Sri Lanka Putting Destructive Wild Elephants to Work

Some of Sri Lanka's wildest, most destructive elephants could get reprieves from possible death sentences — but they will have to spend some time in rehab first.

Elephants that rampage through villages, destroy crops or kill people will be caught, tamed and put to work promoting tourism and helping prevent poaching, a government official said Thursday.

Wildlife conservation chief Dayananda Kariyawasam said his department had already identified 20-30 of the worst elephant offenders for the program, designed to keep angry villagers from killing them.

Wild elephants are increasingly entering villages in search of food as deforestation destroys their habitat.

A century ago, 10,000-15,000 elephants roamed wild in Sri Lanka, but today only about 3,000 remain, largely due to poaching and habitat loss.

Rampaging elephants have killed at least 84 people in Sri Lanka since early 2005, and villagers have destroyed 156 of the beasts by shooting or electrocuting them, according to government figures.

The pardoned pachyderms will not get any free rides — in fact, they will give them.

"We will be using them for (wildlife) protection work," Kariyawasam said. "Officials can ride on them, where vehicles can't go, to prevent poaching."

The animals also will be used to promote the island's tourism industry, giving rides in elephant safaris, Kariyawasam said.

Capturing wild elephants was officially banned in 1937, though the government has made some exceptions.

Most of those have been for elephants to be used by temples for traditional Buddhist processions. More are needed, and many Buddhists hope the government decision will help alleviate that elephant shortage.

Sunil Rambukpotha of the Millennium Elephant Foundation, an elephant welfare project, said there currently are only 153 tame elephants in Sri Lanka, and 63 of them are over 60 years old, toward the end of their natural life spans.

"As a result, we face immense hardships in carrying out our religious processions, which is part of our culture," he said.

For centuries, aristocratic families in Sri Lanka have kept elephants as status symbols with the consent of kings and later the British Empire, which ruled the country for more than 100 years until 1948.