Sri Lanka Friday ordered an investigation after a skeletal 70-year-old elephant was paraded at a high-profile Buddhist pageant in a move criticised as cruelty to the ailing animal.
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 poor health.
Animal-lovers slammed the authorities for forcing the aged animal to participate in the annual Esala Perehara (pageant) wearing elaborate clothing at the hugely popular night festival 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 perehara (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.
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 Sky News Africa.
“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.
Many rich Sri Lankans keep elephants as pets, but there have been numerous complaints of ill treatment and cruelty.