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
“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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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