Flags were waved, lanterns were lit and a king was fed a royal banquet during last week’s Buddhist New Year festivities in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
After eating heaps of cookies, chocolates and candy offered to him by scores of worshippers, “Raja,” Sri Lanka’s most celebrated elephant, fell violently ill Tuesday.
Raja, whose name means “king” in both Tamil and Singhalese, was found crying tears of pain while writhing in agony within his temple enclosure. Veterinarians attending to the suffering animal told local media that he had contracted a severe infection from the rich food and was unable to purge normally. Elephants, they said, eat mostly vegetation and have digestive systems that cannot easily sustain processed food.
The incident is only the latest in a long line of abuses humans have inflicted upon wildlife. Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the showdown between man and animal more widespread than in Asia, where the elephant is not only a significant component of the ecosystem, but also a huge part of the economic, political and cultural life.
For thousands of years, elephant labor has been exploited for use in wars, industrial activities and religious ceremonies.
Their long-standing contact with humans has led to the gradual demise of these gentle giants. Once abundant in the region, elephants are now declared endangered throughout Asia. Numbers are estimated to be down to 35,000 to 50,000 animals left in the wild. As greedy ivory poachers mercilessly hunt bull elephants for their prized tusks, reproductive prospects continue to look bleak.
Faced with the threat of extinction, elephants have fought back. As dense forests give way to civilization and agriculture, hungry elephants are forced to go on wild raids, destroying crops and killing hundreds of people each year.
But their resilient battle to survive is a losing one. In the bitter struggle between man and beast, the dwindling elephant population is proof enough that man is obviously winning.
Although some conservation efforts have been made, they leave plenty of legroom for continued poaching and habitat encroachment. A lack of regard coupled with a lack of awareness seems to be preventing effective strategies from being implemented.
What is most troubling about Raja’s case is the ease with which it could have been prevented. A full-grown elephant has no place being locked up in a tiny pen for onlookers to freely harass.
After Raja was discovered in his pathetic state, the monks who care for him quickly posted up a handwritten notice that read: “Do not feed the elephant.” Sadly, for Raja, the monks’ feeble attempt to correct their negligent ways came too little, too late.