Sri Lanka conservationists fight elephant smuggling in court

Bharatha Mallawarachi

COLOMBO (AP) — Environmentalists in Sri Lanka are challenging a court order issued earlier this month that would allow the return of 14 illegally captured wild elephants to people accused of buying them from traffickers.

Rights groups and lawyers say the September 6 court order is based on a government decree that violates Sri Lankan environmental laws. They fear the order could encourage a resurgence of trafficking of wild elephants, putting them at risk.

On Thursday, the same magistrate court in the capital Colombo refused to reverse the order to release the elephants, said lawyer Ravindranath Dabare, who filed the motion. He said they would now go to higher courts.

Elephants are revered because they have been an essential part of religious and cultural festivals in Sri Lanka for many centuries.

An elephant in the backyard has also long been a sign of wealth, power and privilege. Though capturing wild elephants has been banned for decades, government records indicate there are 219 elephants in captivity — 132 held by private owners and the rest under the care of the government.

An elephant sprays water at a suburb in Colombo. PHOTO: AP

The illegal capture of baby elephants dates to at least 2007. But things boiled over in 2015, when wildlife officials seized 38 baby elephants that were allegedly caught in the wild and sold to affluent people, including a monk and a judge.

Six years later, the issue is back in the news after a court in Colombo ordered the return of 14 of the elephants to their alleged owners. The order is based on a government decree in August that provides guidelines on how to register elephants as pets, deploy them for work and religious festivals, and provide food and safety for the animals. Activists fear it threatens the elephants’ well-being, and experts have said the decree weakens legal recourse in the event of animal abuse.

The court ruling last week came after lawyer Ajith Pathirana, who represented the elephant owners, requested the court to release them. He said the government — through the decree — allows the owners to register their animals within three months.

Conservationist Rukshan Jayawardene said the order will lead to a revival of trafficking. “Elephants are going to be captured again, the same way they were captured previously,” he said.

Environment activist Sajeewa Chamikara said the decree came on the heels of years of pressure on the government by elephant owners to implement a method to register the animals that were captured illegally.

Under the previous regulations, owners had to submit the pedigree of the elephant to register it with the wildlife department, said Chamikara. But the new regulations bypass this, allowing owners to register elephants without proof of pedigree, which will allow them to give legal status even to those that may have been captured illegally, he added.

Authorities have rejected the criticism, saying the regulations follow the law.