April 2016, Sri Lanka
The first and most obvious observation one can make of Sri Lanka’s National Zoo is that it keeps animals in deplorable living conditions. Repeated visits to Dehiwala reveal gross neglect of duty by zoo custodians. The majority of animals show signs of trauma. Many large mammals swing their heads and torsos back and forth in distress. This is a recognised syndrome of animals experiencing severe stress in captivity. This is the only way they have of calming themselves. Subject to the taunts of ill-disciplined visitors and the ignorant cruelty of their keepers, this is what they do, for hours on end. Rocking back and forth to stay calm. Even the babies.
The Zoological Gardens Department justifies its existence under the safety net of education. Yet what is quite obvious from the outside in, is that this ‘show and tell’ type of learning is actually a Miseducation. A Miseducation that informs children that such confinement, neglect and general lack of animal welfare is acceptable; reinforcing in impressionable minds, that such callousness is normal. The zoo is not part of Sri Lanka’s national school curriculum, children are not taught about animal behaviour or about conservation. So how can we point a finger at an animal in distress and call it an education?
By example and by history, what does Dehiwala Zoo teach us about Sri Lanka?
The Zoo was established in the 1920s by John Hagenbeck as the Ceylon Zoological Gardens Company. The Hagenbeck family traded animals and organised travelling exhibitions to Europe. From elephants to monkeys to ‘Ceylonese’, these early proprietors enslaved our animals and our people as objects for entertainment, and profit. The British government took over the zoo in 1936, keeping to their colonial practice of using wild animals for sport, hunting, trade and show. It is now 2016, but at Dehiwala Zoo it is still 1936 and a barbaric colonial legacy continues. Animals are still noticeably suffering for our entertainment. Successive national governments have either ignored or exploited a deteriorating problem and today, a horrific inheritance of animal abuse has been handed down to all of us.
Today, our stewardship of these national treasures still includes circus-type performances by intelligent mammals. Elephants were once revered in Sri Lanka yet even now, we have not taught our children that in order to make an elephant perform, you first have to break the animal’s spirit. From the time they are babies, elephants will be starved, beaten and stabbed with iron hooks until they completely submit to their abusers, in a process known as ‘Crushing’. At Dehiwala Zoo, we keep our elephants tied from their front and back legs for 22 hours a day, taking them out only to perform. We separate mothers from babies. We subject these magnificent animals to unnatural conditions, forcing them to perform unnatural acts and we call it: Education.
That is the truth, yet that is not the only education on offer at Sri Lanka’s National Zoo. Here you will see intelligent primates cornered in tiny spots of shade, cold-weather bears trying to find shelter against the scorching heat of day, or caged up animals pacing maniacally back and forth, with no stimulus whatsoever. You won’t see drinking water in mammalian enclosures, and animals will be showing signs of dehydration. Here, you can see tigers and other big cats given diets of sinew, lung and innards, the remnants of meat that is not commercially valuable to humans. Where does the good meat go? You will see the permanently chained African Elephant with sores on his body and a severe skin condition. What you definitely will not see are the sea lion living quarters. The sea lions are taken out to perform for crowds once a day and then, as we discovered, returned to their bathtubs behind the pool, where they suffer in confinement. There are also treeclimbing animals sentenced to life in tiny cages, great birds with clipped wings and big fish in very small ponds. There will be no mention of the baby river hippo that suffered in increasing agony, before dying of polythene consumption. The autopsy confirmed that a 4kg blockage of accumulated polythene and 2 rupee coins caused the death. And now, more hippos are showing similar symptoms.
We have learned that behind this abuse of animals that we openly observe, there hides a darker agenda. It is illegal to internationally trade wild caught animals, but what we now know is that in this country, the legal animal trade is flourishing.
The Zoological Gardens Department, based at the Dehiwala Zoo, is the state authority that can export and import animals. The Director of the Zoo submits a request to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and an unknown number of Sri Lankan animals are traded internationally every year. To be legally traded out of a country, an animal has to be born in captivity. Is captive breeding a legal excuse for trafficking?
Under the Fauna & Flora Protection Ordinance, the Zoological Gardens Department can breed animals to exchange them internationally, for animals they don’t have. We hear reports that it is not always a zoo-bred animal but a wild animal that is traded, and we know that it is the Zoo that has the power to furnish the necessary documentation on an animal’s provenance. By submitting their paperwork, Zoo officials can knowingly bypass international animal trafficking laws.
It is no surprise then that Sri Lanka is gaining notoriety as a hub for international animal trafficking. This is partly because if the animal is a species that isn’t native to Sri Lanka, there are no national laws to protect it. Tigers, Lions, Macaws and many other species fall under the definition of ‘exotic’. It is documented that in 2012, Sri Lanka Customs seized an unauthorised consignment of over Rs.13 Million trade value in foreign birds being shipped out of this country. Customs officially handed the birds over to the zoo for safe-keeping. Documentary evidence confirms that the Zoological Gardens Department soon returned the birds to the smuggler.
LT were able to gain access to the Zoo’s Veterinary Hospital, next to the zoo’s main offices. At this supposed medical facility, seemingly healthy animals are kept in tiny cages or left for dead. Through repeated visits, we found young animals including lions and tigers transiting in and out of this appalling excuse for an animal hospital. Yet the Zoo’s high infant mortality rates negate the argument that the zoo has a successful breeding program.
Just last week, Ridiyagama Safari Park in Hambantota opened for business, under the same management as Dehiwala Zoo. Footage shows young lions kept in prison-like pens at Ridiyagama from 2013, before their release this March. Why are there holding cells in a supposed sanctuary, so close to the shores of Hambantota where known animal traffickers operate? At the new Pinnawela Open Zoo, the Zoological Gardens Department has plans to launch a small-mammal breeding centre. More animals supposedly born in captivity mean more animals to trade. Is this Sri Lanka’s policy on Captive Animals?
Meanwhile, construction projects are widespread throughout the zoo premises. The zoo appears to be building new enclosures, so that they can take in more animals, to add to the ones already suffering in their care. Is it profit from corruption that keeps this Zoo and its officials in business?
In dismay, LT searched for Sri Lanka’s true policy on animal welfare. Our journey took us to Mihintale, where we studied our island’s cultural origins and founding principles. As far back as the 3rd Century BC, Sri Lankan monarchs declared themselves guardians of freedom, for both animals and humans. In recognition of the concept of “Abhaya Bumi”, King Devanampiyatisa declared Mihintale a “Land Without Fear”, where all sentient beings would be protected. Inscriptions in stone formed laws to shield the innocent, and successive monarchs expanded the scope of our freedoms, allowing both nature and humanity to prosper without harm. From our ancient reservoirs that irrigate the crops to the national parks and sanctuaries that protect our wildlife, these early decisions by responsible leaders, still keep our country viable. Today, it is the government of Sri Lanka that has that same duty of care.
As the Zoological Gardens Department have openly demonstrated, Sri Lanka does not have the competence to manage any zoo.
No More Cages. In the face of gross incompetence and questionable abuses of power, we must have a means to say enough is enough. An Emergency Rescue Plan is needed to rehabilitate the animals of Dehiwala Zoo.
It is April 2016.
We are the voice of the change that we seek.
#Dehiwalazoo #shutitdown #srilanka #2016 #NoMoreCages