Posted on October 7th, 2021


revised   12.10.21

There is a strong pro-elephant lobby in Sri Lanka which says the elephant must not be domesticated. It must be left alone, to wander in the forest. There are no forests left for it to wander in, since those forests were converted to tea estates during British rule.

 Therefore the elephant is now kept as a protected species in elephant reserves. These ‘managed elephant reserves’ come under the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The reserves are generous in size, specially at Wilpattu and Yala, taking into consideration the small size of Sri Lanka.

The state also provides elephant orphanages for the protection and preservation of elephants. (Section 29 of the Fauna and Flora Ordinance). In their natural state, Elephants are very caring and operate as small matriarchal family units in larger herds. They will look after ‘orphaned’ baby elephants.

Elephant activists are opposed to the idea of individual ownership of elephants. An elephant cannot have an individual owner as they come under Public Property in the existing laws, said  one activist. This is a howler. The term ‘Public property’ as defined in Offences against Public Property Act, No. 12 of 1982 means the property of the Government, any department, statutory board, public corpora-ration, bank, co-operative society or co-operative-union”.  Elephant activists also said that the elephant, in its free state should come under the Zoological Gardens Department. That is another howler.

The very term elephant ‘owner’ was incorrect, these activists said. Wild animals such as elephants could not be ‘owned’ by anyone. Those who hold elephants on legal permits given by the  Department of Wildlife Conservation are elephant caretakers”. this is a borrowed observation.In 2018 courts in the Indian state of Uttarakhand ruled that animals both wild and domestic are not property but legal entities” on whose behalf humans must act as guardians.

However, individual can own elephants in Sri Lanka. It is legal.    The Fauna and Flora protection Ordinance speaks of Registration and licensing of elephants (section 22a) and Penalty for unlawful possession of elephant (Section 23).Put together, it implies lawful ownership. This is well known and had been going on for years. Elephants can have a private owner and tame elephants have been registered all these years observed Jayantha Jayewardene.   There is no ‘caretaker ‘nonsense either.  Owners are liable in courts if anything happens to the precious elephant.

Captive elephant industry is a violation of animal rights. It’s cruel, inhumane and contradicts the teachings of Lord Buddha, said one activist. True we had a culture of taking elephants in perahera for around 200 years. But we now know that this is harmful we must make changes to culture and continue the perahera without elephants, said another.

These elephant activists pounce on the use of elephants in perahera, which takes place once a year  but they ignore the elephants trapped in the Dehiwela zoo.  At Dehiwela, there is daily evening performance where elephants perform antics such as wiggling their backs to music, hopping on one foot and standing up on their hind legs.

One activist has launched a campaign to expose the cruel treatment given to elephants. He posted video clips of a tusker whose limbs were repeatedly jabbed with a goad by an angry mahout. The tusker was identified as Raju, one of the elephants belonging to the Dalada Maligawa and currently held at a temple belonging to the Asgiri Vihara.

Another said that captive elephants were genetically and ecologically dead animals.  Elephants in the wild roam free procreate and provide ecological services. They disperse seeds, knock down old trees and allow new growth of plants. When an elephant is removed from the habitat, all these actions cease,” he said.

Unlike larger African elephants, which have never been domesticated in large numbers, Asian elephants have worked closely with humans for millennia said elephant experts. The anthropologist Katy Moran who spent some months studying elephant care in Sri Lanka , has  commented on this. Her comments indicate some degree of ignorance as to the situation in Sri Lanka  also idealism, but they are worth noting. Moran later became Principal Investigator for the Smithsonian, where she documented traditional systems of elephant management and their uses for conservation and sustainable development.

The unique work potential of domesticated elephants is underdeveloped in Sri Lanka, said Katy. Elephant labor can substitute for small lift and traction machinery and accomplish equivalent tasks for comparative costs. Elephants can haul one- to two-ton loads about a mile each day at costs competitive with the mechanized equipment that Sri Lanka now imports. Elephant use could cut the incalculable costs to Sri Lanka of increased dependency on foreign governments for imported machinery, fuel and parts, which also results in increased trade deficits for the island’s economy.

Not only are elephants an underutilized resource for traction in terrain that is too soft or steep for wheeled vehicles, but no roads need be built to use elephants and they do not degrade the environment with their tracks. “Fuel” for elephants is abundant in the local environment. More importantly, this naturally renewable resource can duplicate itself continued Katy.

Domesticated elephants can also be exported. This will help the economy. Markets abroad could be developed easily since Asian elephants are highly valued in zoos and circuses in the West, continued Katy.

A captive breeding program could be developed since Asian elephants have an endangered conservation status. A breeding program could offer Sri Lanka a field center for basic and applied research, training and education in veterinary medicine, elephant husbandry, population genetics, zoology, anthropology and a comparison of in situ and ex situ conservation methodology, said Katy.

Most importantly, elephant domestication offers Sri Lankan access to, benefits from, and participation in utilization of their most valued national natural resource, the Asian elephant. Employment of traditional elephant management technology for capture, training and maintenance generates pride in ancient Sri Lankan traditions and offers the means for economic development to the people. Ensuring elephants “a right to live and move about in any part of this land” integrates the goals of development and conservation of the species. It nurtures the values that are a motivating force in Sri Lanka, proven by the very survival of elephants in both wild and captive states on this small island for over 25 centuries, concluded Katy.

Although Sri Lanka is reported to have well over 50 Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) dealing with elephants, very few of them actively contribute towards the well being of the elephants at the field level said Dangolla and Silva. Only the MEF contributes towards the health care aspects of captive elephants by providing veterinary services, and housing for sick domestic elephants at their premises.

Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF) is a rescue and care home for tame elephants Wikipedia  described MEF. It is situated on a 15-acre estate in Kegalle owned by the late Sam Samarasinghe, a dedicated animal lover. The estate has been the home of Samarasinghe family and their elephants for many generations.

The estate became an elephant oriented tourist concern. Called Club Concept Elephant Bath in 1979.  in1999, on the death of the owner, with the support of the World Animal Protection society, it was made a sanctuary for captive elephants, with proper caretaking facilities and medical services. It is the only certified non-profit organization working with captive elephants in Sri Lanka it has cared for more than 80 elephants.

MEF finds and takes in mistreated elephants paying the elephant owners a monthly wage. Many of the elephants are recovered from the logging industry, within which poor living and working conditions can cause tusk injuries, potentially resulting in breakages, nerve damage, and gum disease.

The other elephants MEF rescues come from elephants that individual people keep in their home gardens, temple-owned elephants which are often neglected when not used for religious purposes, and the elephants hotels keep captive for tourism.

The elephant owners are not obliged to cover any of the costs. Many of them turn to MEF when they are no longer capable of coping with the immense cost of keeping an elephant. MEF covers all medical, food bills, and a salary for the mahout. The average daily expenditure on an elephant amounts to around Rs.7000.

These elephants are taken care of by 13 local mahouts and a number of foreign volunteers. Every elephant has a night bed at which it is fed in the evening and tied throughout the night. In the morning, each elephant is bathed in the river and fed its breakfast in a day bed. The food, which is delivered daily from off the premises, consists of coconut, kitul, and jackfruit bundles. Each elephant’s daily consumption is counted and recorded.

A daily veterinary check is carried out on each elephant which involves a foot sweep to check for foot rot, and the feeding of a vitamin dough ball containing all the vitamins and supplements each elephant requires . The foundation maintains a close working relationship with Dr. Ashoka Dangolla, of the Veterinary faculty at University of Peradeniya.  This has  led to the establishment of a Mobile Veterinary Unit (MVU) that provides medical services for sick and injured elephants throughout the country. MEF also runs the Footsteps Elephant Consultancy, the only mahout training program to be recognized and accredited by the  Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Tourists can observe and ride the elephants at MEF as well as assist with their daily washing in the Kuda Oya River that runs through the grounds. MEF ensures that it strictly abides by the guidelines set by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority

In the afternoons, the elephants are taken to an open area where they have the chance to search for hidden baskets of fruit and roam around on their own. This  is a period of relaxation and play , it allows them to socialize and develop relationships with each other.[6]

MEF  uses traditional methods of elephant training which involve the use of pressure points known as nila points and the ankus. The ankus is used to apply strong, clear pressure in very particular points that the elephant is trained to react to. When used correctly, the ankus does not cause the elephant any pain. However, MEF is now turning to  new  a mahout training program meant to shift elephant training towards a rewards base style, where the elephant gets a treat when it has successfully completed a verbal command given by the mahout.  ( Continued)

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