CREATING ORPHANS: Starting with Elephants! (Sri Lanka)


Rohan Wijesinha, The Island

Date Published

This must be one of the very few instances, in World History, where the Cabinet of a supposed free and fair democracy has, through special committee, issued a Paper to legalize a crime, not just against the State and its people, but also against generations of Sri Lankans yet unborn whose natural heritage, and very existence, is being put up for sale! This date, Committee, Cabinet and Government will go down in infamy as one that compromised principle, good governance, common sense, national pride, natural heritage, national religion and, most importantly, the Law, to satisfy the greed of a few whose sole ambition is to make good for themselves in the here and now, while adorning their superior material status, however obtained, with the ownership of an elephant! As a prominent conservationist once stated, “These are the policies of lawmakers who believe that theirs is the final generation, and damn the future!”

Making an Ass of the Law

The Daily News of April 26, 2017, reported that based on a proposal made by the Minister for Sustainable Development & Wildlife, the Cabinet passed two gazettes, one to release the supposed excess elephants at the Pinnawala Orphanage free-of-charge to Buddhist Temples for use in their ‘traditional’ pageants and ceremonies, with any left over being sold to private owners at Rs. 10 million each. The other, intentionally masked by the former, is to regularize the ownership of the baby elephants stolen from the wild to those who had illegally purchased them from ‘Elephant Rustlers’. This article addresses the latter.

Incredibly, the wording of this Cabinet Paper acknowledges that the Laws of Sri Lanka have been broken, and that these stolen babies, 35 in all, had been illegally taken from the wild. For those who are not familiar with the social behaviour of elephants, this would in almost all cases, have involved the shooting of the mother, and chasing away of the rest of the herd, prior to extracting the partially tranquilized baby out of the jungle.

The Cabinet Paper has four sections outlining how each category of these criminals is to be dealt with. After all, receiving stolen goods, however obtained, is a crime!

In the first subsection, those who have been indicted with stealing elephants from the wild, just four, will be prosecuted under the Law. If justice prevails, and as per the present powers vested in the Law, they may receive short prison terms and fines amounting to a lakh or two of rupees. Purported to have received up to Rs. 10 Million for an elephant, this is a good return on investment, and hardly a deterrent for the future.

Those in the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) who issued illegal documents for the purchase of these stolen elephants will also be prosecuted, with evidence supplied by their colleagues. Registers and documents have already gone missing, and the outcome of these prosecutions is far from clear.

Incredibly, however, the paper then goes on to enable all those who received these stolen goods, the baby elephants, to ‘legalize’ their stolen property by making payment to the State of an additional sum.

Then there is another category of individuals who have been issued permits for domestic elephants, but have NO elephants! How is this possible? There are two suppositions that can be reached. Firstly, they did have elephants and obtained documentation for them by whatever means possible, and then the elephants died, probably due to stress and lack of proper care. The second supposition is that they were issued this documentation on the promise that the animals to match the documents would be supplied in the future. Astoundingly, these permit holders will also be afforded the opportunity to purchase elephants from the State!

Supply and Demand

The stage has now been set for a State sponsored trade in wild baby elephants. At Rs. 10 Million each, they will bring in a tidy sum for someone – though at present it is unclear as to whom, or which Government body, these payments will be made. Pinnawala has stopped breeding elephants, the very function for which it became famous, and with the giving of elephants to temples and private individuals, their number will require replenishment. Already, five orphans kept at Ritigala and two from the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) at Uda Walawe, animals that were destined to be reintroduced to the wild, have been sent to Pinnawala and instead of freedom, are now destined to a life of captivity.

As animals are taken from the ETH, on some pretext or another, to fill the numbers of Pinnawala, for that remains a premier tourist attraction and source of income for the Government, then the numbers at the ETH will also have to be renewed, as that too engenders income for the country. The die has been cast! A new job opportunity has been created – Elephant Orphan Creation, a multi-million-rupee opportunity for trade, and sponsored by the State.

For the next step will be that the Government will hold a count and announce that there are too many elephants in Sri Lanka! They will then state that as the domestic requirement has a limit, that the sale can be extended to countries overseas – a multi-million dollar opportunity!

The Stark Reality

Officially, at least 250 elephants die every year, most as victims of the human – elephant conflict. Many more may die deep in the jungles, a number that remain uncounted. A controversial census, held a couple of years ago, contrived a figure of approximately 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka. In 1998, Ajay Desai, a renowned elephant expert when on a consultancy with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), estimated the same figure. So, if the latest, disputed, number is to be believed (many believe that the real figure is far less), then there has been no increase in the number of elephants in Sri Lanka.

Add to all of this the devastation to natural habitat that is occurring all over the country, from the mass clearances at Hambantota and the non-declaration of the Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) at Mattala affecting at least 400 elephants, to the proposed clearance of thousands of acres of forest at Maduru Oya, to the starving and displacement of elephants in Uda Walawe and Yala, and all as a result of political sponsorship and expediency, and the future for the Sri Lankan elephant looks very bleak. As a result of the human – elephant conflict, loss of habitat, starvation and now the possibility of state-sponsored rustling, it does not take a mathematical genius to work out that the situation is critical. Let us also not forget that elephants and other wildlife, and the National Parks of this country, continue to be a vital source of attraction for tourists to this country and of essential foreign exchange.

Disgrace and Shame

As with other issues pertaining to Government, this is a classic example of politics bereft of ideology and concentrated on the cult of the individual. And for that individual, retention of portfolio is far more important than principle and policy. It is the personal protection of the benefits possible for today, and future legacy be damned! This process is all assisted by a Civil Service politicized to the extent that they too seek personal benefit rather than the fulfillment of national policy and what better way than to say ‘yes’ to everything the incumbent politico proposes, as endorsed by handpicked consultants. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune!

In a fair and free democracy this disgraceful legislation would never have been contemplated. In a fair and free democracy, had it been done, those in charge of the Environment and Wildlife would have strongly opposed it, and then resigned in shame for failing to prevent it! Ah, but to have shame, one needs a conscience. That, sadly, has gone the way of ideology!

As Ajay Desai put it so succinctly in an article in Sanctuary Asia (April 2011)”…Believe me, if the elephant were to ever go, we would be gone before it, maybe not us, but definitely the ecosystem and society as we know it.”

It’s not about elephants or conservation anymore, it’s really about us. Climate change, water wars, energy crisis, etc… all the precursors to a breakdown of civilized society are staring us in the face today… or have you not been reading the real news?”