A baby Sri Lankan elephant promised to New Zealand is unlikely to arrive, amid concerns about gifting endangered animals and the funds earmarked to support them.
The transfer of Nandi, a six-year-old Asiatic elephant, was announced in February 2016 during a visit by then-Prime Minister John Key.
Sri Lanka has already given New Zealand an elephant: Anjalee arrived in 2015 after spending three months in quarantine in Niue.
She joined Auckland Zoo’s only other elephant, Burma, who came from Myanmar in 1990.
But Nandi’s arrival has been in limbo since April after conservation groups and animal rights activists lodged a petition in the Sri Lankan Court of Appeal, which granted an interim ban on her export.
While the two elephants were gifted to New Zealand, there are significant costs involved in bringing the animals here.
In 2011 Auckland Council, which owns the not-for-profit zoo, approved $3.2 million to cover the costs of transferring two elephants.
The $1.6m needed to move Nandi was recently approved by the Council’s finance and performance committee, dependent on the outcome of the court case.
A failure in Sri Lanka to declare the money has raised concerns in the South Asian country, however.
A violation of financial regulations
In 2016, the Sri Lankan Government formed a committee to investigate the Zoological Gardens Department after a flurry of stories and social media posts about shocking conditions within the country’s zoos and wildlife parks.
The committee’s confidential findings, provided to Newsroom by Sri Lankan sources, also raise concerns about the gifting of elephants to other countries including the transfer of Anjalee to Auckland Zoo.
“The petitioners are unable to comprehend the high-handed manner in which the Sri Lankan political leaders have adopted a practice of gifting Sri Lankan elephants at their whims and fancies.”
A memorandum of understanding signed between the director of Auckland Zoo and Dehiwala Zoo did not include details of the financial assistance to the Zoological Gardens Department, but some information was revealed in an unearthed letter that raised questions about whether money had been declared to the Sri Lankan Treasury.
“Based on the letter date 18 August, 2014, from Jonathan Wilcken, Director, Auckland Zoo, it owes LKR $25,000,000 (NZ$230,000) to the Government of Sri Lanka as the first instalment, for the supply of one elephant of the two agreed.
“This money should have been ideally declared and debited to the consolidated fund, or considered and declared in the development fund of the Zoological Department. If such funds still lie in New Zealand, it is a violation of the financial regulations of the Government of Sri Lanka.”
The findings, which were delivered to the government in October 2016, also raised questions about tuberculosis testing kits for elephants imported into Sri Lanka from New Zealand.
While the acting director told the committee the kits were paid for from the fund held in New Zealand, the former director said they were instead a donation from Auckland Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Medicine.
Alongside the Auckland Zoo elephant transfer the committee also said elephants given to the Samsung Everland Theme Park in South Korea and to the Chimelong Group in China likely breached the Flora and Fauna Protection Act as they were owned by private companies.
In response, Wilcken told Newsroom that the money was not just for the transfer of Nandi but for wider support for the Sri Lankan Zoological Department.
It was not uncommon for zoos in the developed world to support those in less developed countries and Auckland had been a longtime supporter of Sri Lankan projects.
He was unaware of the concerns raised in the report but confirmed the money referred to remained in New Zealand after the new Sri Lankan Government indicated it would prefer it to be used specifically for elephant conservation. They had yet to hear back about the finer details.
The tuberculosis testing kits were an additional donation, he said.
A ‘helpless abyss of confusion’
There has been growing concern in Sri Lanka about conservation and animal welfare as tourism and industry growth skyrockets.
Now relatively stable following a brutal 30-year civil war, many in the country believe more should be done to preserve the island’s unique flora and fauna.
Accusations of cruelty towards animals sparked the previously mentioned Government investigation, which found shocking conditions in many of the country’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.
Animal exchanges, particularly of elephants, have also drawn the ire of many and culminated in the court application blocking Nandi leaving her home at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage for New Zealand.
A total of 18 petitioners, including animal welfare and religious groups, made submissions towards the application, which was also viewed by Newsroom.
The group argue that gifting elephants, an endangered species, to be displayed in foreign zoos for commercial purposes was wrong.
No elephant could be exported under law unless a special permit was granted by the director general of wildlife conservation, but this had become merely a “rubber stamp”, the group claimed.
“The petitioners are unable to comprehend the high-handed manner in which the Sri Lankan political leaders have adopted a practice of gifting Sri Lankan elephants at their whims and fancies.
“Nandi is only five years old and has the care and protection and love and nurturing of her mother. She will have to be cruelly snatched away from the care of her mother and of the herd and flung into a helpless abyss of confusion, torment, loneliness, depression and trauma if she is re-located to Auckland.”
To back up their claim, the court application asserts that Auckland Zoo has a bad track record with elephants considering the fate of Kashin who became depressed and withdrawn after developing acute foot abscesses and chronic arthritis common to elephants in captivity.
“Nandi and all the other elephants are destined to be in a zoo all their lives and I guess if not Auckland I just ask where.”
Kashin, who arrived from Thailand in 1972, was put down in 2009 at the age of 40.
Wilcken refuted any allegations of animal mistreatment at Auckland Zoo and said Auckland provided some of the best care in the world.
Kashin had arrived from Myanmar in poor shape and had thrived in her new home until her chronic conditions became unmanageable.
The zoo’s elephant programme had been reviewed by experts on many occasions.
“I can guarantee none of them have been over to see what sort of life we can give elephants here, what they’re describing isn’t the life we can provide an elephant.
“What I would say is no elephant at Pinnawala can ever be reintroduced to the wild…Nandi and all the other elephants are destined to be in a zoo all their lives and I guess if not Auckland I just ask where.”
The previously-mentioned government report found shortcomings at Pinnawala, with crowded conditions impacting elephant welfare.
In Sri Lanka there was also growing conflict between wild elephants and humans as the animal’s habitat shrunk, Wilcken said.
“Life in the wild is not all milk and honey, I have no doubt in terms of the care we provide our animals…they tend to live much longer and much healthier than they do in the wild.
“Do we think wild populations should be healthy? Absolutely. Nevertheless, on the other hand, do we think we can provide better individual care for many animals? Yes.”
Wilcken said he had no idea what was happening with the court case and hoped Nandi would eventually arrive – but if she didn’t, Auckland Zoo was a member of a global programme of moving elephants around and breeding them so it was possible other elephants could be sourced.
Shane Cowlishaw travelled to Sri Lanka with the assistance of Asia New Zealand.