By Ranga Sirilal
Reuters: Sri Lanka on Wednesday said it would go ahead with its first-ever wild elephant census, with the help of the military and in spite of conservationist protests that it is a ploy to pluck the best ones for domesticated use in temples, tourism and labour.
The Indian Ocean island nation on Thursday was due to begin a three-day census of all wild elephants. Naturalists estimate Sri Lanka has between 5,000 and 7,000. Conservation groups were initially planning to deploy off-road vehicles and around 200 volunteers to help with the count.
But they pulled out after local media quoted Wildlife Minister S.M. Chandrasena saying the strongest young elephants would be given to temples to meet a shortage in a nation where the pachyderms are used in a wide variety of roles.
“This is a ploy to identify the tuskers and domesticate them,” Wildlife Conservation Forum Chairman Rukshan Jayawardene told Reuters. “By domesticating the wild elephants, we might lose the wild elephant population.”
Chandrasena could not be reached for a comment.
Sri Lanka traditionally uses tamed elephants for cultural pageants at Buddhist and Hindu temples, domestic transportation, heavy work and tourism, which is booming after the end of a three-decade war in 2009.
“We can’t stop this now as we have spent lot on this,” Wildlife Conservation Department Director General H.D Rathnayake told Reuters. “We will use about 1,000-1,500 military personnel to conduct the census in the north and east.” Conservationists say many domesticated elephants die early due to lack of food, mistreatment and exhaustion. The lot of their wild cousins is no better.
Human-elephant conflict so far this year has claimed the lives of 23 people and 149 wild elephants, while 228 of the animals and 89 people perished in similar circumstances last year, according to the Wildlife Department.