Colombo, Sri Lanka – In a controversial order that was widely criticized by conservationists, a Sri Lankan court upheld an earlier decision to allow the return of 14 elephants from government custody to suspected traffickers who captured them or people accused of buying the animals from them.
Additional magistrate S Prabakaran’s decision on Thursday was “absolutely arbitrary and the rule of law has been completely ignored,” Aruna Medagoda, a lawyer with the Nature and Wildlife Protection Society, told Al Jazeera.
“The court did not grant the parties the right to be heard, which contravenes the law and jurisprudence,” Medagoda said.
The court was hearing petitions from leading Sri Lankan environmentalists and animal rights groups who had challenged a Sept. 6 order from the same court allowing the return of elephants to suspected traffickers.
The elephants are part of a group of 39 jumbos taken into government custody as evidence in wide-ranging investigations into elephant trafficking between 2010 and 2015.
The traffickers and the people who bought the animals from them were accused of capturing baby elephants in national parks and smuggling them out of the back of vehicles. In many cases, mothers were killed to capture their young.
Environmentalists argued that the elephants belonged to the state and should therefore remain in government custody. They said they would now go to higher courts.
On August 19, the government issued a new regulation, signed by the Minister of State for the Protection of Wildlife, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, which critics say “legalized” animals caught illegally from the wild.
The regulations establish rules that require “owners” to register their elephants and define the conditions under which they can be used for work and tourism purposes. Previously, they were only allowed to participate in religious parades, locally called “peraheras.”
Conservationists allege that the court’s Sept. 6 order, based on government regulations, violates Sri Lanka’s environmental laws and fear it could lead to an increase in the trafficking of wild elephants.
“The sections on registration have been included exclusively to register illegal elephants,” Sumith Pilapitiya, a former World Bank senior environmental specialist and former head of the country’s wildlife department, told Al Jazeera.
Environmental scientist Prithiviraj Fernando echoed the same sentiments.
“If the cases were heard and it was found that these elephants were legally acquired, then there is absolutely no problem releasing and registering them,” he said.
“But, of course, they were detained on the assumption that they were illegally captured. So now, if you are allowing them to register, doesn’t that mean you can take elephants illegally? “
Commenting on the matter, Dissanayake told Al Jazeera that elephant owners should be required to show that they acquired the animals “fairly.”
“Some of these elephants may be illegal, I do not deny it,” said the minister, adding: “I say there must be changes. [to regulations] … let’s say, in the first place, the way the elephant was acquired, be it fair and just … that must be proven. “
“There is a possibility that some of these elephants have been caught illegally, I do not deny that,” he said.
One day after the September 6 court order, Ishini Wickramasinghe, director general of the Sri Lanka Zoo Department, resigned in protest against the order to hand over the animals to the people to whom the government took them.
In a social media post, he talked about the animals he had known for years and why his release was wrong.
“Sri Devi is a very loving and caring elephant … There was nothing I could do to protect her and other elephants who were taken away by force … What cruelty is it to take away their freedom for one’s individual interests?” she wrote on Facebook.
Videos and photographs of some of the animals that were forced onto trucks following the order elicited angry responses from people.
“OMG! Heartbreaking,” wrote one. “Evil people,” said another.
“That all those responsible are reincarnated as elephants in their next birth and receive the same treatment,” read a comment.
Buddhists, who make up 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, consider elephants to be sacred and their possession prestigious.
Official data shows that nearly 100 elephants are in private hands, while about 150 are in government-run centers.