Sri Lanka probes elephant cruelty at Buddhist parade

Amal JAYASINGHE
Tikiri, aged 70, has died just weeks after an outcry over her proposed participation in a Sri Lanka parade

Sri Lanka Friday ordered an investigation following the collapse of a skeletal 70-year-old elephant after being forced to parade at a high-profile Buddhist pageant popular with local and foreign tourists.

Tourism and wildlife minister John Amaratunga said he ordered wildlife authorities to investigate how the elephant, known as Tikiri, was forced to take part in a lengthy parade despite her failing health.

Animal-lovers slammed the authorities for deploying the aged animal at the annual Esala pageant wearing elaborate clothing at a night festival watched by tens of thousands in the central city of Kandy earlier in the week.

After a howl of protests over social media, festival organisers withdrew the aged animal from the grand finale on Wednesday.

"I have been informed that the elephant collapsed yesterday," the minister said in a statement.

"Considering what has transpired, I have ordered officials to initiate an inquiry and ascertain how and why an elephant in such poor health was used in the (pageant) and to take necessary action against those responsible."

The minister said he had also instructed wildlife authorities to ensure there was no repetition of such cruel treatment to some 200 elephants in captivity and routinely paraded at Buddhist temple festivals.

-Sacred but abused -

Elephants are considered scared in Sri Lanka and protected as an endangered species, but there are reports of cruelty to many animals who have been domesticated.

A number of rich Sri Lankans keep elephants as pets, but there have been numerous complaints of ill treatment and cruelty.

"Many more elephants in Sri Lanka are suffering similar or worse treatment in service to an exploitative and abusive tourism industry," said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals senior vice president Jason Baker.

PETA offered to transfer the ailing Tikiri to a sanctuary where she could live and be treated by veterinarians.

Officials of the Temple of the Tooth -- which organised the Esala festival in Kandy -- said Tikiri was not a temple elephant, but they withdrew her from Wednesday's finale which involved dozens of other jumbos.

Asian elephant expert Jayantha Jayewardene described the animal's treatment as inhumane.

"Obviously the animal is severely under-nourished, it is close to death," Jayewardene told AFP.

"Owners parade their elephants to gain merit for themselves and not for the animal. This should never have been allowed," he said.

Lek Chailert, the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, said on social media that spectators did not realise how weak Tikiri was because she was covered in an elaborate costume.

"No one sees her bony body or her weakened condition, because of her costume," Chailert said. "No one sees the tears in her eyes, injured by the bright lights that decorate her mask, no one sees her difficulty to step as her legs are short shackled while she walks."

The Temple of the Tooth, Buddhism's holiest shrine on the island, holds the annual festival with traditional drummers and dancers as well as nearly 100 tame elephants.