For years, the elephants were stuck in a tense custody battle between the Sri Lankan state and influential people accused of illegally buying critically endangered animals, forging ownership documents, and breaking the country’s long standing wildlife protection laws.
Now, in a ruling that has shocked Sri Lanka and conservationists around the world, a court has ordered the return of 14 elephants to people they were rescued from during government crackdowns from 2010 to 2015. Thirteen of the elephants have already been returned.
The country’s conservationists are fighting back and appealing to higher courts. Lawyers representing activists have obtained a court order against the return of a captive mother elephant and its calf.
“Our [legal] strategy is that it is illegal. It is contrary to the existing law. They don’t have any legal standing. They keep on changing the law to suit them,” Ravindranath Dabare, the lawyer appealing the case on behalf of local activists, told VICE World News.
The elephants caught in the custody battle were allegedly sold to influential people including members of parliament, a Buddhist monk, and a judge, some of whom reportedly paid around $200,000 in the illegal transactions. Niraj Roshan Samarakkody, one of the alleged owners who was also accused of poaching and trafficking elephants, was granted bail after spending months in police custody for permit irregularities. He has denied all accusations against him.
Samarakkody and the other owners of the 14 elephants are facing charges of either faking ownership documents or failing to register the elephants in their possession. The court gave them three months to properly register the animals according to the new decree.
The ruling came off the back of a new controversial government decree that circumvents existing laws on acquiring ownership of elephants, and could make trafficking wild elephants easier and lead to animal abuse. The decree relaxes the registration of elephants for work, tourism and religious purposes, and no longer requires owners to prove they acquired the animals legally.
In a statement to the Associated Press, the wildlife protection state minister Wimalaweera Dissanayake challenged critics to appeal to higher courts to prove that the decree and the court order for the elephants’ return are illegal.
Sri Lanka’s wildlife protection laws criminalize the capture of wild elephants. But in practice, influential people manage to skirt this law and keep the animals, revered as sacred, as pets.
Owning elephants is a status symbol in Sri Lanka. Having an elephant in the garden has long been a sign of wealth, power and privilege in the Buddhist-majority country.
“Elephants are considered status symbols because traditional elephant owners were royalty and nobility. Now, some people who own everything including luxury vehicles don’t care about the laws of the land and would like to own an elephant,” environmentalist Rukshan Jayewardene told VICE World News.
Some 219 wild elephants are in captivity across the country, according to government data. Out of these, 132 are kept as “pets” by private owners.
“The consequences of the private ownership of wild elephants as pets subjects these animals to severe trauma as they are ripped away from their families at a tender age. This is followed by a cruel ‘crushing’ or breaking-in period and a lifetime of slavery and toil,” said Jayewardene.
In 2019, the South China Morning Post reported that dozens of elephant babies were captured over a 10-year period and sold to affluent individuals for $125,000 each.
Sri Lanka’s elephants are considered critically endangered by animal rights groups. In 2020, the country reported a wild elephant population of only around 7,500. Increasing numbers of human settlements and deforestation are depriving the animals of their natural habitat.
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