Born Free began working in Sri Lanka in 2002 with a visit to the government run Elephant Transit Home (ETH), accompanied by TV’s Helen Worth. Since then we have provided extensive assistance to the ETH in the form of buildings, vehicles and equipment. Through our UK based co-ordinator David Jay we have also worked with a number of local NGOs on a range of issues, primarily concerned with elephant welfare and conservation.
In 2008 we held a symposium on elephant conservation and welfare issues, and shortly after this we took on Dr Deepani Jayantha as our Country Representative. Since then we have stepped up our activity on Human Elephant Conflict mitigation projects as well as other activities.
Sri Lanka is a relatively small country (about the size of the Republic of Ireland) with high human populations densities and a very significant elephant population (estimated at around 4,000 or more). Whilst there is a good network of national parks and protected areas, many of the elephants spend a significant amount of time outside these zones, and conflict with rural communities is common. Elephants are not hunted for sport or food, and rarely if ever poached for tusks or other parts (eg skins or tails). Almost all human-caused elephant deaths – of which there have been around 200 annually in recent years – are due to attacks from rural people acting in retaliation or self-defence. Documented methods include the use of guns, gun-based traps, poison and baited explosives which fatally damage the animal’s mouth. At the same time, around 50 people a year die in elephant related incidents around the country.
Sri Lanka has a history of training elephants for religious, commercial and domestic purposes that dates back for thousands of years. However, over this period the population of captive elephants has not been fully maintained by captive breeding and has been regularly supplemented by capturing animals (usually juveniles) from the wild. This practice has been largely abandoned for the last few decades, during which time the number of privately owned elephants in the country has dropped to just over 100. However, elephants are still kept at several Buddhist temples and often used in Buddhist pageants called Peraheras, as well displayed at some tourist sites a few of which offer elephant-back rides. There are also captive elephants held at the government-run zoo in Dehiwala, Colombo and more than 80 at its affiliated facility the elephant centre at Pinnewala.