Owners of poached elephants in Sri Lanka may escape sanction

2017-07-08 19:40
An elephant calf takes part in a parade in Sri Lanka. (File, AP)

An elephant calf takes part in a parade in Sri Lanka. (File, AP)

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Colombo - A group of wealthy businessmen, a Buddhist priest and other social higher-ups on trial in Sri Lanka for allegedly keeping illegally captured elephants may get their animals back - legally.

Sri Lanka's government says it is ready to forgive the owners of poached elephants and give them a chance to apply for licences provided they can prove in court that they did not know the animals that were confiscated from them had been illegally captured from the wild.

Elephants in battle

In the South Asian island nation, an elephant in the backyard has long been a sign of wealth, privilege and power. Though capturing wild elephants has been banned for decades and registration records indicate there should be only 127 elephants in captivity - most of them older - young elephants are a common sight in Sri Lanka's 400 or so Buddhist religious processions and traditional ceremonies every year.

Success of a religious procession is measured by the number of parading elephants.

For Buddhists, who make up 70% of the country's 20 million people, elephants are believed to have been servants of the Buddha and even a previous incarnation of the holy man himself. Sinhalese kings rode elephants into battle. And every year, colourfully decorated tuskers carry an ornate box containing a replica of one of the Buddha's teeth.

In the last two years, the government has confiscated 39 elephants whose owners produced either false permits or none at all. Some had paid as much as $200 000 per captured animal when a previous government was in office, according to the Wildlife Ministry. It would suggest the authorities had either turned a blind eye to the racket or sold fake licences.

The current trial involves 42 people - four of them accused of illegally capturing and trading in wild elephants, 27 who allegedly altered the official elephant registry and issued and obtained false documents, five suspected of possessing elephants without licences and six held for possessing licences without actually having an elephant in their backyard.

Among them are a prominent Buddhist priest and a judge. If convicted, they could face a maximum 10 years in prison or a fine or both.

Poached elephants

But if the government has its way, some of them could walk free and own an elephant legally.

A measure adopted by the Cabinet in April says only poachers and wildlife officers who collude with them by providing forged licences will face punishment.

The reason for the government's unexpected leniency toward owners of poached elephants lies in Sri Lanka's traditions. It wasn't a problem decades and centuries ago, when elephants were plentiful, but the population has since been decimated.

Read more on:    sri lanka  |  animals

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