Report on illegal capture, trade of wild elephants

Corruption of some wildlife officers and undue political and other interference are major challenges to overcome the illegal capture and domestic trade of wild elephants in Sri Lanka, a recent study has highlighted.

The Research paper titled “Illegal capture and internal trade of wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Sri Lanka” was published on November 3 in the ‘Nature Conservation’ Journal.

 For the first time, the research has documented the wild elephants illegally captured and traded in Sri Lanka between January 2008 and December 2018.

The research team included Supun Lahiru Prakash from the Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle, Upul Indrajith and A. M. C. P. Atthanayake from the Wildlife Conservation Department, Suranjan Karunarathna from the Nature Explorations and Edu­cation Team, Madhava Botejue from the Biodiversity Conservation Society, Vincent Nijman from the Oxford University Social Sciences Department, and Sujan Henkanaththegedara from the USA Longwood University Biological and Environmental Sciences Department.

“We documented 55 cases where elephants were illegally traded. This is probably an underestimate due to the mortality rate of elephants during capture operations, and challenges in collecting data on this highly organized illicit trade. More than 50 per cent of them were juveniles. Significantly, more elephants were found to be seized in 2014 and 2015 than in the other time periods combined. We found evidence of the illegal capture of wild elephants from wildlife protected areas and state forests.

“More importantly, we identified evidence of corruption of wildlife officers, involvement of politicians and other high-ranking personnel in the illegal wildlife trade, and lack of active enforcement of wildlife law as major challenges to overcome if the illegal capture and domestic trade of wild elephants in Sri Lanka are to be halted. Based on our study, we make a series of recommendations, and we expect this information to be used in implementing policy to reduce the trafficking of Asian elephants and conservation management of the species,” the Abstract of the Research paper said.

The research team, citing another research paper published in 2015, observed that the last elephant birth in captivity was recorded in 1994. “However, the report submitted to the Magistrate’s Court by the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) Director Gen­eral on July 9, 2015 stated that 37 applications had been submitted for registration of elephant calves born in captivity during the period of 2000 to 2015. This raises a serious suspicion about the origin of these 37 elephant calves,” the report said.

The study also revealed that certain wildlife officers had aided fraudulent registration of elephants.

“To facilitate the fraudulent registrations and is­sues of licensing, certain corrupt officers at DWC have maintained files without el­ephants and files where elephants have been reported dead without closing or revoking the said files,” the Research Paper observed.

It said the Auditor General’s Department was also conducting investigation on the fraudulent registration of elephants by tendering false and forged documents. “Original entries were erased and new entries were typed over these erasures. Photo­graphs of elephants in the older files have been removed and these were replaced by new photographs of other elephants.

“The applications made in 2012, 2013, and 2014 were backdated to dates in 2008 with the involvement of the DWC officers. This may explain the reason behind the significant difference between the reported age of elephants based on registration documents and the age estimated by veterinarians,” it added.

Based on their findings, the research team said that there was evidence of the transportation of elephants from the wild by jeeps and vans with tinted windows. “Container trucks were also used for calves and juveniles. Certain famous figures in the society, including busi­nessmen, politicians, monks, government officers, magistrates, tourism entrepreneurs, had allegedly participated in the live elephant trade in Sri Lanka,” the report stated.

Giving a series of recommendations, the Research Team urged the relevant authorities to speed up the judiciary process against the offenders who smuggled the elephants from the wild for trade purposes.

“In the intermediate term, we urge the enactment of a national policy on cap­tive elephants. This should lead to a limit on the use of captive elephants for cultural, religious, and tourism purposes. As part of this, we urge the authorities to adopt the standardized captive elephant registration proto­cols which include DNA registration, monitoring captive populations, disease management, and training and capacity building of staff and mahouts,” it added.

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