It’s a new year, and it seems we are still dealing with the same problems. In what is is now known as a “media fiasco” featuring the new captive born elephant twins, a video shared on social media by Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE), showed the mother elephant and nanny being dragged by their ear, and forced into water for her to go “live” on social media.
The history of Pinnawala is allegedly to breed elephants to make babies. According to the RARE Founder Maneesha Arachchige, the zoo uses them while they are small to attract foriegn interest and then gifts them to foreign zoos or temples to live a life of suffering. Kaavan was one such state gift to Pakistan, who was later rescued by the internationally famous singer Cher, who had quite a strong sentiment on the recent issue.
Responding to a tweet by RARE, Cher stated that our Sri Lankan Zoo Directoress cares nothing for elephants and accused her of being a bureaucrat who is only interested in making money for the zoo, who will exploit the elephants till their premature death. She further accused the zoo of making money and traumatising the elephants forever, which, having watched the video and seeing the elephants harrumph in pain, seems like it is not too far-fetched a theory.
The state of Sri Lanka’s elephant orphanages
In conversation with Conservationist and Freelance Journalist Supun Lahiru Prakash, he shared that he sees no problem with holding this bathing as a live session as it will bring in more attention and interest in elephants, which will attract tourists and income, but noted that there must be an aspect of care for the animals and their welfare must be looked into; which doesn’t seem to be the case here at all. He told us that even though they announced the spectacle to be the first time the elephants have a bath, that is not true, since elephants – especially babies – constantly play with mud and water and it is not feasible that they haven’t bathed in a year. “I don’t think it’s wrong that they publicised it, it’s normal to do these things so there is no need to look at it in a political aspect, but with that being said, they must take into consideration the well-being of the animals.”
On the same topic, he shared that in a study they conducted in 2017, it was shown that out of five local elephant orphanages, Pinnawala was said to be the worst in terms of elephant maintenance and upkeep. The study, conducted with views from foreign tourists stated that unethical treatment of elephants was the commonest reason for visitor discontent and was stated for all five establishments. Respondents identified physical harassment, chaining and caging of elephants, elephant performances, and elephant rides as unethical activities.
Lack of conservation relevance was ranked second and was also identified in relation to all five establishments, which goes to show that Sri Lanka, although it is renowned for its rich animal husbandry, seems to care more about making a profit than safekeeping the animals that bring about the profit.
Elephant show dubbed educational programme
We further spoke to Arachchige whose first statement was that Pinnawala was a “slave market”. She told us that on 4 January, she was contacted by a representative of the zoo department on the topic of the new elephant shows – that are condemned worldwide as it is incredibly harmful to these gentle giants – who promised that the show wouldn’t be a circus, but an “educational show”. They also told the organisation that elephants will not be standing on each other, but they will be trained to play ball. Now, if we were to go into the meaning of circus, you’d understand that it is entertainment or spectacle usually consisting of trained animal acts and exhibitions of human skill – which includes an elephant playing football – a sport which they would obviously need vigorous training to master. From our previous encounters with elephant abuse, we can almost certainly assume that this training will not be so easy on our elephants and will border on torture and abuse.
Arachchige told us that when they were asked by the zoo officials what kind of show they should perform with elephants if not this, they strongly stated that elephants should never be trained for anything, and if at all, should just be left at the zoo for viewing only.
She added that they offered the zoo free advice and international expertise on positive reinforcement learning for elephants, completely free of charge and their support, which was not accepted, but they were informed that the show will be put on hold.
Brunch attempted to contact the current Director General of the Dehiwala Zoo, who was unavailable at the time for comments.