Sri Lanka said Wednesday it was overturning a ban on adopting baby elephants, drawing sharp criticism from the animal protection lobby.
Elephants are revered as holy in the mainly Buddhist nation, where the high-maintenance beasts have become a status symbol for the wealthy elite.
The animals are also kept by temples for use in religious ceremonies, and the ban had led to worries there would not be enough tame elephants for Buddhist pageants.
"Wildlife conservation is good but we also need to conserve our cultural pageants," said government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne after the cabinet overturned the ban on adoptions.
Senaratne said the government decision had been motivated partly by overcrowding at Pinnawala, a 27 hectare (66-acre) coconut grove that was originally set up as an elephant orphanage and now also runs a successful breeding programme.
He said strict conditions would be put in place to ensure the animals' welfare. Individuals would have to pay 10 million rupees ($66,000)for an elephant, although temples would get them for free.
But Asian elephant expert Jayantha Jayewardene said the decision was "ill thought out and totally irresponsible" and accused the government of selling animals to raise revenue.
He said the move could jeopardise baby elephants that were taken to Pinnawala after they were seized from wealthy Sri Lankans accused of keeping them illegally.
Capturing wild elephants is illegal in Sri Lanka but there have been cases of young animals being taken from their parents to be sold on the black market.
"We are very surprised by the decision to give back these elephants," Jayewardene told AFP. "It is a sad day for conservation."
There has also been controversy over the separation of elephant calves whose parents are still alive.
Earlier this month a group of wildlife enthusiasts went to court to stop an elephant calf, which was given to New Zealand during a visit by the then-prime minister John Key, from being taken away from its mother.
Buddhist monk Malope Sobitha said six-year-old Nandi should not be separated from her parents, who were both still living at Pinnawala.
Last year Sri Lanka unveiled tougher laws, including a ban on using young elephants for logging and other physical work, as part of a crackdown on cruelty to animals.
Official records show there are about 200 domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka. The population in the wild is estimated at about 7,500.