Animal rights activists across the country were dismayed this week after the Government announced that it was overturning a ban placed on the adopting of baby elephants. Drawing further ire of the activists was the revelation that an elephant would now cost Rs. 10 million, while temples would be able to adopt them for free. This, unsurprisingly, despite government assurances that strict conditions would be put in place to ensure the animals’ welfare, brought forth accusations that the Government was merely selling the animals to gain revenue.
The decision to overturn the ban comes as a bit of a surprise as it was initially put in place to stop wealthy Sri Lankans from keeping the animals at their houses – something considered by many as a status symbol, but decried universally by animal rights activists. Government Spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne confirmed that the Cabinet decision had come out of concerns that the ban was resulting in a lack of tame elephants which could be used in Buddhist cultural pageants.
Now this, of course, is something of a contentious topic in the primarily Buddhist country of Sri Lanka with many activists tending to tread on eggshells so as to not offend cultural and religious sensitivities. It’s high-time however that his tiptoeing around the subject comes to an end.
As any fifth grader will tell you, in Buddhism, the first of the five precepts is not limited to taking a life. It extends to not causing bodily harm in any way, shape or form to any living being. In fact, the entire philosophy of Buddhism is built around compassion and loving kindness to all. In this context, the practice of using captured and ‘domesticated’ elephants as pageantry in the name of Buddhism goes against the very essence of what is undoubtedly the most compassionate religion in world history. Why then do we, as a predominantly Buddhist society, continue to indulge in this cruel practice?
The answer, as is often the case with such matters, is complicated. One school of thought is that it is more cultural than it is religious – in that it is intertwined with the Sinhala-Buddhist identity of the country. Many make the argument that anyone who eats meat, thereby directly contributing to the slaughter of millions of animals every year, cannot oppose this practice without being hypocritical. However, the two are not mutually exclusive; one can consume the meat of animals bred for food and still oppose the abuse of wild animals being chained up and literally masqueraded as domesticated servants of the faith.
Secondly, the dubious nature of their origins and their questionable treatment notwithstanding, the temples continue to provide food and shelter to captured elephants, and releasing animals accustomed to human care back into the wild is not an option, for obvious reasons. There is also no proper mechanism in place to address such an eventuality.
Be that as it may, what cannot be argued is that this practice, ingrained though it may be in our culture’s DNA, is cruel and fundamentally un-Buddhist. While the overturning of the ban offers a short-term solution to the lack of tame elephants for cultural pageants, the only long-term solution is to form a dialogue with all parties concerned and work towards a solution that is humane, acceptable to all, and most importantly puts an end to this needless cruelty towards these majestic beasts.