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Sri Lanka's elephant census begins despite boycott
12 Aug, 2011 15:05:59
MINNERIYA, August 12, 2011 (AFP) - Thousands of workers, soldiers and volunteers fanned out across Sri Lanka on Friday to begin the country's first national elephant survey despite a boycott by some wildlife groups.
Hundreds of conservationists decided not to take part because of fears prompted by comments from a minister that the survey will be used to seize elephants and send them to temples for use in religious ceremonies.

Some 4,000 people are taking part in the two-day survey which is the first time formerly war-ravaged Sri Lanka has attempted to count elephants in all of its national parks

The enumerators headed out before dawn on Friday and started the count at watering holes, ancient irrigation tanks and lakes commonly used by elephants.

The animals will be categorised according to gender and the number of young, Pradeep Hettiarachchi, park warden at the Minneriya National Park told AFP.

"We have the largest concentration of wild elephants in a single park and the survey will give us valuable information for park planning and conservation work," Hettiarachchi said.

The boycott was triggered by reported comments by Wildlife Minister S. M. Chandrasena earlier this week who said that the results of the survey would be used to identify elephants to be domesticated.

"Calves suitable for pageants will be chosen during the elephant census, tamed and handed over to the temples," he said according to the Colombo-based Daily Mirror newspaper.

"Sometime back there were more than 300 tamed elephants in the country and the number has now dwindled to around 150 of which only a few are tuskers suitable for pageants."

Elephants are treated as sacred animals in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka and are often paraded during temple festivals.

Wildlife officials have denied there was any plan to use census data to capture wild elephants.

The shortfall of volunteers caused by the boycott was filled by security forces and villagers who will work alongside wildlife officials, said S.R.B. Dissanayake, deputy director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The survey results are due within a month and will give a fair picture of herd patterns and numbers in a country that boasted 12,000 elephants in 1900, according to officials.

The department estimates the current population at just 4,000.

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