COLOMBO - A Sri Lankan Buddhist monk led a procession of elephants Wednesday, demanding authorities capture wild pachyderms from the jungle to boost the dwindling number of the animals in temples.
Patron of the Tamed Elephant Owners' Association, monk Maagalkanday Sudaththa said temples faced a severe shortage of animals for their annual pageants where caparisoned elephants are paraded.
"There are only 130 tamed elephants in the country and only about half them are actually available for temple parades," said the monk, who led some two dozen elephants from parliament to the wildlife office a short distance away.
"We want the authorities to capture wild elephants and tame them for our cultural purposes," the monk told AFP.
There was no immediate comment available from the wildlife department where the monk staged his elephant protest.
But environmentalists said the authorities for decades have not allowed the capture of elephants from the wild.
Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said they had no objections if the state released animals from the country's main elephant orphanage at Pinnawala, 90 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo, for the temples.
"Animals in the wild are already threatened with the habitat shrinking," Gunawardena told AFP.
"If you allow the capture from the wild, things will get worse for the animals. What we say is give elephants from Pinnawala if you want, but don't allow the capture of wild elephants."
The elephant orphanage established in 1975 shelters more than 85 elephants, most of whom were abandoned or separated from their herds when they were babies. Many have also been born at the orphanage.
Asian elephant expert Jayantha Jayewardene noted many Sri Lankans wanted to own elephants as a symbol of wealth.
"It is prestige. It is a way of showing your wealth" Jayewardene said. "I fear the calls to allow the capture of wild elephants (for temple ceremonies) is just a ruse for people to freely own elephants."
Sri Lanka considers elephants sacred animals because of their association with Buddhist temple festivities. Pinnawala elephants have been presented as gifts to Buddhist temples as well as to other countries as symbols of friendship.
Elephants are also protected by law and there were fears that their numbers were falling, but a survey in 2011 found that Sri Lanka's elephant population remained healthy with 7,379 in the wild.
The survey's results had been a welcome outcome for authorities who had believed the wild elephant population totalled just 5,350.
The country boasted 12,000 elephants in 1900 but their numbers have been depleted by shrinking of habitat as farmers kill animals who stray onto their land.