Sak Surin: A lesson for animal welfare | Sunday Observer

Sak Surin: A lesson for animal welfare

9 July, 2023

The whole Muthu Raja/Sak Surin saga has tattered the reputation of Sri Lanka perhaps irreparably in the eyes of the whole world as a country that treats animals harshly. This majestic tusker was gifted to Sri Lanka by His Majesty the King of Thailand more than 20 years ago on the explicit undertaking that it would be used to carry the Sacred Relics Casket at the Sri Dalada Perahera in Kandy. However, the hapless animal was instead transferred to the Kande Vihara in Aluthgama, where, without any shred of doubt, it had been mercilessly beaten and abused by the mahouts.

Since these reports surfaced, animal rights activists and organisations had confirmed the accusations and written to authorities both in Sri Lanka and Thailand about the fate of Sak Surin. While Sri Lankan authorities were seemingly reluctant to intervene, perhaps fearing the wrath of the temple authorities, the Thai Government pursued the matter vigorously.

Thai Ambassador to Sri Lanka Poj Harnpol took the lead in this mission and finally convinced his Government to take the elephant back to his home country. This was literally a mammoth task, so the elephant was first brought to the Dehiwela Zoo for recuperation and acclimatisation for the long flight home. Of course, the temple authorities denied all along that they had ill-treated this majestic beast. But the injuries visible on the body of the tusker told a different tale.

Firm decision

In the end, a firm decision was taken at the highest levels of the Thai Government to take the elephant back. They spent around US$ 700,000 for the repatriation of the animal on a chartered Russian cargo plane, which in itself shows their commitment to giving a new lease of life to the abused and tortured pachyderm. The animal apparently took the five-hour plane ride in its stride and is now recovering in an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, cared for by trained vets 24/7.

Never again in its life will it have to endure misery and pain at the hands of cruel mahouts. No, it will never, ever be sent back to Sri Lanka, after all it had gone through in this land. This is not even the first time that such an operation had taken place. Kaavan, a Sri Lankan elephant at the Islamabad Zoo which had earned the moniker the “world’s loneliest elephant” was moved to an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia after the intervention of high profile individuals including Cher.

The Sak Surin saga nearly created a diplomatic spat between the two friendly Buddhist countries that have religious and cultural links going back thousands of years. Fortunately, saner counsel prevailed in both capitals and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena tendered an apology to the Thai leaders in this regard, who gracefully accepted it.

Ambassador Harnpol personally apprised the Sri Lankan leaders about the repatriation operation and worked closely with the medical team at the Dehiwela Zoo nursing the animal back to health.

Diplomatic approach

The Ambassador, who met this writer at a separate function in Colombo, pledged that Thai-Sri Lanka ties will not be impacted in any way due to this incident and in fact, hoped for an improvement in the ties over the coming months and years. The Ambassador and special representatives from Thailand have since assessed the health condition of the other Thai elephants gifted to Sri Lanka, noting that there is no need to repatriate any of them at the moment.

True to his words, the Thai authorities sent a few exotic birds to the Dehiwela Zoo for its conservation programs just a few days later.

This saga illustrates one fact – elephants should either be in the wild or in zoos and elephant orphanages (Pinnawela and Uda Walawe). The former is their natural environment (despite the Human-Elephant Conflict) and the latter are places where they are well taken care of by trained personnel. Medical care is available 24/7 too. Elephants do not really belong anywhere else.

Comprehensive survey

It is time that the Wildlife Department conducts a comprehensive survey on elephants held captive at places of worship and private homes. If there is any sign of abuse in any form, the animals should be repossessed by the State and handed over to the Dehiwela Zoo or an elephant sanctuary. Experienced vets should visit the elephants and assess their condition periodically. In any case, the extensive use of elephants in various cultural pageants should be reviewed.

This should serve as a good lesson to Sri Lanka, where the people are remarkably intolerant of animals, despite the population following four major religions that espouse kindness towards animals.

Many people dump helpless kittens and pups on the roads, where they are either run over by vehicles or starved to death. There are options available to prevent this from happening – animal welfare organisations such as Embark and AWPA will take any unwanted or abandoned animals and rehouse them until “forever homes” can be found for them. Owners of female cats and dogs should sterilise them as soon as possible, if they want to avoid having unwanted litters. This is the best option in a country where ethical considerations prevent the culling of animals.

It is also time that the authorities expedite the passage of the much talked-about Animal Welfare Bill, which will help prevent any more Sak Surin stories, not to mention any other type of animal abuse. It is also essential to bring in tough laws to ensure the humane slaughter of animals such as cattle, chicken and pigs slated for human consumption. However, the world will be a much better place if humans eschew animal-based foods totally. This is likely to become a possibility with the proliferation of lab-grown meat and other meat-like alternatives which taste exactly like the real thing.

Love animals unconditionally

There really is nothing like giving your unconditional love to an animal and getting its affection in return. As an ‘owner’ of multiple cats (though one cannot really “own” cats who are fiercely independent creatures) and dogs (who are loyal to a tee), I can vouch for this.

If you still have not tried it, bring a helpless kitten and a puppy home and watch them grow together. Add a human baby to the mix if you can. Over the years, the trio will give you the kind of contentment that money simply cannot buy.