Anger as Sri Lanka court returns elephants to suspected traffickers | Environment News


Colombia, Sri Lanka – In a controversial order widely criticized by conservationists, a Sri Lankan court upheld an earlier ruling to allow the return of 14 elephants in government custody to suspected traffickers who captured them or to people accused of having bought the animals from them.

Thursday’s ruling by additional magistrate S Prabakaran was “absolutely arbitrary and the rule of law has been completely ignored,” Aruna Medagoda, lawyer for the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, told Al Jazeera.

“The court did not grant the parties the right to be heard, which is against the law and case law,” Medagoda said.

The court was considering petitions from prominent Sri Lankan environmentalists and animal rights groups who challenged a September 6 order from the same court that allowed elephants to be returned to suspected traffickers.

An elephant, named Kandula, sprays water in a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka [Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo]

The elephants are among a group of 39 jumbos placed in government custody as evidence in large-scale elephant trafficking investigations between 2010 and 2015.

The traffickers and the people who bought the animals from them have been accused of capturing baby elephants in national parks and smuggling them out in the backs of vehicles. In many cases, mothers have been killed to capture their calves.

Environmentalists have argued that the elephants belong to the state and therefore should remain in government custody. They said they would now go to higher courts.

On August 19, the government released new regulations, signed by Minister of State for Wildlife Protection, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, which critics say “legalize” animals illegally captured from the wild.

The regulations set out rules forcing “owners” to register their elephants and set out the conditions under which they can be used for business and tourism. Previously, they were only allowed to participate in religious parades, known locally as “peraheras”.

Environmentalists allege that the September 6 court order, based on government regulations, violates Sri Lanka’s environmental laws and fear it could lead to increased trafficking in wild elephants.

“The sections on records were included only to record illegal elephants,” Sumith Pilapitiya, former senior environmental specialist at the World Bank and former head of the country’s wildlife department, told Al Jazeera.

Environmental scientist Prithiviraj Fernando echoed the same sentiments.

“If the cases were heard and if it was proven that these elephants were acquired legally, then there is absolutely no problem in releasing them and registering them,” he said.

“But of course they were taken into custody on the assumption that they had been illegally captured. So now if you allow their registration, doesn’t that mean you can illegally capture elephants? “

Commenting on the matter, Dissanayake told Al Jazeera that elephant owners must be required to prove that they have acquired animals in a “fair manner”.

“Some of these elephants may be illegal, I do not deny that,” the minister said, adding: “I say there must be changes [to regulations] … Let’s say, first, how the elephant was acquired – whether it was fair and equitable… it has to be proven.

Mahout Nishanth relaxes with a tame elephant, Suddi, who has been released from government custody following a court order, in Pannipitiya, a suburb of Colombo [Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo]

A day after the court order of September 6, Ishini Wickramasinghe, director general of the zoological department of Sri Lanka, resigned in protest against the order to return the animals to people from whom they were withdrawn by the government.

In a social media post, she opened up about the animals she had known for years and why their release was wrong.

“Sri Devi is a very loving and loving elephant… I was powerless to protect her and other forcibly taken elephants… What cruelty is to deprive their freedom for one’s individual interests?” she wrote on Facebook.

Video clips and photographs of some of the animals forced into trucks as a result of the order drew angry reactions from people.

“OMG! Heartbreaking,” one wrote. “Bad people,” said another.

“May all those in charge reincarnate as elephants at their next birth and receive the same treatment,” one comment said.

Buddhists, who make up 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, regard elephants as sacred and own them as prestigious.

Official data shows that around 100 elephants are in private hands, while around 150 are in government-run centers.

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