Nation Special


Her name is Asokamala. She is only nine years old. In a matter of days, she will be snatched away from her family, the environment she has been living in since the day she was born and sent to alien terrain. She would no longer know the warm comforts of the tropics, for her intended destination entertains long and freezing winters. The fate of this young female elephant now lies in the hands of the public, and only a mass outcry can prevent her impending doom. For Ravi Jayewardene, son of late J.R. Jayewardene and one of the leading animal rights activists, it is a big bother.

In an exclusive interview with The Nation he expressed his deep concern over the government’s insensitivity to the animal welfare.
“If the efforts of the lobbyists to prevent the transfer of Asokamala proved fruitless, the only option would be to take an injunction order from court against the transfer,” Jayewardene warned

By Vindya Amaranayake
In this age of gross human rights violations, the breach of animal rights has a tendency to be brushed under the carpet. In the aftermath of the furore over the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the country, The Nation learnt that Asokamala, a nine-year-old female elephant was about to be transferred to a zoo in Armenia.

Diplomatic gifting of animals is not a novel phenomenon in Sri Lanka or any other country. There have been many occasions where animals, especially elephants, were sent to countries such as Japan and China from Sri Lanka. Yet, this would be the first time a Sri Lankan elephant is being sent to Armenia.

“The conditions in Armenia are not conducive for a tropical animal such as the elephant,” said animal rights activist Ravi Jayewardene. Describing the cold and uncomfortable climes in Armenia, he added that if elephants were capable of surviving those conditions, there would already be elephants in Armenia.
Elephant behaviour is remarkably similar to that of humans. “They grow up in herds and female elephants spend their entire lifetime with their herd,” Jayewardene explained.

He noted that in such a backdrop, it would be difficult to assume that Asokamala would be able to ‘make friends’ with the elephant that is already within the confines of the Armenian Zoo.
The transportation of the animal is usually done by air or sea, where the animal is subjected to an extremely traumatising experience. Jayewardene urged that a mass public outcry is the only recourse to prevent the elephant from being subjected to such a dreadful fate.

If the efforts of the lobbyists proved fruitless, he said, the only option would be to take an injunction order from court against the transfer.
Interestingly, upon his inquiry from President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Jayewardene had been informed that the President was not endorsing the gift of Asokamala to Armenia, but his Ministers were rather keen on the idea.
Interestingly, one need not gaze beyond our giant neighbour India to learn how state leaders could take a more pivotal role in matters of such importance as these.

Veda’s story
Veda had a fate similar to Asokamala. In 1999, then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered a gift to Armenian President Robert Kockaryan. It was a six-year-old female elephant, named Veda. She was to be removed from her familiar environs and family in Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bangalore and sent to Yerevan Zoo in Armenia.
Faced with vehement protests from the public and the Born Free Foundation, the Central Zoo Authority of India issued a directive in May 2005 to the effect that the practice of gifting animals by the state and heads of state should be terminated with immediate effect.

It was the staunch efforts by the animal rights activists and the public in general that prevented misfortune befalling Veda. With the blessing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India not only prevented the transfer of Veda to Armenia but pledged to stop using animals as diplomatic gifts.

The Yerevan Zoo
One of the main reasons for the protest over Veda’s transfer, and now Asokamala’s, is the uninhabitable conditions at the Yerevan Zoo. Karine Poghosyan of Animals’ Rights in Armenian Highlands (ARIAH) has stated her worries over the conditions at the Zoo after she had paid a visit there. She said: “The zoo, which is government controlled, is run down and the poor animals are not living well at all. Many of the animals are clearly sick and malnourished. All the animals stand and sleep on concrete or asphalt, which are in turn covered in their own faeces.”
During winter the temperature in Armenia drops below -10°C. It is learnt that the elephants that were transferred to this zoo before have met with tragic ends due to unfortunate causes.
In the early 70s, one elephant was shot dead when it escaped from its enclosure and another died when it slipped on ice and fell. It was believed that this elephant was suffering from malnutrition and hypothermia. Another elephant had been housed in solitary confinement.
It is also learnt that since there are no affiliations between the Yerevan Zoo and other accepted European zoo associations or federations, it does not adhere to any international rules or regulations.

CITES certificates
Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and acceded and entered the Convention into force in 1979.
The Convention is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of IUCN (The World Conservation Union). It is also an international agreement to which states adhere to voluntarily.
CITES is legally binding on the parties and it provides a framework to be respected by each party, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.
It is believed that Sri Lanka is yet to obtain the CITES certificate required before the transfer of Asokamala.
On the other hand, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1938 specifies the restrictions on transfer of animals to other countries, despite which specification, diplomatic exchange of animals has been continuing for a long period of time.

Elephant culture
History and tradition in Sri Lanka show that the Sri Lankan culture has always had close ties with elephants. More than being a cultural symbol, the presence of elephants in the lives of Sri Lankans indicates the compassion and nature of tolerance of the people of this country.
However, the way elephants are treated at present is evident enough of the people’s deviation from that compassionate and tolerant nature. “Elephants are treated very badly. Even at the zoo, they are tortured and made to learn various tricks to be performed at the open air theatre,” Jayewardene noted.


Minister refutes

While the environmentalists are engaged in vehement protests over the transfer of Asokamala, Sports and Public Recreation Minister Gamini Lokuge, under whose authority the transfer is being planned, has already obtained Cabinet approval for the transfer.

When The Nation queried, the Minister admitted that he had already received the approval days ago and was now awaiting the report on the conditions of the zoo.
“In spite of the belief of many, we are not trying to put this elephant’s life in danger. We have sent elephants to China and Japan recently and we have made sure that the environment conditions in those countries were not adverse to the wellbeing of the animals before we sent them,” the Minister said, countering the argument of the environmentalists.
He added that it would be the same in Asokamala’s case.

He added that if the animal was to be sent at all, it would be done after a proper investigation of the conditions at the zoo. “We have already requested a comprehensive report on the conditions from their foreign minister,” he added.
However, serious questions are raised as to how the minister could have obtained cabinet approval prior to receiving details of the conditions of the zoo.

“We have still not decided on a day to transfer the elephant to Armenia,” he said.
Minister Lokuge confirmed that the animal was currently at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and would be transferred to the Dehiwala Zoo prior to her departure for Armenia, once the report reached the authorities.

Sathva Mithra view
“Is it not a shame that in Sri Lanka, which boasts of compassion to all beings, the cabinet of ministers should descend to sacrificing an animal?” Queried Sathva Mithra President Sagarica Rajakarunanayake.
Expressing her view to The Nation, she said, “Why, despite serious warnings by humanitarian organisations, based on researched facts of the unsuitable conditions in Armenia and the Yerevan Zoo for the survival of a Sri Lankan elephant in Armenia, should the cabinet approve the transfer of this elephant, from the warm tropical country of its birth to the extreme cold clime of Armenia, to a life of physical and psychological suffering and almost certain death, to consolidate bilateral friendly relations between the two countries?”

By remaining silent on objections that have been raised about the unsuitable conditions in Armenia for the elephant, Sports and Recreation Minister Lokuge has shown obvious pleasure about plans for a glorious national ceremony in Armenia to receive the elephant and has decided to participate in it, she pointed out.

“The nation is supposed to take pride in the ceremonial welcome to the Minister and VIPs (and their wives?) when gifting the elephant. What is the pride or pleasure for the people of this country, agonising over the fate of our elephant population and its suffering and destruction, having to watch this hapless elephant lost without its family and home in Pinnawela, being paraded in chains on the streets of Armenia, from where it will be taken to the prison of a shelter to spend the rest of its days suffering in the severe cold?” she queried.

Rajakarunanayake went on to say, “It is regrettable that the entire cabinet has failed to pay heed to the Mahinda Chinthana, where the President affirms that his policy for environmental conservation is based on the sermon of Arahat Mahinda. In the Mahinda Chinthana, the President has clearly pledged, ‘Our biodiversity is among the world’s heritage. I will not let it be alienated.’