on India’s elephants.
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SRI LANKA: Unchain Your Elephants!
SRI LANKA: Help Surathala, an Abused Temple Elephant
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