Amateur videos showing elephants being abused by handlers during one of Sri Lanka’s biggest Buddhist festivals have recently emerged. This type of abuse is not new: our Observer, a veterinarian in Sri Lanka, says that elephant owners and authorities turn a blind eye to this type of behaviour for both financial and political reasons.
The Kandy Esala Perahera festival is one of the oldest Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka. It began as a procession that took place in the 4th century, when a relic – a tooth that was believed to belong to the Buddha – arrived on the island from India. The festival has taken place every August since 1754. During the procession, up to 200 elephants wearing beautiful costumes take turns carrying the relic. They’re the stars of the procession, which about 500,000 people gather to watch every year. During the event, they’re presented as being “sacred animals” because they are transporting the sacred relic.
"I’ve treated many elephants after they were injured in this festival"
“The incident in the latest video is unfortunately very common. Between processions, elephants are parked in small spaces where tourists can look at them and take pictures with them. Often, elephants can’t stand being in such close proximity with other elephants and try to flee. To force them to move, trainers use spears or ankus [a type of metal hook] to poke their legs.
I’ve treated many elephants after they were used in this festival. Some have serious wounds on their legs, which can get infected, and, in the worst cases, this leads to abscesses, pododermatitis [an inflammation of the nails and the pads under elephants’ feet], and arthritis.
"Greed often wins"
The trainers behave in this manner due to a lack of experience, and due to ignorance about the consequences of their actions. For example, I’ve seen several elephants who were sent to the festival despite being in their musth phase [Editor’s Note: musth is a periodic hormonal surge that makes male elephants aggressive].
It’s very dangerous, because they behave unpredictably during this phase. But greed often wins out [Editor’s Note: an elephant can bring in between 25,000 and 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees – which equals between 150 and 300 euros – per festival day to their owners, who are usually Buddhist temples or tourism companies].
Several NGOs have complained about this abuse, leading the government to take some measures; for example they have asked organisers to be careful about the weight of the battery-powered electric lamps attached to the elephants’ clothing. It’s really heavy for them. However, we don’t know if these requests were really followed.
"The festival is a powerful political tool"
Our Observer believes that the reason that the situation hasn’t improved much is also political:
This festival showcases the importance of Sri Lankan Buddhism, whose epicentre is Kady province. Buddhism is also seen as a rampart against terrorism [Editor’s Note: it is notably a rampart against Hinduism, which is the primary religion of the Tamil people]. Keeping these traditions alive means conserving a powerful political tool, and so animal rights fall by the wayside.
Sri Lankan authorities estimate than about 200 elephants are killed in the country every year, mainly by farmers trying to protect their crops. In 1900, there were about 12,000 elephants in Sri Lanka; today, there are only about 7,000 left.