By Vositha Wijenayake –
The case of elephants in Sri Lanka has come to the forefront of public discourse due to the incident involving the baby elephant which is claimed to have been abandoned at the temple of Ven. Dhammaloka Thero. While the facts remain questionable on the arrival of the elephant to the temple, the case of the unregistered elephant which was reported to be kept in Ven. Dhammaloka Thero’s temple has succeeded in bringing the attention to a much needed discussion on the plight of elephants in Sri Lanka, their ownership, and the ongoing yet not so spoken of baby elephant trade in the country.
Possession of an unregistered elephant is a punishable offence in Sri Lanka, and it is reported that since 2015, the Department of Wildlife has been able to uncover 30 cases of unregistered elephants. This article is not an attempt to analyse the truth of Ven. Dhammaloka Thero’s statements, but an attempt to help better understand the laws that exist, need to be strengthened and better implemented for the protection of animals in Sri Lanka, in this case the wild elephants illegally held in captivity.
Registering and Licensing
According to the Flora and Fauna Act 22 of 2009, possession of an elephant that is not licensed and registered is a punishable offence. The Act provides “no person shall own, have in his custody or make use of an elephant unless it is registered and unless a licence in respect of the elephant has been obtained” in accordance with the provisions of the Act. Among other requirement that fall within the duties of a custodian of an elephant that is being registered under the Act includes registering the elephant with the prescribed officer, paying a registration fee as prescribed, obtain an annual licence in respect of the elephant.
The Act further provides that “where a person becomes the owner, or obtains the custody, of an elephant by virtue of sale, gift, the death of the previous owner or in any other manner whatsoever, such person shall immediately inform the Director or prescribed officer and, if the elephant is registered or licensed, take such steps as may be prescribed to have the previous registration and licence cancelled and to have a fresh registration made and a fresh licence obtained.”
Unlawful possession of an elephant is a punishable offence under the Sri Lankan law. According to S. 23 (1) of the Act this includes upon conviction being liable to a fine not less than one hundred and fifty thousand rupees and not exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand rupees, or to imprisonment of either description for a term not less than ten years and not exceeding twenty years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
Could one shelter an elephant that walked into one’s premises? Only if abiding by the above regulations, registering the animal as prescribed by law, and gaining a licence.
If an elephant is not registered under this section, then it shall be presumed to be taken or removed from the wild without lawful authority or approval. Elephants kept in captivity are deemed to be public property, and the provisions of the Offences Against Public Property Act, No. 12 of 1982 shall apply against those who are violate the law.
Cruelty to Elephants in Captivity
The case of elephants in captivity does not restrict itself alone to the illegal possession of the animals. It further stretches to the inhumane treatment they are subjected to in captivity. There are many cases of inhumane treatment of the elephants by their mahouts which are not addressed.
This is due to the law in Sri Lanka on addressing cruelty to remaining inefficient and lacking teeth. As highlighted by animal welfare activists, the need for reform on this front is an immediate need. Cruelty to animals is defined by Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907 a law that dates to over a century, and archaic which fails to reflect the situation of current Sri Lanka.
Further, the lack of deterring impact of the law which only provides a fine that may extend to hundred rupees, or imprisonment (maximum 3 months) or both as the penalty for those who inflict cruelty on animals has prevented the law serving the purpose for which it was enacted. This highlights the need for reform of the law, and stressing the need to pass the proposed Animal Welfare Bill that would address issues of cruelty and inhumane treatment to which elephants in captivity are subjected.
Yahapalanaya and Elephants
In President Maitripala Sirisena’s presidential manifesto, in page 32 it is provided that under a compassionate governance that the “Flora and Fauna Act will be strictly implemented without fear or favour.” Such statement is definitely very promising, and the promised implementation would ensure that the issues concerning the elephant trade, illegal possession of elephants are addressed.
Further in order to address the illegal possession of elephants, it would be beneficial if the Elephant Registry was disclosed to the public which would facilitate the saving of elephants that are illegally kept in captivity.
On the World Wild Life Day, it is the hope of many that the compassionate governance will uphold two things that will address the issues raised: The implementation of the Flora and Fauna Act in an efficient and robust manner as promised, and the passing of the Animal Welfare Bill against the cruelty and inhumanity towards animals in the country.