The elephant, named Tikiri, had been slated to march in the Esala Perahera, a 10-day series of parades in the city of Kandy. The festival is run by the Temple of the Tooth, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country.
Tikiri was withdrawn from the parade on Tuesday after a Facebook post from Lek Chailert, Thailand’s so-called “elephant whisperer,” went viral.
The post showed an image of Tikiri decked out in full body-covering finery for the parade next to other photos that revealed her emaciated body. Tikiri’s ribs, hip bones and spine are clearly visible in the latter photos, which were posted on Chailert’s advocacy page, called Save Elephant Foundation.
“Tikiri joins in the parade early every evening until late at night every night for 10 consecutive nights, amidst the noise, the fireworks and smoke,” Chailert wrote in the post. “No one sees her bony body or her weakened condition because of her costume. No one sees the tears in her eyes … no one sees her difficulty to step as her legs are short shackled while she walks.”
A man can be seen riding the dressed-up elephant in one photo.
Chailert urged followers to email Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the hope that he would intervene on Tikiri’s behalf.
“Today is World Elephant Day,” Chailert wrote in the post on Monday. “We cannot bring a peaceful world to the elephant if we still think that this image is acceptable.”
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Thousands of people reacted to the post on Facebook, with many sharing their anger in the comments.
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“I hate what we continue to do to these beautiful majestic creatures,” Michele Guyer wrote.
“This is beyond awful — I have tears in my eyes,” Diane C. Landauer said in the comments section. “This beautiful lady needs a sanctuary to live out her remaining days. This breaks my heart.”
Tikiri’s owner has removed her from the festival’s grand finale amid the backlash, according to Pradeep Nilanga Dela, chief custodian of the Temple of the Tooth. The finale typically involves several elephants.
“Tikiri is being treated,” Dela told AFP on Tuesday. He said the elephant has a “medical condition” that the owner plans to address.
Jayantha Jayewardene, who runs the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust in Sri Lanka, says he has major concerns about Tikiri’s health.
“Obviously, the animal is severely undernourished. It is close to death,” he told AFP after reviewing the photos. “This should never have been allowed.”
The Esala Perahera, or Festival of the Tooth, brings out hundreds of traditional drummers and fire dancers for a nearly two-week celebration in Kandy each year to honour a sacred relic held at the temple. The festival also features nearly 100 elephants decked out in cloth garments and LED lights.
Tikiri’s owner told Sri Lankan broadcaster Ada Derana that he put the animal in the parade for religious reasons. The unnamed man said Tikiri has marched in every one of the parades since she was five years old.
He said Tikiri had been suffering from a stomach condition for the last six months but he promised his god that she would walk in the parade if she got better.
The man said he’s spent the equivalent of $9,000 on medication to address the animal’s stomach issues.
Wealthy Sri Lankans often keep elephants as pets. However, the country has come under fire from several animal rights groups for the way it treats elephants, including how they’re used in the Esala Perahera festival.
Asian elephants have been listed as an endangered species since 1986.