Cry halt to jumbo captures, say concerned activists (Sri Lanka)


By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Vinusha Paulraj, Sunday Times

Date Published
see link for photos. 

An elephantine problem in Sri Lanka, involving the illegal capture of baby elephants from the wild, reached crisis-point with environmentalists meeting at a Colombo hotel yesterday to discuss measures to halt such captures.

Baby elephants are isolated from their herds in the jungle, captured and transferred to different locations for sale for anything between, Rs. 10 million to Rs. 15 million each, said environmental activists Vimukthi Weeratunga and Nadika Hapuarachchi in a heart-rending presentation titled ‘Innocent freedom to a captive hell’.

These two crusaders, with a few others, who have been doggedly fighting to stop baby elephant captures from the wild, even facing risk to their own life and limbs, highlighted the magnitude and the modus operandi of the racketeers involved.

At least 200 baby elephants have been captured from the wild in the past several years, environmentalists say. They allege that baby elephant captures from the wild are being carried out by jumbo racketeers, with important people’s names being implicated and serious allegations of non-action against top Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) officials.

The issue exploded on Thursday when a baby elephant was taken into custody by the DWC from a house in Gannoruwa, Peradeniya. The baby recovered by DWC’s Western Province Assistant Director U. Indrajith was produced before Kandy Additional Magistrate Srinath Wijesekera on Friday, with court ordering that it be sent to the Elephant Transit Home at Uda Walawe. Two people have been remanded till May 20 in this connection and instructions issued that the baby elephant’s age be ascertained.

“Babies caught from the wild are sold after obtaining a registration document,” alleged Mr. Weeratunga yesterday, stressing that the law is crystal clear.

Citing the Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2009, he told the discussion organised by the Federation of Environmental Organisations that no person can illegally capture and keep an elephant. The Registration and Licensing of Tusker and Elephant Regulation 1991 only outlined the process of domestic elephant regulations. It is applicable only to elephants that are already registered and babies that are born to captive elephants. (See box for the law)

It was revealed at the discussion that there are 213 captive elephants for which the DWC have issued permits, which have to be renewed every year. Of these captive elephants, 94 are at the Dehiwela National Zoological Gardens and at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.

Explaining how jumbo babies are caught, Mr. Hapuarachchi said it is suspected that permits are illegally sought prior to the illegal capture of babies from the wild to avoid getting entangled with the law when transporting them. “There are elephants with permits and permits without elephants,” he said.

When taking into consideration elephants with permits, most owners claim that the mother of the baby elephant died at birth in order to receive permits for illegally-acquired babies, he said, adding, “Officials are scared to take action because big names are involved.”
Underscoring that it is a double tragedy for wild elephants, Mr. Weeratunga, meanwhile, told the Sunday Times that the baby’s mother is shot and killed by the ‘elephant catchers’ who then bring the baby long distances after tranquillising it. If the baby gets aggressive when it wakes up, as it would due to the trauma it has undergone, it is either violently beaten into submission or tied up so tightly that it suffers serious injury, often resulting in the baby’s death.

“It is big business,” added Mr. Hapuarachchi, with wildlife activists suspecting that baby elephant captures from the wild, occur mainly from Habarana, Kalawewa, the eastern border of Uda Walawe which encompasses Tanamalwila, Wellawaya, etc.
There are also serious allegations being levelled against some veterinary surgeons who treat captive elephants, in that they certify that babies have been born to non-existent cow elephants.

The Sunday Times learns that the latest target of these jumbo racketeers seem to be the baby elephants released into the wild from the

Elephant Transit Home at Uda Walawe. These babies are easy ‘prey’ as they are not afraid of humans. Not only are there fears that they are captured by these unscrupulous people after they are sent back into the jungles, but that they are also subjected to untold suffering as the microchips inserted by the DWC to track them in the wild are gouged out to prevent detection, sources said.

The baby elephant fiasco has been peppered with irony – with captive elephants mandatorily needing a permit and the permit having to be renewed every year, the ‘Registration Book’ maintained at the DWC suddenly went missing around August last year.

Another serious issue is the allegation by a former Director-General of Wildlife as recently as last month that the signature on two of the ‘Certificates of Registration of a Tusker or Elephant’ apparently issued during his time was forged. The reality though is clear – baby elephants being caught from the wild must stop and stop right now, urge these animal rights activists.

Solution to check racket
Here are activist Nadika Hapuarachchi’s suggestions to solve this problem:
– The DWC should thoroughly check the validity of all permits issued to captive elephants.
– If any ‘hora ali’ are found, they should be taken into custody by the DWC and either rehabilitated and sent back into the wild or sent to Pinnawala.
– Anyone found to be in possession of a ‘hora aliya’ should be blacklisted.
– Train a set of elephants at Pinnawela to participate in major peraheras.

The law as it stands

There is absolutely no ambiguity in the Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2009.
– Any offence committed under the Act involving an elephant shall be a non-bailable offence.
– In the event of a pregnancy of a registered she elephant, the owner or the person having the custody of such she elephant shall inform the Director-General (Wildlife) of such pregnancy together with details of the sire.
– It shall be the duty of the owner or the person having custody of a registered she elephant to inform the Director General or any authorized officer of the fact of any birth, miscarriage or still birth of elephants within seven days of the date of the occurrence of any of the said events.
– Where any registered elephant dies, the owner or the person having custody of such elephant shall report such death to the Director General, before the remains are destroyed.
– Any elephant which has not been registered under this section shall be presumed to be taken or removed from the wild without lawful authority or approval and such elephants shall be deemed to be public property.