During the past several years, I've watched country after country destroy their stockpiles of confiscated elephant ivory, preventing that ivory from somehow slipping back into the black market and symbolically demonstrating commitment to stopping the illegal trade.
But to my mind, something that’s always been missing is an apology: No country has ever formally said sorry for its complicity in the trade. Tomorrow Sri Lanka will hold a religious ceremony to do just that.
“We have to apologize,” said the Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero, the Buddhist priest who will lead the service. “Those elephants were victimized by the cruelty of certain people. But all of human society is responsible. We destroyed those innocent lives to take those tusks. We have to ask for pardon from them.”
Sri Lanka’s destruction of its ivory—the first by a country in South Asia—brings to 16 the total so far. (For the other countries, see the chart below.) The ivory will be crushed at an iconic oceanside park in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, then burned in a city incinerator.
The ivory—the country’s entire stockpile—came from a single shipment of 359 tusks, weighing 1.5 tons, seized by customs authorities at the Port of Colombo in May 2012. The shipment was in transit from Kenya to Dubai. DNA testing later showed that the tusks came from Tanzania.
Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, who took office in January 2015, will attend the event. His government’s action represents an about-face from the previous regime, which in 2013 had tried to donate the ivory to the Sri Dalada Maligawa Buddhist Temple.
That plan was announced shortly after a National Geographic story, “Ivory Worship,” revealed that the global religious market fuels elephant poaching, and it prompted a public outcry. Critics feared that the ivory would re-enter the black market.
They also argued that by giving the ivory to a third party, Sri Lanka would flout the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the global wildlife trade.
“We can show the world that we are also in the CITES family,” Samantha Gunesekera, former deputy director of Sri Lanka Customs, says. “We convey that message throughout the world, [and to] our people.”
At the ivory crush, there will be two minutes of silence, after which Sirisena, along with Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickremea Perera, Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake, and CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon, will address the gathering.
Then the Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero will lead a religious ceremony that will include a transfer of merits, a Buddhist ritual often done for departed relatives to honor them and help them reach a better place in their next life.
The elephants are family, he says. “We consume the same air and food and water. Everything we share. We’re relatives. With sympathy and compassion, we wish that their next birth be happy.”
Monks will chant and pour water into a ritual cup until it overflows. “We’re empowering them to be born in a higher realm, a happy realm, to conduct their life without suffering,” the Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero explains.
Hindu, Christian, and Muslim representatives will also say prayers.
“Buddhism and other religions don’t tolerate killing and cruelty to elephants,” Minister Perera says. “We believe in rebirth, even of elephants or household pets. It’s traditional to conduct religious rights for dead humans as well as animals.
Sri Lanka isn’t a major participant in ivory trafficking, but it is a transit country on the Indian Ocean sea route, which is often overlooked.
“Sri Lanka is located in a busy maritime route. It’s also a transit hub for the whole Asian region,” notes Sri Lankan environmentalist Vidya Abhayagunawardena, who has consistently urged the government to destroy the ivory stockpile and is one of the coordinators of the event. “Illegal wildlife traffickers and blood ivory racketeers use Sri Lanka as transit hub.”
The country was identified as a potential new transit country by the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC in its 2014 Illegal Trade in Ivory and Rhino Horn report.
That prediction has been borne out. In April 2015 Thai authorities seized a shipment of 3.1 metric tons of illegal ivory disguised in bags of tea leaves that had originated in Mombasa, Kenya, and passed through several intermediaries, including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore, on its way to Thailand.
Protecting Domestic Elephants
Sri Lanka also has its own elephants, nearly 6,000 of them in jungles and national parks. They’re under pressure from human encroachment and are in danger of being killed by farmers protecting their crops and by land mines laid during the country’s recent civil war.
The country has a long tradition of domesticating elephants, and around 100 are at temples and with private owners.
Under the previous government, there were irregularities in domestic elephant registration and reports of abductions of wild baby elephants. According to a Mongabay.com report, at least 50 to 60 calves were stolen from the wild during the three-year period from 2011 to 2014. But the actual number may have been much greater, and government investigations are ongoing.
During the past 12 months, authorities have seized 42 illegally held elephants and placed them at elephant orphanages in Pinnawala and Udawalawe, until they can be released into their natural habitats.
“Sri Lanka has a zero tolerance policy for illegally captured elephants,” Perera says.
Tomorrow’s ceremony will not only be an apology to elephants but also an affirmation of Sri Lanka’s commitment to saving them. It will be, Perera says, “a model for reducing the ivory thirst.”
Laurel Neme is a freelance writer and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and Orangutan Houdini. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.