By Christina Russo
Shermin de Silva, 33, is president of the Asian elephant conservation organization Trunks & Leaves. A post-doctoral student at Colorado State University, de Silva was born and raised in Sri Lanka and has returned regularly to Udawalawe National Park since 2005 to study its elephants, which she believes number some 1,200. Conservationists estimate that Sri Lanka is home to between 2,000 and 6,000 elephants in the wild.
Ominously, some calves in Udawalawe—and other parts of Sri Lanka—are facing a growing threat: kidnappers. The young elephants are being snatched for the captive trade market, including Sri Lanka’s tourist industry (see reference in this related analysis: An Assessment of Live Elephant Trade in Thailand). According to de Silva, the kidnappings are further undermining elephants in Sri Lanka, where they’re beleaguered by agricultural expansion, human population growth, and habitat destruction.
What do you know about the kidnappings at this time?
We’ve been aware of incidents over a period of three years at the very least. The earliest in our records was in 2011, which we reported to the wildlife authorities. According to other conservationists and some government officials, the figure is on the order of 50-60 calves in 2013, while others claim it’s over 100. But these might be under-counts.
The reason is that while some illegally captured animals may be reported, we often only detect capture attempts when they fail, such as when authorities intervene or when we find calves that have somehow escaped. The problem is extremely difficult to quantify—if captures actually are successful, animals will simply disappear. So it’s impossible to know how many are actually being taken. If the number is sufficiently high it might pose a real threat to the persistence of wild populations.
Who is behind the calf kidnappings?
What’s clear is that the calf snatchings aren’t being initiated at a local level, meaning it isn’t villagers just making the odd captures for profit. It’s at a higher level—people who are very well equipped, very wealthy and very powerful.
Elephants and farmers frequently have conflict, which is often portrayed as a serious problem at the local level. So one would think that the villagers would have high incentives to make money off the elephants if they could. What you see is that while that may occur sometimes, in this case the villagers are actually not the perpetrators. In fact, they’re the ones tipping off the authorities about the calf snatchings!
I find this very encouraging and important to highlight, because despite whatever issues may exist in Sri Lanka between elephants and people, local people ultimately favor protecting elephants.
Where are the kidnappings happening?
Udawalawe is one target. Minneriaya National Park is also renowned for elephant tourism, where the elephants congregate in the dry season, and those numbers might be comparable to the numbers here. Wherever elephants are found in large numbers is potentially a hot spot for captures.
Are certain calves coveted more than others?
The tuskers. The tuskers are always males, because only male Asian elephants have tusks. In Sri Lanka, however, most male elephants do not have tusks. They have reduced incisors, and the few that do have tusks are highly revered and protected. Tuskers are iconic animals here and extremely rare. In fact, we currently have only two reproductively mature males in the Udawalawe population carrying tusks. Tuskers continue to be highly desirable for festivities and cultural usages. Owning elephants, especially tuskers, is desired as a demonstration of status, so we know they’re targeted, and tusker calves are particularly at risk.
For instance, about a week and a half ago, we found a male calf, a young tusker, with rope scars around its feet. We’ve known this elephant since its birth; we know its family because they’re residents of Udawalawe. These elephants aren’t safe even within protected areas.
The calves are also targeted at a particular age—they need to be young enough to be more easily trained but old enough to be able to survive without their mothers. It’s not clear how they’re isolated from the rest of the herd—so far, we’ve thankfully not seen signs of injury or death among the mothers or other social companions of captured calves, at least in our study population. Regardless, the actual capture process seems to be highly planned in terms of equipment and expertise.
Why is it so rare for a bull to have tusks in Sri Lanka?
It might be because Sri Lanka is an island, and at some point there was a genetic bottleneck in the original founding population. But another possibility is that there has been strong selection, meaning that Sri Lankans over the years have captured tuskers and either used them locally or shipped them out, leaving fewer and fewer animals in the wild to pass on the trait.
They were historically shipped off as royal gifts. Elephants continue to be supplied to other countries for use in zoos. Even females, who don’t visibly display tusks, may contribute a genetic component, so their diversity is important as well. Since captive animals aren’t bred with wild populations, they don’t contribute to the genetic pool. So although we value the tuskers, this very fact contributes to their rarity.
Recently, a coalition of international wildlife conservation organizations wrote a letter to Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, requesting that he take urgent action to stop the capture of these wild elephants for Sri Lanka’s tourist industry.
Can you talk about this letter?
Yes. The letter was from several international NGOs expressing concerns about the captive elephant trade in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has had a unique relationship with elephants, which are revered and legally protected. I think many people in various local conservation groups appreciated this sign of solidarity from the international signatories voicing that the issue is of importance to the wider conservation community and that it isn’t just a local matter.
But on the other hand, because elephants occupy such an integral place in Sri Lankan culture and Buddhist tradition, it’s really important that whatever steps are taken to protect elephants also respect those aspects of culture. The only way to properly handle the initiative to protect elephants must come from within the Sri Lankan community itself.
How are elephants in Sri Lanka different from elephants in other Asian nations—like Thailand and India—culturally?
First, it’s important to recognize that Asian elephants have never been domesticated in any country—thus most of the elephants in captivity had wild origins. Few people, especially tourists, realize this.
The cultural association for elephants has a common origin in these three nations. In all the countries, the elephant is mythologized and has a central place in religion, like Hinduism in India or Buddhism in Thailand and Sri Lanka. It makes sense, of course, that a big powerful animal would hold this position. In all these countries, there is also a culture of people training them, owning them, and keeping them in captivity. However, the way different social strata relate to elephants differs by country.
In Sri Lanka, the traditional mahout culture has died out because it was a specific caste of people who did that. Originally, they were socially high ranked, but over time the job ceased to be passed down along family lines. Nowadays, it’s much more of an occupation than a social obligation, where the relationship between an individual elephant handler and an elephant may not be as deep. So the relationship between the captive elephant and the trainer or caretaker has changed a lot.
My understanding of Thailand is that there is still quite a pervasive mahout culture. I’m not sure how it works, but it appears that there is still a one-on-one relationship between an elephant and its keeper. So, if one is out of work, they both are.
As a consequence, you see an economic difference. You have the logging elephants in Thailand that were phased out, and the elephants lost their jobs, as did their mahouts. So you have the tourist attractions using elephants—elephant rides and so forth—that Thailand has become famous for, filling the vacuum. In Thailand, there are likely more elephants in captivity than in the wild.
Incidentally, the recent restrictions on logging in Burma may create a similar dynamic. The problem is that these new uses to which elephants are being put creates a dangerous economic incentive to continue capturing them from the wild. It’s possible that “camp” style tourism may end up being far more lucrative than logging ever was. Hence, rather than phasing out elephants in captivity, there is strong motivation to keep bringing them into it.
In Sri Lanka, there are only a few hundred [elephants\ in captivity. We don’t have this elephant camp phenomenon because we don’t have thousands of out of work elephants and out of work people taking care of them. Elephants have only been kept in a few contexts like temples. India has similarities to both Sri Lanka and Thailand in that elephants are associated with temples, cultural events, and camps. If it’s perceived that keeping elephants in captivity is profitable, surely it will be pursued to the detriment of our wild populations.
Now we’re seeing increasing affluence since the end of the war in Sri Lanka. With sources of new income, there’s a surge of wealth, and a fresh desire to own elephants as status symbols, and that’s driving a lot of the calf snatchings. More....