Elephants on parade: cool or cruel?


Maligawa Tusker at Esala Perahera
Maligawa Tusker at Esala Perahera

By chance, my few days in Kandy in Sri Lanka happened to coincide with the annual Esala Perahera: a spectacular 20-day period of nightly parades which get progressively grander each night, culminating in the Pattini Perahera.

On this final night, I watched almost a hundred elephants and more than 2,000 dancers and acrobats parade past the temple, with the ‘caparisoned’ elephants cloaked in richly embroidered fabrics. The highlight is the mammoth Maligawa Tusker, who carries the sacred Buddha’s tooth relic in a golden casket on his back.

It was certainly an incredible event to watch, but there seemed something rather undignified about an elephant dressed up with fairy-lights down its trunk and a battery-pack around its neck. And seeing the chains around their ankles – especially on tiny elephants only a year or two old – made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

There are thought to be around 100 privately-owned elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka, often living at temples and regularly taking part in perahera processions such as this (that’s far fewer than previously; until taking elephants from the wild was banned, the number in captivity has fallen from more like 500). I saw this miserable looking young elephant at the Isipathanaramaya temple in Colombo:

Elephant at Colombo temple

There is Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage too, where – contrary to what the name suggests – elephants are now being born in captivity (and bathed and ridden by tourists for cash) instead of only being rescued from the wild. Sounds to me like commercial interest has got in the way of the original purpose of that particular orphanage, and I chose not to visit it.

It was interesting to meet a fellow Brit who has been volunteering at another elephant facility, the Millennium Elephant Foundation, to hear how things operate there. Tamsin Webb is the volunteer co-ordinator at the Foundation, and she says that while she doesn’t particularly agree with elephants in captivity either, the Millennium Foundation tries to ensure better living standards for “working” elephants by paying the elephant’s owner to let the foundation look after it in between peraheras. For her, she’d rather be working WITH the mahouts to discourage mistreatment of the animals.

Her bigger concern is in fact the captive elephants used to give rides to tourists. The heavy metal “howdah” put on the elephant’s back can weigh up to a tonne, she tells me, in addition to carrying up to six passengers. Rather like this one I spotted near Sigiriya:

Elephant ride in Sri Lanka

“People think that elephants are really strong, but their spine, where the howdah is placed, is not, and it’s damaging to put so much weight in that area,” she explains. The foundation is currently campaigning against the use of howdahs, suggesting that the kind of seating used in Thailand would be much lighter.

If you’re interested in visiting an elephant sanctuary of some sort in Sri Lanka, Millennium Elephant Foundation seems the more responsible operation than Pinnawela (though tourists can still ride the animals, bareback, and wash them). Even better still, visit the Elephant Transit Home by Udawalawe National Park: here, rescued elephants are kept with minimal human interaction, with many being successfully released back into the wild after a period of rehabilitation. Tourists can only see the elephants from a distance, and only at certain times of the day.

It’s unlikely that there’ll be an end of elephants in captivity any time soon in Sri Lanka. They represent thousands of years of religious tradition; Maligawa Raja, a former tusker that carried the sacred Tooth relic for 50 years, was so revered that a national day of mourning was declared when he died in 1987. Some tell me that most of the elephants used in peraheras have quite a nice life (though Born Free would disagree). And I know the chains and pointed stick used by the mahouts are not too far removed from the ropes, reigns and bit used to manipulate horses back home – they’re just designed to restrain a much stronger animal. But for me, the brightest fairy lights and most lavish costumes in the world can’t beat the thrill of seeing an elephant – unadorned – in the wild. Seen here at The Gathering in Minneriya – where I encountered more than 250 elephants in one afternoon (and not a tassel or sequin in sight…)

Minneriya elephant gathering Sri Lanka

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