By Risidra Mendis
A statement made by the Diyawadana Nilame that the annual peraheras are facing a shortage of tuskers, has irked environmentalists who say no measures have been taken to breed the existing elephants.
An elephant at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka-Aug 2011–Pic by: steve chao- Al Jazeera
There are 150 tame elephants in the country. However, the issue of breeding tame elephants and tuskers has taken a backseat as private elephant owners are only interested in using the animals as a money spinning venture.
The baby elephants in the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage are taken away on requests made by temple priests and politicians to be used in peraheras. However, when not being used in peraheras most of the elephants are used for hard labour and safaris as it brings in good money for private elephant owners.
Allegations are also being levelled at some of the temple priests in the past for handing over their elephants to other parties to be used for heavy labour.
Meanwhile, environmentalists say the cruelty imposed on elephants when training them to take part in peraheras is a shame on a predominantly Buddhist country that is presently celebrating the 2600th Sri Sambuddhathva Jayanthi.
Speaking to Ceylon Today an animal welfare activist said there is no shortage of elephants for peraheras in the country. “Mostly the temples hold their peraheras at about the same time during the year and this is the reason for there being a shortage of elephants,” the animal welfare activist added.
It is also learnt the Dalada Maligawa pays Rs 60,000 for an elephant whereas the Bellanvilla Temple pays Rs 30,000 for the participation of an elephant in the perahera. A smaller temple would pay around Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 for an elephant. A tusker, however, costs around Rs 60,000 to Rs 120,000.
Some private elephant owners are not too keen on lending their animals for peraheras as they can earn Rs 5,000 a month by safaris, and when there is shortage of elephants due to temple peraheras, the safari rates increase to Rs 10,000.
Elephants not fed
The manner in which tame elephants are cared for has also come under severe criticism by eyewitnesses who say some animals are not fed during the perahera season as they dirty the roads when going in the procession.
Meanwhile, naturalist Kamal Edirisinghe said elephant owners should take sole responsibility for the shortage of elephants in the country as they have shown no interest in breeding those in captivity.
“When an elephant is in musth, it should not be taken in a perahera. During the beginning and towards the end of the musth period the animals should be kept away from humans. However, private elephant owners and some temple priests ignore the welfare of the animals and send them for peraheras,” Edirisinghe charged.
He explained the use of elephants and tuskers in musth has resulted in some of these animals running amok and injuring or killing many visitors at peraheras in the past.
In the past, when elephants participated in peraheras a generator was used to supply power for the colourful lights draped around the animals’ body and for the tooth relic. However, in recent times instead of a generator a battery is used to supply power.
“This battery is fitted on the elephant and the fact that the animal has to carry an additional weight on his body and it may feel uncomfortable as a result, is ignored by elephant owners and organizers of the peraheras,” Edirisinghe alleged.
Recalling past incidents where elephants ran amok during peraheras, the naturalist said he remembered an incident where an elephant had trampled some pieces of hot charcoal on the road and got violent.
“That animal was shot because he couldn’t be controlled by the mahouts. Another incident was reported a long time ago when an elephant got agitated and turned violent because the costume it was wearing had prevented it from urinating. At least two to three veterinary surgeons should be on duty during the perahera season to tranquilize elephants, if they become violent,” Edirisinghe said.
Vehicles used for the transportation of elephants from one location to another in time for a perahera, are known to travel at high speed. “Elephants are transported at a speed of 60 kilometres per hour. This is not good for the animals as they can get dizzy and their pressure increases due to stress,” Edirisinghe said.
According to eyewitnesses, an elephant was unloaded by a lorry at the Maharagama Puwakpitiya Temple in a very dangerous manner. “When the animal’s hind legs were on the ground, the lorry driver pulled the vehicle forward. If the elephant slipped and fell, it could have been seriously injured,” the eyewitnesses said.
Mahouts not experienced
Mahouts get elephants to carry the food in their mouths. The weight of the food can loosen the elephant’s teeth and in some cases the teeth have fallen out.
One elephant was reported to have died due to malnutrition and neglect by temple authorities a few years ago.
Present day mahouts are not experienced in handling and controlling elephants and this has resulted in many incidents of animal cruelty. Incidents of mahouts getting drunk and ill-treating elephants have also been reported. “Even the henduwa (goad) that is now used on the elephants is much sharper than the olden day’s one,” Edirisinghe explained.
He went on to say that a chain with spikes is tied round the legs of fierce elephants to control them, adding that when the elephant gets restless and moves about, the spikes on the chains cut into the animals’ legs and badly injure them.
Meanwhile, former Zoo Director Brigadier H.A.N.T Perera said, once taken from the orphanage, the elephants are kept chained. “Pinnawela elephants are not used to being chained throughout the day and end up with bad chain cuts on their legs. Once taken out of the orphanage, the elephants are not given their baths at the correct time and are used to pull logs and taken for safaris,” the Brigadier said adding that a veterinary surgeon should examine the animal and confirm that the elephant is in good health prior to using them in peraheras. “There are some veterinary surgeons who certify that an elephant is in good health even when it is not fit to participate in a perahera. Such a decision could result in additional stress to the elephant and add to the animal’s injury,” the Brigadier said.
Lack of interest by elephant owners
Former Young Zoologists Association (YZA) President Shantha Jayaweera said a shortage of veterinary surgeons in the country and the lack of interest by elephant owners to treat their animals well, have resulted in an increase in cruelty to these animals.
“Most elephant owners want to have an elephant for prestige and not because they are genuine animal lovers. The sole intention of these elephant owners is to own elephants and get the maximum use out of them,” Jayaweera said.
“Private elephant owners claim the number of tame elephants is decreasing in the country and have expressed the need to get more elephants so they can be used for hard labour when not used in peraheras,” Jayaweera said.
He has also questioned the welfare of the tuskers at the Sri Dalada Maligawa questioning an incident where one baby tusker belonging to it was tied by its mahout close to the Mahaweli River and left unattended causing the animal to drown when the tide rose.
“Another tusker belonging to the Dalada Maligawa is blind in one eye, as a result of an attack by its mahout. Yet another tusker belonging to the Dalada Maligawa has a big wound on its leg and a large growth on the side of its face,” Jayaweera said.
Edirisinghe explained that the Diyawadana Nilame has also taken another two baby tuskers from the elephant orphanage a few years ago claiming that they are needed for peraheras and is now complaining of a shortage of elephants in peraheras.
“The Diyawadana Nilame insists on taking baby tuskers from the elephant orphanage to be trained for the Dalada Maligawa perahera and this prevents them from breeding. Now he is complaining of a shortage of elephants for peraheras,” an environmentalist charged.
“An elephant participating in a perahera is a tradition coming down from many generations. The best solution towards solving this problem would be to train the elephants at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage to take part in peraheras. The orphanage can earn some extra money and the elephants can be taken back to the orphanage once the perahera is over,” Edirisinghe said.
Hire out elephants
Brig Perera explained that if such a programme was in place, the elephants will not be kept chained all day and can also be given a chance to breed and produce more elephants and tuskers at the orphanage.
“It is very important that the remaining elephant population be protected and encouraged to breed, especially at a time when the animals’ numbers are declining at an alarming rate in the country,” the Brigadier said.
It is also learnt that a proposal was brought forward by Brigadier Perera to train and hire out a group of elephants from the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage for peraheras.
According to Brigadier Perera during the UNP regime, Cabinet approval was sought to train and hire out 50 non-fertile females and males from the orphanage.
“This request was taken into consideration by the Cabinet. But, the Cabinet had requested some changes and clarifications to the existing documentation,” the Brigadier explained.
However, the then government failed to follow up on this request and the plan to train and hire out elephants from the orphanage died a natural death.
“The trained group of elephants could be hired out by the orphanage to take part in peraheras when required and once the perahera is over the elephants would be brought back to the orphanage. Elephants taken by temples are misused and ill-treated as they are then hired out to other temples and devales to take part in peraheras,” Brig Perera said.
“Elephants don’t like loud noises and shouldn’t be taken in peraheras. It is cruel to force a big animal to walk in a perahera with short chains tied round their hind legs. Maybe it is time to think about the welfare of the elephant and forget about traditions and cultures. It is more important to protect the elephants from cruelty and extinction than to follow ancient customs and traditions of forcing them to walk in peraheras,” the animal welfare activist said.
“The importance of an elephant is so great, that even a temple’s prestige is measured by the number of elephants it owns. However, temples may not have elephants to own very soon,” Edirisinghe warned. courtesy: Ceylon Today