An elephantine eye-opener | Sunday Observer
Sak Surin, Animal Welfare Bill and animal lovers’ woes

An elephantine eye-opener

23 July, 2023

All were on cloud nine as if they had just been released from prison after serving a sentence! It was truly a moment of triumph for all animal lovers, especially those who really prayed for Sak-Surin’s wellbeing.

Just three weeks ago, we all heaved a sigh of relief when the special aircraft carrying Sak Surin (known as Muthu Raja locally) landed safely in Thailand. Still, we were not ready to call it a day! Those who wished mighty Muthu Raja a swift recovery and those who prayed for its torture-free existence in its motherland, waited impatiently, glued to the screens until the steel container carrying the mighty tusker became visible.

Tears of relief rolled down my face as Sak Surin, or our beloved Muthu Raja put its trunk out as its caretaker opened one of the tiny windows of the container. “Don’t worry, I am safe and happy,” that was its trunk gesture!!!

By now all are aware of Sak Surin’s ‘ From Tears to Liberation’ story – how the mighty Tusker, who was just a calf then, arrived in Sri Lanka 22 years ago as a diplomatic gift and what he went through in Sri Lanka. Having undergone elephantine suffering at the hands of a cruel mahout and having spent sorrow-filled days without receiving adequate treatment and care at the temple where it was kept, Sak Surin finally bid adieu to his home of over two decades. Many referred to the incident as Sri Lanka’s moment of shame.

As Mahatma Gandhi rightly stated, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

If Sak Surin could express its grief in words, it would say it went through hell. Is that it? Our dear Muthu Raja would also warn us not to jump to conclusions, not to tarnish the image of an entire nation simply because a few people were harsh, ruthless, and insensitive.

Sak Surin would tell us how Sri Lankans fought hard for its well-being, freedom, and safety. The recovering jumbo would definitely thank all local animal and elephant welfare organisations, particularly RARE, for being courageous enough to bring its terrible and pathetic plight to the attention of the authorities. Sak Surin would also tell the world about the wonderful mahout and the team of veterinarians that cared for it at the Dehiwala Zoo, where it was temporarily housed before being airlifted to Thailand.

Their Majesties the King and Queen of Thailand recently bestowed an honour on Don Upul Jayarathna Denelpitiyage, the Sri Lankan mahout, in recognition of his unrelenting care for the ‘recuperating Thai elephant’, Thai Media reported.


The case of Sak Surin is an elephantine eye-opener for us, a plea for animal welfare. As an animal-loving nation, we must be mindful of who and under what circumstances animals are subjected to maltreatment.

It was more than a year ago that the much-delayed Animal Welfare Bill was approved by the Cabinet.

Animal lovers have long advocated for tighter animal welfare laws, regulations, and punishment, arguing that the existing Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 was antiquated and insufficient to punish wrongdoers.

The draft Animal Welfare Bill for the consideration of the Law Commission was initially prepared by Animal Rights Activist and lawyer Senaka Weeraratne more than twenty years ago. Animal Rights activist, Lalani Perera has been closely linked with the Animal Welfare Bill from 2002 when the Law Commission initiated the Bill to date, as a lawyer and also in her official capacity when she functioned as Additional Secretary (Legal), Ministry of Justice.

What is the exact position of the much-talked-about Animal Welfare Bill and What should be done to expedite the passage of the Bill, the writer asked Animal Rights activist Lalani Perera as there is no better moment to raise the question than now.

“As a person who has been associated with the Animal Welfare Bill for over two decades, I can write a book on the subject – but to be brief, the Bill was prepared by Sri Lanka’s Law Commission after an exhaustive study spanning six years. The objective was to replace the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance enacted over 100 years ago and which applies only to domestic animals, recognises few offences, and for which the penalties cannot exceed a fine of Rs.100 or a jail term over three months,” she said.

As Perera noted this Ordinance is a disgrace to a country that is proud of its strong animal-friendly cultural heritage. Many countries have amended their laws to recognise animals as living beings rather than chattel. Animals are considered nonhuman persons in India.


Animal Rights activist
Lalani Perera

Abigail Forsyth
Campaign Coordinator, PETA Asia

“The Bill, the preliminary draft of which was prepared by lawyer Senaka Weeraratne, for the Law Commission’s consideration is yet to come into force. Although Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera, M.P., presented the Bill in Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill, on two occasions, it lapsed when Parliament was dissolved in 2009 and 2010.”

“This situation compelled 18 animal welfare organisations to file a writ application in the Court of Appeal seeking a court order to direct the authorities to take action for the Bill’s enactment. The court on January 16, 2019, granted interim relief directing the government authorities to take immediate measures.”

Perera explained how the then Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, under whose purview the Bill fell, submitted it for Cabinet approval last year.

As we know the Cabinet approved the Bill, except for the provision regarding the establishment of an Animal Welfare Authority.

The Bill was presented in Parliament on March 7, 2022.

Current status of the Animal Welfare Bill

“Due to the delay in debating the Bill, petitioner representatives, on March 7, 2023, appeared before the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Agriculture chaired by Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, and explained its need in detail responding to all queries raise, ” she said

Yet another year has lapsed. And, the Bill still remains on the Order Paper.

“This led to Udaya Gammanpila, MP, to form a Coalition of Animal Welfare Organisations, and MP Gammanpila, is steadfastly engaged in promoting the Bill in the Consultative Committee on Agriculture and the relevant Oversight Committee chaired by D. Weerasinghe, MP.

Several Members of Parliament, including the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa are supporting the Bill,” Perera said in response to the Sunday Observer query on the latest situation of the Bill.

Elephants in captivity

Evidence is strong that elephants simply do not thrive in captive environments. Should we keep them in captivity at all, the Sunday Observer asked Perera.

Elephants, unlike dogs and cats, elephants are not domestic animals, she pointed out. “They belong to the wild. “As I had stated in a previously published article, the nation’s elephant, acknowledged as the Star of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife, should be in the wilds, not in a zoo or somebody’s backyard.“

Following the incident of Sak Surin, numerous local animal welfare organisations reiterated their position that elephants should not be used in processions. Regardless of the divergent views on the matter, the animal mustn’t be mentally or physically abused, either consciously or inadvertently, during the process.

According to Perera elephants are an integral part of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka.

“Referring to the use of elephants in the annual Dalada Perahera, Dhanesh Wisumperuma in an article titled Religious Use of Elephants in Ancient Sri Lanka states that “this historical procession is held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which is housed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. The religious use of elephants in Sri Lanka has its origins in the early period of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The oldest record of the use of elephants in Buddhist religious processions and festivals in Sri Lanka dates back to the 3rd century BCE when Buddhism was introduced to the Island.” “

Perera is of the view that these traditions should continue.

“But several cases of cruelty to these majestic animals have been exposed over the years. Looking at just one of many such incidents, one recalls how Tikiri a 70-year-old emaciated elephant died after being compelled to participate in a Perahera,” she raised her concern.

Her main focus was the animal’s proper care and handling. The animal must be well cared for and treated with kindness.

“As for Sak Surin’s sad plight, it is indeed deplorable that it happened in a place of Buddhist worship. At least Sak Surin is now safe, beyond Sri Lanka’s shores, but Sri Lanka’s reputation lies tattered. The perpetrators must be punished, irrespective of their status. Unlike half a century or more ago, today our county has selective law enforcement. The country’s prisons are overflowing with minor offenders, while the mighty lawbreakers are dining and wining and roaming the world,” Perera noted.

PETA Asia views

Abigail Forsyth, Campaign Coordinator, PETA Asia, an Asia-based animal rights group that is dedicated to establishing and protecting the rights of all animals shared PETA Asia’s views on the abuse of Asian captive elephants with the Sunday Observer.

“Captive elephants, often used in the tourism industry in Asia, usually face beatings, broken spirits, and a life of isolation and deprivation. In nature, these social and intelligent animals would spend their days playing, swimming, and exploring with their herd, but captive elephants—usually made to beg in the streets, haul illegal logs, or entertain tourists—are deprived of all that is natural and important to them.”

She emphasised that PETA Asia continues to encourage tourists to support sanctuaries and non-profit organisations where former captive elephants are cared for and rehabilitated and Forsyth urges people to never visit elephant camps or take elephant rides.

“An example of one of our current efforts to help elephants treated cruelly is our campaign against the use of elephants in the riding industry in Ayutthaya, Thailand. We are urging the Thai government to ban elephants from Thailand’s tourist sites,” Forsyth said.

Similar stories

Sak Surin that was allegedly mistreated in a Sri Lankan temple was just returned to Thailand. Elephants are mistreated and mishandled in a variety of ways. More specifically, elephants are used in circuses, amusement parks, religious ceremonies, and labour-intensive tasks like dragging logs. The saddest part is they are exploited by mahouts, or their health is completely neglected, and they are utilised as money-making machines sometimes.

“Don’t you think it’s about time PETA formed an international elephant cruelty monitoring team to prevent cruelty against elephants?”, the Sunday Observer asked Forsyth.

“We are pleased that Sak Surin is now receiving care and that the Thai government is now checking on the welfare of other Thai elephants that they have sent to other countries in previous years. PETA continues to investigate cases of abuse that are reported to us and to urge the public to help these animals by refusing to ride them or visit places where they’re forced to perform,” Forsyth said.

Global attempts

In 2020, Singer Cher’s campaign to move Kaavan dubbed the world’s loneliest elephant, from a Pakistani zoo enclosure to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia was a success. Similarly, PETA was concerned about another lone female elephant Mali in the Philippines’ Manila Zoo. Mali is a female elephant that was given from Sri Lanka to the Philippines as a diplomatic gift several decades ago.

“We are still extremely concerned for Mali, and yes, we have written to Sri Lankan authorities regarding her plight. She has now spent almost 50 years in captivity in isolation in a concrete enclosure. Mali continues to suffer from painful foot problems, which will only get worse without care. For her emotional health, there is no doubt that Mali needs more than her barren enclosure at the Manila Zoo and that she longs for the company of other elephants. We continue to urge authorities to transfer Mali to a sanctuary and we are still prepared to help facilitate this move,” Forsyth said.

Given that Mali is a diplomatic gift from Sri Lanka, how would you propose that Sri Lanka support her?, the Sunday Observer asked Forsyth.

Better care needed for Mali

Sak Surin enjoying a sand-shower at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, Lampang

“The Sri Lankan government should also be advocating for better care for Mali and for her transfer to a sanctuary, where she can see other elephants for the first time in almost 50 years.”

“Elephants are not objects to be loaned or gifted for diplomatic purposes. It’s time for governments to stop using elephants, and other animals as political gifts, and the Sri Lankan government should pledge to stop this cruel practice. PETA urges that animals be kept in nature or be sent to reputable sanctuaries where they can thrive in their natural habitat and receive the care they deserve,” the Campaign Coordinator, PETA Asia, emphasized.

Forsyth also said that PETA Asia members were thrilled to hear about the new Animal Welfare Bill and hope that this moves further in Parliament soon.

“We hope that all officers will receive adequate training and understand the importance of the new laws when they come into effect, as they will be the ones enforcing them and we hope that the authorities work to impose the new laws and act on those who violate them.

Overall, I hope that the introduction of this bill creates a cultural shift towards how people see and treat animals and that the laws will protect all animals from suffering.”

The Campaign Coordinator, PETA Asia finally noted that all animals can suffer in the same way that humans do. They feel pain and fear just like us and they deserve the chance to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation.

Recently PETA Asia released footage of the abuse of horses and camels used for tourist rides at the pyramids in Egypt. After hearing from PETA, many travel companies operating across the world have committed to not supporting animal rides at the pyramids of Giza and to review their policies. Some companies are even now suspending the promotion and sale of all camel rides worldwide.

“We are in conversation with many other companies that are shocked by what we have shown them and are looking to make changes,” Forsyth said.

Strengthening animal welfare

When asked how the local animal welfare organisations and animals lovers should get together to strengthen the welfare/rights of animals, animal Rights Activist Lalani Perera said ;

“There is ANIMAL CRUELTY and ANIMAL ABUSE. Cruelty is physical violence. Abuse includes neglect, exploitation, and hoarding. Neither has a place in a civilised world. How can we address this issue - by legislation and by sensitisation? These are not overnight solutions.

“To prevent cruelty and abuse, a united effort is vital. Some animal welfare groups are highly competitive. They do not realise the value of working together. This leads to allegations that their primary concern is not the animal’s welfare but their monetary enrichment,” Perera added.