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Q&A: Elephant Conservation Challenges in Sri Lanka—A Conversation With Shermin de Silva

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...

Elephant researcher Shermin de Silva in Udawalawe National Park​, Sri Lanka​. Photograph by Elizabeth Webber

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.

This year-old calf shows a rope trailing on his leg. He's presumed to be the ​first known ​victim of an attempted kidnapping within Udawalawe National Park.​ Photograph courtesy Udawalawe Elephant Research Project
This year-old calf shows a rope trailing on his leg. He’s presumed to be the ​first known ​victim of an attempted kidnapping within Udawalawe National Park.​ Photograph courtesy Udawalawe Elephant Research Project

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.

A calf we have known since birth and is now six years old. He was seen with what appeared to be distinctive scars from ropes around his legs. This represents a failed capture attempt, but tusker calves like him will be at high risk until they are old enough to be unsuitable targets. Photograph courtesy Udawalawe Elephant Research Project
Tuskers like T458, six, who lives in the part, are at high risk from snatchings. The distinctive scars from ropes around his legs likely
represent a failed kidnapping attempt. Photograph courtesy Udawalawe Elephant Research Project

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.

Elephants in Udawalawe National Park. Photograph by Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project
Elephants in Udawalawe National Park. Photograph by Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project

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.

What is being done officially to combat this problem?

In Sri Lanka, we’re supposed to have an official registry of captive elephants.  The authorities are inconsistent about what happened to this registry since 2011, and there hasn’t been a protocol established since then. Without a system in place firmly regulating the captive elephant population, a golden opportunity has arisen to capitalize on capturing new animals.

So we need to establish a protocol that will prosecute those keeping animals with falsified documents. Part of the problem is that the relevant authorities have been under pressure from various groups that require elephants for their activities, and as a result, progress to rectify the issue has been slow. Since it’s already illegal to capture elephants from the wild, the challenge lies with enforcement.

Who is allowed to keep elephants in Sri Lanka?

Certain institutions—like the zoo, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage that’s run by the zoo, or temples—are allowed to have elephants. We have festival processions in Sri Lanka called “Peraheras” that are a big part of the country’s history, and elephants are a central to these. For example, elephants carry caskets and one—a tusker—carries the tooth relic of the Buddha himself. This is a very special job and it goes to the best of the best elephants here in captivity.  Although older experienced animals perform this task, one frequently sees younger animals in processions, who are being habituated and trained for such work. For temples, the possession of elephants is also related to status and rank.

So we now have a situation that’s a little contradictory. On the one hand, elephants are required for certain time-honored traditions, and on the other there’s no legal framework enabling the tradition to continue because today the capture of wild elephants is outright forbidden. Yet a captive-born animal may be permissible under certain circumstances. So long as this contradiction exists, it will fuel wild capture.

What should take place to address this?

What’s needed is for authorities—whether governmental agencies or ministries—to set up some kind of body that is specifically responsible for the management of captive elephants, including their welfare and devising a reasonable mechanism for maintaining them. We’re going to have elephants in captivity at least for some time because the practice cannot be halted overnight.

Currently, the management of elephants as well as all other wildlife falls within the mandate of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. But this agency can only work within the boundaries of the law, so they’re in a bind. They struggle valiantly to enforce existing laws but in the end do not have the capacity to eliminate the source of the contradiction—which is that some number of elephants are both desired and permitted in captivity. As there is no political will to alter this state of affairs, wrongdoers are seldom prosecuted.

If we’re going to have elephants in captivity at all, they should either be captive-bred, or those who can’t be released because they’re injured. This is what most conservationists want. The other option is to take some negligible fraction from the wild. If so, it would be preferable to have a strict quota for the number of elephants permitted to be in captivity and transparency in the manner in which they’re obtained.

The problem with this is setting and enforcing a quota by which wild populations are not severely impacted. If pursuing that avenue, we would need one sole authority in charge of doing that and which was strictly responsible for obtaining the animals in the first place. Not private individuals but an authority that has a clear mandate for the oversight of captive elephants and [for setting] clear limits on the head count.

Since elephants are long-lived, captures should by no means be an annual occurrence. All of these things should be considered by the conservation community alongside religious leaders and government representatives, who should come together to devise with a workable solution with an interest in actually addressing the root issues. In practice, agreement will be difficult to reach among such diverse groups, but it’s necessary.

How does the capture of wild Asian elephants fit into the various other threats these animals face?

Internationally, the capture of elephants from the wild only adds to a slew of other conservation challenges facing Asian elephants, which include habitat loss and ivory poaching. In terms of regulatory or monitoring programs, we’re completely failed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants).

These mainly concern the movement of animals or animal parts across borders, while there are no provisions impacting practices within national boundaries. With Asian elephants, any focus in mortalities alone completely misses the mark, since deaths are difficult to detect in the first place.

And as with all international agreements, it’s unclear what recourse there is when countries fail to live up to the binding commitments they themselves make. The protection of elephants and indeed biodiversity therefore does not seem adequately conducted from the top down.

The best hope for elephants is a change in the attitudes of individuals as much as cultures. The question is whether this will happen in time.

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Meet the Author

Christina Russo
Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.