COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A group of wealthy businessmen, a Buddhist priest and other social higher-ups on trial in Sri Lanka for allegedly keeping illegally captured elephants may get their animals back — legally.
Sri Lanka's government says it is ready to forgive the owners of poached elephants and give them a chance to apply for licenses provided they can prove in court that they did not know the animals that were confiscated from them had been illegally captured from the wild.
In the South Asian island nation, an elephant in the backyard has long been a sign of wealth, privilege and power. Though capturing wild elephants has been banned for decades and registration records indicate there should be only 127 elephants in captivity — most of them older — young elephants are a common sight in Sri Lanka's 400 or so Buddhist religious processions and traditional ceremonies every year.
Success of a religious procession is measured by the number of parading elephants.
For Buddhists, who make up 70 percent of the country's 20 million people, elephants are believed to have been servants of the Buddha and even a previous incarnation of the holy man himself. Sinhalese kings rode elephants into battle. And every year, colorfully decorated tuskers carry an ornate box containing a replica of one of the Buddha's teeth.
In the last two years, the government has confiscated 39 elephants whose owners produced either false permits or none at all. Some had paid as much as $200,000 per captured animal when a previous government was in office, according to the Wildlife Ministry. It would suggest the authorities had either turned a blind eye to the racket or sold fake licenses.
The current trial involves 42 people — four of them accused of illegally capturing and trading in wild elephants, 27 who allegedly altered the official elephant registry and issued and obtained false documents, five suspected of possessing elephants without licenses and six held for possessing licenses without actually having an elephant in their backyard.
Among them are a prominent Buddhist priest and a judge. If convicted, they could face a maximum 10 years in prison or a fine or both.
But if the government has its way, some of them could walk free and own an elephant legally.
A measure adopted by the Cabinet in April says only poachers and wildlife officers who collude with them by providing forged licenses will face punishment.
According to Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, owners may get a second chance if they are able to prove that they did not know their elephants were illegally captured or the paperwork fraudulent.
"There are some people who love the animals and maybe they have taken them without knowing. If there are genuine cases proved in court then the court can decide and tell us," Perera said.
It wasn't clear when the court will rule or if it will take the government's view into account. But the suggestion has irked conservationists who say it sets a bad precedent.
"This is nonsense," said Sumith Pilapitiya, a former World Bank environmental specialist. "The onus is on the buyer to make sure the paperwork is right."
"You are trying to legalize something illegal, looking for loopholes," he said.
The reason for the government's unexpected leniency toward owners of poached elephants lies in Sri Lanka's traditions. It wasn't a problem decades and centuries ago, when elephants were plentiful, but the population has since been decimated.
Perera said it's difficult for the government to feed and care for elephants confiscated from homes and temples. There is also a shortage of elephants in religious processions, most of which take place around the same time this month.
The Sri Lankan elephant is one of three subspecies of Asian elephant and is found only in Sri Lanka. In the 19th century, there were believed to be up to 14,000. That number fell to fewer than 3,000 before hunting and capture were banned.
But while the population has grown since then to nearly 6,000, according to Sri Lanka's first official elephant census in 2011, they are still considered endangered and under threat from habitat loss and degradation. They are confined to small, isolated pockets of jungle and pasture in the north and the east.
Perera said the government's measure was not meant to give an escape route to the offenders.
"We can't give guarantees to anyone, illegal is illegal," he said, adding that prospective owners could re-apply for an elephant license "according to the judgment given by the court."