By Waruni Karunarathne
Investigations are underway over many individuals who had been keeping elephants illegally in their possession, yet similar incidents continue to surface. There have been serious allegations directed at some individuals for capturing elephant calves and keeping them in their possession with bogus registration documents. Ongoing raids and persecution on illegal possession of elephants have also raised agitation among some sets of monks, who protested the raids on the grounds that there would not be any elephant left for processions if this continues. This has raised a lot of eyebrows among animal rights activists. Pubudu Weeraratne of the Species Conservation Centre told The Sunday Leader that they are aware of about 60 cases of unlawful possession of baby elephants where there are fraudulent registrations and forged licences.
“However, in several of these instances, we have not been satisfied with the approach of the Department of Wildlife Conservation which is the authority that should take action to inquire into such incidents and decide whether to prosecute the suspects. We have therefore given statements to the Attorney General’s Department and the CID and these departments are acting on statements made by Deputy Minister Vasantha Senanayake as well as our statements,” he said. Weeraratne noted that there is immense pressure at political and other levels, to halt the raids to protect some of the alleged high profile offenders. However he added that despite these pressures, the prosecutions and investigations are continuing.
“We are also aware that at a political level, an attempt is being made to give an amnesty to those keeping elephants unlawfully, to enable them to register the elephants within a certain period so as to prevent them being taken to court. At the moment there are 10 cases pending before the Magistrate’s Courts. Further, in the public interest, four conservation and animal welfare organizations, namely the Species Conservation Centre, the Galle Wildlife Conservation Society, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society and the International Animal Welfare Trust have filed two writ applications in the Court of Appeal in regard to 10 elephants alleged to be in unlawful possession, the main relief sought from court being the issue of directives to the wildlife authorities to investigate these cases, take these elephants into their custody and prosecute the alleged offenders,” Weeraratne stated.
He explained that under the FFPO, the minimum fine for keeping an elephant without registration and licence is Rs.100,000, but the law empowers the court to extend the amount up to Rs.200,000 – the jail term for this offence is 2 years which can extend up to 5 years. According to him, for unlawful possession of an elephant, the fine is the same, but the jail term is enhanced – the minimum is 10 years and the maximum is 20 years.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Attorney at Law and Animal Rights Activist Lalani Perera explained the legal background if any person or organization is to keep an elephant in their possession. “The relevant law is the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). According to section 22A, every person who owns or has custody of an elephant is required to register the elephant with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and obtain a licence for such elephant, annually. In the case of a registered she-elephant, an amendment introduced in 2009 requires the owner or person having her custody to inform the Director General, DWLC of any pregnancy (together with details of the sire), or a birth or miscarriage or stillbirth within seven days of its occurrence,” she added. According to her, the death of an elephant is required to be reported before the remains are buried. Perera further elaborated that elephants not registered are presumed to be taken from the wild without lawful authority and are deemed to be public property, thus restricting the grant of bail to the alleged offender.
With reference to ensuring well-being of the elephants in custody, Perera added that at the moment there are no conditions attached to certificates of registration or licences to keep elephants which will ensure the welfare of the animal. According to her, in issuing these certificates and licences, the only conditions now applicable are that the certificate or licence cannot be transferred, they shall be carried when the elephant is being transported and that their loss or theft should be notified to the authorities forthwith. She noted that it is essential to set out by law, at least minimum standards pertaining to welfare, to be adhered by those to whom licences are issued.
“The Animal Welfare Trust, consequent to a case filed by the Trust in the Court of Appeal in 2009, submitted comprehensive recommendations to the DWLC to address this welfare aspect. The recommendations include those relating to enclosures, diet, health, baths, exercise, rest hours, duties of owners and mahouts, transport, training, use for various activities such as pageants and entertainment purposes, restrictions on tethering and the use of sharp instruments for control and DNA testing. These recommendations are currently being finalized by the DWLC in consultation with the Attorney General’s Department and we hope that they will be gazetted soon as Regulations under the FFPO,” Perera said. According to her, once in force, the Regulations will apply not only to elephants in private ownership, but also to those in government institutions, such as the Zoological Gardens.
It is well known that elephants have been subject to cruelty and neglect at the hands of some private owners, including those kept in some temples. Perera said that it is very unfortunate that certain groups, including some in saffron robes are accusing conservationists and animal rights activists of attempting to destroy Buddhism and culture. “Their argument is that if the on going raids and prosecutions continue there will be no elephants to participate in peraheras (processions). This in essence would mean – let the law be violated, let the cruelty continue. This is absurd. These groups have chosen to misinterpret our objective. We have nothing against peraheras. We are acting only in the interest of the elephants, to prevent them being abused, exploited and cruelly treated and to ensure that those who break the law are brought before the courts. Elephants can always be made available for peraheras from Pinnawela,” she said.
Perera also noted that those who accuse activists are in fact protecting errant elephant owners and sadly some of them are persons who would have at some time or other, dedicated their lives to spread the teachings of the Buddha, the Compassionate One. Therefore, she said that it is strange that they speak on behalf of persons who are cruel to animals. “There is a monk who says that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance should not apply to elephants since its applicability will affect the training of elephants for peraheras. Often, severe cruelty is inflicted on elephants when being trained,” she explained. Perera questioned whether this is what the Buddha taught? More....