For many travelling to Sri Lanka, riding on an elephant’s back with a stunning ocean and lush mountain backdrop is a bucket list item.
But after years of reports of cruelty, mistreatment, and even deaths of the South Asian island nation’s elephants, the country rolled out bold new rules that seek to regulate a favourite tourist activity to protect the majestic animal from further exploitation.
Elephants are a big part of Sri Lanka’s festivities and entertainment. The measures prohibit being drunk or high while riding these animals, which apparently is pretty common.
Animal rights activist Sagarika Rajakarunanayake, head of the Sathva Mithra (Friends of Animals) group in Sri Lanka, has previously spoken up about how common it is for elephant riders or mahouts to be on the elephants while drunk. “It is known that mahouts consume liquor all the time,” she wrote in a newspaper column, adding that most event organisers let them because they think mahouts need to be intoxicated to be able to deal with errant elephants.
“Ironically, it is the drunkenness of mahouts and their brutality to the elephants that largely leads to violent behaviour by elephants,” she stated.
The new measures ban baby elephants under the age of two from working. Instead, they have to be kept with their mothers. Each elephant will be assigned a biometric identity, and the animals’ use in logging and tourism will be restricted. No more than four people can sit atop an elephant, and it will have to be on a well-padded saddle.
Using elephants in films is also banned, except for government productions under strict veterinary supervision. Each elephant must go through a medical check-up every six months.
The new measures, released by State Minister of Wildlife Protection Wimalaweera Dissanayake last week, aim to protect the well-being of elephants and regularise the registration of domesticated ones.
Of Sri Lanka’s elephants, about 7,500 are wild, while around 200 are domesticated. They are protected by law, and killing one carries the death penalty. Capturing wild elephants is illegal, too. However, prosecutions for these offences are rare, and it’s quite fashionable for people to privately own elephants as a status symbol.
Animal rights activists have been asking for reforms in the last few years to protect elephants. Last year, environmentalists in Sri Lanka documented a “record number” of elephant deaths within a year – 85 percent of which were estimated to have been caused by human activities.
Another study found that every year, up to 4 million tourists pump money into businesses that are detrimental to animals and their conservation. It also found that 80 percent of the people sampled in the study didn’t recognise that certain wildlife attractions weren’t good for animals.
Past research found that elephants in training to carry humans on their backs often face “harsh” treatment, also referred to as “breaking-in” or “crush.”
Sri Lanka also has a dark recent history of baby elephants being poached and trafficked, each one sold for tourism or entertainment for as much as $170,000.
This is not the first time stringent rules were enforced to protect elephants. In 2019, the fatal poisoning of seven elephants led to the wildlife and tourism ministry announcing wide-ranging powers to protect the animals.
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