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An elephant being dressed up for Colombo's main <i>perahera</i> on Feb. 10 ​ (​Photo by​ Marwaan Macan-Markar​)​

The politics of elephants in the room

Sri Lanka looks after its pachyderms but keeping the human-animal peace isn't easy

I grew up in a corner of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, where a domesticated elephant was a regular presence in daily life. "Our" elephant belonged to the Buddhist temple near our home. On some mornings, it would lumber past our front gate, the chains tied to its legs producing a rhythmic rattle. Vehicles that clogged the road during the morning rush had to give way.

It is a slice of life that many Sri Lankans can relate to -- an urban setting rooted in the history of Sinhala-Buddhist society, the country's ethnic and religious majority. Elephants stand out in elaborate traditional murals that depict the island's ancient royal cities, featuring in regal pageants, Buddhist ceremonies and battles, or as beasts of burden.

This legacy is still played out annually in the central city of Kandy, the seat of the last Sinhalese king. During a Buddhist holiday in August, more than 100 elephants, dressed in shimmering, colorful robes, take part in the perahera -- a religious pageant conducted by the city's most sacred temple. They wind their way through Kandy's streets on successive nights, accompanied by thousands of drummers and dancers.

"These elephants are not pets but working animals," said a friend, whose family of Kandyan aristocrats served the last Sinhalese monarchy until it fell to British colonialists in the early 19th century. "We had 10 elephants in our family that were used in the perahera."

Back then, it was easy to take the tamed elephants for granted. They seemed to have a place in the social order. Now, there is change in the air: Familiarity with tethered elephants is at odds with those trumpeting the cause of wild pachyderms.

Over the past two years, this national debate has grown, fueled by conservationist sentiments expressed on social media. The movement has led to the rescue of more than 40 wild elephant calves, taken illegally from forests, from almost certain fates as cash generators.

Dense population

This shift of opinion has put Sri Lanka -- along with India -- in the spotlight as keepers of Asia's wild elephants. The island has an estimated 6,000 wild elephants, which roam across a wide arc of forests from the southeast to the northwest. By contrast, there are fewer than 200 domesticated pachyderms, most of which live in an elephant orphanage, perform for tourists near hotels, or are tethered at the homes of affluent Sinhalese as symbols of status and power.

The Sri Lankan elephant is one of Asia's three subspecies. The island population accounts for nearly a tenth of the Asian elephant population, but roams in only 2% of the region's wild elephant range. Consequently, Sri Lanka has the highest density of wild elephants in the 13 Asian countries where these animals wander. No wonder they can be regularly spotted on the sides of roads, along the edges of forests or in herds near watering holes in game reserves.

In other elephant range countries, such as Thailand and Myanmar, the picture is lopsided: There are more captive elephants than wild ones, stemming from the demand to pull logs through forests (in Myanmar) or entertain tourists (in Thailand). Laos, once called the "land of a million elephants," now has less than 1,000 in the wild.

Deepani Jayantha, an elephant conservationist, credits Sri Lanka's numbers to strong animal protection laws and a watchful cadre of wildlife protection officers. "Protecting elephants is a priority," she said, "and you will be fined and jailed if you kill an elephant."

But a high incidence of human-elephant conflict, often caused by the animals destroying farmers' crops, is testing the mettle of conservationists. The annual death toll from clashes between the species is close to 250 elephants and 70 humans. "Sri Lanka has the unenviable record of the highest human-elephant conflict in relation to the population in the world," said Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research, a body of Sri Lanka-based environmental scientists. "It seems to be increasing."

Yet, while some do seek revenge, many victims of rampaging elephants are reportedly placing faith in the deeper value of coexistence. Prevalent among rural people in India and Sri Lanka, this delicate expression of tolerance is even uttered by some families who have been bereaved by marauding beasts.

If this sentiment can be encouraged, it will put the future of an Asian icon, a status symbol for the wealthy, in the hands of South Asia's poorest.

Marwaan Macan-Markar is an Asia regional correspondent for the Nikkei Asian Review.

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