Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Young Wild Elephants To Be Captured For A Life In Captivity?

Update - 22nd September 2011

Prior to the national elephant census on 11-13 August there was great uproar at the suggestion that the survey was being used to identify young animals (especially those with tusks) that could be captured for training and use in temples (and possibly other captive situations). On 2nd September the preliminary results of the survey were announced – a population estimate of just over 5, 800 including juveniles and infants. At that event the Minister also made a statement that no elephants would be captured from the wild for temples or other captive purposes.

This was great news, and shows that the pressure from inside and outside Sri Lanka had some impact on government policy. There can be no guarantee that this decision will not, at some point, be reversed again, but for now it seems that this particular threat to the country’s wild elephants has been lifted.

However, the Minister went on to say that elephants could be provided to temples from elsewhere, and specifically mentioned the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe as one possible source. The ETH is a government institution which rescues orphaned wild elephants, rehabilitates them and then returns them to a life in the wild. Because of this progressive agenda, Born Free has supported the ETH since 2002, providing buildings, vehicles and equipment. Naturally we were shocked and dismayed to hear that individuals might be taken from this programme – through which they would ultimately live their lives in the jungle – and trained for a life in captivity.

We have written to the Minister to express our concern, and to explain that if such a transfer happened it would seriously impact on our relationship with the ETH project. Subsequent news reports, including an interview with the Director General of Wildlife, have not mentioned the ETH as a possible source for captive animals, and we hope this means that this plan will not be put into action. We are currently seeking clarification, and will do everything we can to ensure that the animals at the ETH all have the opportunity to return to the wild where they belong.

Anyone who wishes to take action is advised to write a polite letter to their Sri Lankan Embassy / High Commission.

Background and take action

Ask the Sri Lankan authorities not to undertake programme of capture and training for religious festivals.

On 8th August 2011, Sri Lankan Wildlife Minister, Mr S.M. Chandrasena told a press conference that during the upcoming survey of wild elephants, strong young calves would be identified for capture, to be "donated" to temples for use in festivals. "Sometime back there were more than 300 tamed elephants in the country” he said, “and the number has now dwindled to around 150 of which only a few are tuskers suitable forpageants."

Following this announcement at least 30 local conservation organisations have condemned the remarks. Conservationist Ajantha Palihawadana said such captures would interfere with nature by removing some of the best genetic stock from the elephant population, especially if elephants with tusks were being specifically selected as such individuals are relatively rare. Many are also very worried about the welfare of the elephants subjected to the trauma of capture and training, and spending the rest of their lives in captivity.

Elephant - Photo David Jay/BFF
This emaciated female elephant was observed at the Kandy Perahera – a religious festival – in 2009

The Minister asserted that it was the government’s responsibility to preserve the country’s traditions, and he condemned some NGOs who were opposed to this project saying that they were acting to destroy them. Sri Lanka has an ancient culture with many sacred traditions, most of which we are very happy to see preserved. However, ancient traditions from cultures all over the world are being reassessed with our modern understanding of ethics and morality, and we do not believe that cruelty to animals can be excused by labelling it ‘traditional’.

Sri Lanka has a great tradition of protecting wildlife, with Arahat Mahinda Thera, the monk who converted the country to Buddhism, a religion based on compassion, recorded as preaching to King Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd Century BC that all animals have a right to live in the land wherever they may want. Elephants in Sri Lanka are already under pressure from loss of habitat and conflict with expanding agriculture; capture for private ownership must be avoided at all costs.

Photo - BFF
This tusker was observed chained outside a temple, with severe chain wounds

Following the extensive media coverage and outrage from civil society, Minister Chandrasena has since retracted his comments, and the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation has reassured the press that the census was not intended as a preparation for capture and training. However, the statement still leaves concerns that the government intends to capture and train wild elephants, possibly in substantial numbers, in the near future.

The results of the much awaited census on the weekend of 13th August are expected to be released soon, and there is further concern that a high population estimate could be used to support claims that animals need to be removed. Many international experts, including the co-chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Asian Elephant Specialist Group, have expressed criticisms of the survey method used, casting doubt on the scientific validity of the results. There is also a lack of consensus over what would be ‘too many’ elephants for the island nation, and on what would be an appropriate way to manage the population if it were unacceptably large.

Another local expert said that many people were puzzled by the choice of consultants and sponsors on the project. These include employees of, and academics associated with, a facility in the USA which provides elephants for circuses.

Wild juvenile elephants - Photo BFF
Is the census a mask for the capture of wild infant elephants?


Born Free has been supporting the conservation and welfare of elephants in Sri Lanka since 2002. We want the national authorities to carefully consider all the implications of a capture and training programme before they make a decision about whether to proceed. We also want to make them aware of the international reaction to this potential action. In particular we want them to understand how people around the world, who have great respect for Sri Lanka and its traditions, could have their opinion of the country adversely affected by the news of elephants being captured from the wild to be held in private ownership and used in religious festivals. Obviously the effect on potential tourists to Sri Lanka would be of especial relevance.

Born Free is urging anyone who is concerned about the prospect of wild elephant captures for training and captive use, to politely let the authorities know how they feel. We suggest that, if this is your reaction, you write a clear, calm and respectful letter to the Sri Lankan government mission in your country, a list of which can be found here (

If you wish, express your appreciation for the ancient cultures still to be found in Sri Lanka but only those that do not involve cruelty and suffering to animals or people. Point out that, with our current knowledge and understanding of elephant social behaviour, intelligence, emotion and their capacity for mental stress, the capture of elephants from the wild, the training procedures involved, and a life-time of captivity, would inflict great suffering on the elephants. Urge the representative to pass on to the government and President of Sri Lanka your distress at the prospect of any wild elephants being captured and used in this way.

For those in the UK please send your letter to:

Mr P M Amza, Acting High Commissioner
High Commission of Sri Lanka
No.13, Hyde Park Gardens
London W2 2LU
United Kingdom.

Sri Lankan Elephant Kapila
Kapila, who was 17, died within a month of this photo being taken at the Kandy Perahera.
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

Share | |