“Tilina Gamage” is a pleasant young non-controversial magistrate, who was charged with Public Property Act, and for the possession of a baby elephant valued at 6.9 million allegedly without a valid licence. It is also alleged that he has been avoiding/evading the courts awaiting the outcome of his application for anticipatory bail. His defence is said to be the possession of a valid receipt from the person he has bought the elephant calf from.
Many other cases are pending with more wrongdoings and inquires which is shelved and under the carpet due to obvious reasons. Another owner of an elephant calf has been a powerful member of legislature of the previous regime who has become a multi-millionaire within few years and it is unlikely his matter will come to the surface because he has agreed to cross over and divulge information.
“Thillina’s” matter is given wide publicity as the other case of a famous Buddhist Monk allegedly possessing an elephant baby unlawfully. Presumably he may have crossed the path in some way to get into this soup unlike many other illegal elephant owners unconcerned and unaffected. There are cases pending and our area of discussions is limited and restricted to general information and facts that are of public interest. Wide publicity is given to this case and the facts which are somewhat unusual which concerns environmentalists, activists, professionals and media. Whether a magistrate could afford to purchase and maintain the young elephant calf is a matter left to him, but whether he has complied with the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance 1937 amended in 2009 is the main issue to be considered. Section 23 of the Act states that any elephant which has not been registered under S/23, shall be presumed to be taken or removed without lawful authority and such elephants deemed to be public property.
An elephant needs 150 kg of food and 150 litres of water per day and the cost of maintenance with the caretaker is extremely expensive for an average citizen. These facts are common to all involved in the illegal trade still flourishing with the help of the rich and powerful.
Intelligent social animal
Elephants are intelligent, social, society inclined, socially complex animals living in herds with a leader and bonded together in loving and peaceful environment. They keep away from other animals and other animals keep elephants at arm’s length except tigers, and scavengers taking immature calves as prey with ferocious resistance from the mother. They are full of family bonds, social and lovable harmless animals unless they are threatened and habitat is disturbed. They are a part of preserving the environment, strength and the beauty of the jungle and jungle life.
Elephants are connected to the Sri Lankan culture and customs and during kings the wealth was assessed by the ownership of the number of elephants. This system trickled down for generations considering Elephant as a symbol of social status. Kings and the rich only could own elephants presented and permitted to be owned by the decree of the king. Situation changed after colonisation when British started to kill elephants as a sport and to reduce the number for convenience. Due to import of heavy vehicles and the introduction of the train the use of the elephant was confined to customary rituals such as Pereharas, a status symbol, and a tourist attraction. Today, the elephant has become most expensive merchandise.
Snatching baby blephants
Snatching baby elephants from the jungle has attracted the illegal traders due to millions of rupees in the illegal trade and it is perhaps more lucrative than the drug trade. It is a simple operation with the help of politicians, powerful and rich with the officers of the Wildlife Department who are supposed to protect the elephants and the wildlife from rouges. The mother is shot and killed to separate the calf and then tied or transported out and veterinary surgeon’s certificate and the birth certificate are taken for the name to be entered in the elephant registration book which is a controversial book discussed in number of cases against Ali Roshan and other illegal elephant traders . It is a well-established illegal trade with large acres of land and heavy vehicles for the transport of calves and lots of money to spend on politicians, the Wildlife Department and the cronies in the system.
Vijith Vijayamuni Zoysa had been the Wildlife Minister for a considerable period until he crossed over to the Yahpalanaya government for safety absolving himself of any wrong doings. He said most elephants in Sri Lanka are illegally owned and will take steps to make them legal. He makes funny and controversial statements now and then on the matter.
The elephant is our treasure and a symbol of culture from the time of kings who respected and protected the animal, which is a part and parcel of our environment and wealth. They are often subjected to torture in captivity and in transport and live with conditions below standard. Methods used for capturing are barbarous and illegal. Human-elephant conflict is due to the invasion of their habitats by unplanned deforestation and developments.
We are proud to have 8,873 elephants which is decreasing rapidly due to human-elephant conflict and lack of proper implementation of the laws. Organized groups snatch elephant calves from the Jungle to sell for millions of rupees with forged papers and tampering with the Elephant Registration Book.
We do not need outsiders to ruin us and our culture. We ruin ourselves, our environment, and our cultural heritage and wildlife with rare animals. Historically, foreigners invaded us to ruin us. Now we ruin ourselves. It is time to demand zero elephant private ownership and minimize the use of elephants in Pereharas.
Thickly elephant populated areas such as Habarana should be declared areas for elephants with protected wires and the chena cultivators should be provided with alternative land. One must read about the campaigns for elephant welfare in the countries with no elephants or greenery. We do not realise the value of the elephants and the culture and the environment connected to it because we are fortunately to have this rare environment, beauty and the animals as a part of our natural wealth. Ordinary citizens are not concerned or worried about the court cases and the parties involved, but if something good is the outcome of the cases they will be happy and contended. Citizens wish and pray this message will reach the people in power.
(The writer is a Solicitor/Attorney-at-law and a former Ambassador. He could be reached on: sarath firstname.lastname@example.org)