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Some findings on Perahera elephants at Kandy, 2008/09

Whilst there are currently very few ‘working’ elephants in Sri Lanka, except for those used to carry tourists on ‘elephant back safaris’, there is a strong demand for elephants to take part in Buddhist religious processions known as Peraheras. These take place annually at many different temples around the island, and are probably considered by many Sri Lankans to be the primary reason why it is important to maintain the keeping of elephants in captivity. In 2008 and 2009 Dr Deepani Jayantha took part in an informal assessment of the welfare of some of the animals in the country’s largest Perahera, and produced this report.

“Perahera (pageants) at Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka is an age old tradition and is of cultural significance too. Elephant is a key component in pageants to add glamour. Perahera at the Temple of Tooth Relic, Kandy is the peak of its kind held annually. We discuss some welfare aspects of perahera elephants at Kandy observed in 2008/09 seasons.

Currently about 70 privately owned elephants participate in Kandy perahera. Single animals are chained in temple premises during the day and sent in perahera during the night. They get limited access to water and are fed with less varied food. The animals are dressed for the pageant in the early evening.  Perahera usually runs from evening to just beyond midnight. After that, animals are bathed (not every animal) and chained with food supplied. This routine takes place for up to 10 days in a row in a single perahera season at Kandy. It’s clear that the animals don’t get enough rest and sleep throughout the season.

Nineteen males and fifteen females were evaluated for their Body Condition Index (Krishnamoorthy Index) in 2008 and the average was 9.28 while it varied from 0 to 11.0. In 2009, one sub adult with BCI 1.0 died after participating in several pageants. More than ninety percent of the animals had chain cut wounds of various clinical stages. Animals are supposed to be examined by qualified veterinarians before sending in perahera. Musth animals are always excluded. Several approaching musth and early musth animals were observed in Kandy to have swollen legs and difficulty in walking. It is suspected mahouts had jabbed at sensitive points of animals’ legs to make them better controlled during perahera. Fourty-two animals were sent in perahera with hobbles in 2008. Many animals showed stereotypy and were nervous while parading.

Captive elephants are an emerging welfare issue in Sri Lanka and many such incidents were reported in the last couple of months. Captive elephant owners in Sri Lanka are legally bound to manage the animals at optimum conditions under state supervision, which doesn’t happen always. We conclude state regulated captive elephant legislations must be strongly considered.”

During the August 2009 study the team observed an 18 year old male elephant named Kapila who demonstrated inadequate growth and possible signs of a long lasting wasting disease that can result from inadequate care, especially as a juvenile. Kapila was cared for by Walpola Wimalaratanaramaya temple, having being gifted to the temple from Pinnawela 5-10 years previously, and they had sent him out to take part in the Perahera. Less than a month after this observation it was reported that Kapila had died – allegedly of malnutrition – at a private facility where he was being kept and possibly also worked.

This emaciated female was still being used in the Kandy Perahera
This emaciated female was still being used in the Kandy Perahera
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