There have been several news reports recently about a surge of instances of baby elephants taken illegally from the wild and held in captivity by private individuals. Environmentalists and members of the public have expressed their concern. The Friday Forum joins these citizens in calling for a full investigation into the allegations, and if found correct, for necessary action to bring those responsible to book. The Friday Forum also notes that in the last few years there have been serious violations of Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law relating to the protection of elephants, for which the government must be held accountable.
In 2009 there was an incident of two baby tuskers forcibly removed from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The illegality of this action was compounded by the cruelty of separating young animals from their mothers before they were old enough. Since then there has been a steady increase in reports of baby elephants being seized from the wild with one report estimating that as many as 60 have been taken within a period of 2-3 years. It is also alleged that several animals have died while being captured or in captivity. Unconfirmed reports have disturbingly cited the names of several high ranking officials and prominent personalities with close connections to the administration as being in illegal possession of these elephants. The reports also identify those allegedly responsible for capturing and selling them. All captive elephants must be registered with the Department of Wildlife Conservation but media reports allege that such registration is being misused and further that the register mysteriously disappeared from the Department for some time.
The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance has specific provisions on the protection of elephants and the Department of Wildlife Conservation has a legal duty to implement them. The Friday Forum calls upon the Department and other relevant law enforcement authorities to carry out a full, impartial and transparent investigation into these allegations and take necessary legal action against any person found violating the law. This is a matter of urgency in order to rescue the captured animals and ensure their welfare in the custody of the State. Elephants are an iconic species in Sri Lanka, reflecting its rich biodiversity and are of cultural and social significance to the people. Capturing young elephants from the wild poses a further threat to their already precarious status as heavily endangered.
At international level, Sri Lanka has been in violation of binding obligations on the protection of elephants. In May 2012 the Sri Lanka Customs detected and seized a shipment of 359 elephant tusks, amounting to 1.5 tons of ivory and worth millions of dollars. This stock had reportedly originated in Kenya and was en route to Dubai. While the Customs was deservedly commended for this detection, the refusal of the Sri Lankan government to deal with the stock of ivory according to international law has invited equally well deserved criticism from several quarters.
Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora of 1972, commonly known as CITES, and has binding legal obligations under it. CITES seeks to regulate, and in some instances prohibits, the trade in species classified as endangered or facing threat of extinction. Both the African and Asian elephant have been classified as species threatened with extinction, and consequently the international trade in ivory was banned as far back as 1989 in order to protect them from being hunted for their tusks. Under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of Sri Lanka too it is illegal to trade in elephant tusks, or to have in one’s possession an unregistered tusk.
To date, the Sri Lankan authorities have not dealt with the stock of seized ivory as required by international law. They have neither returned the ivory to Kenya nor destroyed it. There is no information as to its current whereabouts. Given that these tusks represent the mass scale slaughter of hundreds of elephants, usually with extreme brutality, and international organized crime, it is ironic that they are reportedly intended as donations to Buddhist temples, hardly an appropriate destination.
In the last few years confiscated stockpiles of “blood ivory” have been publicly destroyed in several countries including the United States, China, France and Hong Kong to demonstrate their opposition to the illegal trade in ivory and the poaching of elephants. The Friday Forum calls upon the government to follow these best practices and take similar action to fulfil its legal and ethical obligations under CITES, and to either return the tusks to Kenya or publicly destroy them. Refusal to take such action will inevitably cast doubts on Sri Lanka’s commitments to biodiversity conservation and its age-old legacy of wildlife protection.