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Owners of poached elephants in Sri Lanka may escape punishment

A group of wealthy businessmen, a Buddhist priest and others on trial in Sri Lanka for allegedly keeping illegally captured elephants may get their animals back.

Sri Lanka's government says it is ready to forgive the owners of poached elephants and give them a chance to apply for licences provided they can prove in court they did not know the animals that were confiscated from them had been illegally captured from the wild.

In the South Asian island nation, an elephant in the backyard has long been a sign of wealth, privilege and power, even though c apturing wild elephants has been banned for decades.

Despite registration records indicating there should be only 127 elephants in captivity- most of them older - young elephants are a common sight in the country's 400 or so Buddhist religious processions and traditional ceremonies every year.

Success of a religious procession is measured by the number of parading elephants.

For Buddhists, who make up 70% of the island's 20 million people, elephants are believed to have been servants of the Buddha and even a previous incarnation of the holy man himself.

In the last two years, the government has confiscated 39 elephants whose owners produced either false permits or none at all.

Some had paid as much as £155,000 per captured animal when a previous government was in office, according to the wildlife ministry. It would suggest the authorities had either turned a blind eye to the racket or sold fake licences.

The current trial Involves 42 people, including four who are accused of illegally capturing and trading in wild elephants.

Another 27 allegedly altered the official elephant registry and issued and obtained false documents, while five are suspected of possessing elephants without licences and six held for possessing licences without actually having an elephant in their backyard.

Among them are a prominent Buddhist priest and a judge. If convicted, they could face a maximum 10 years in prison or a fine or both.

But if the government has its way, some of them could walk free and own an elephant legally.

A measure adopted by the cabinet in April says only poachers and wildlife officers who collude with them by providing forged licences will face punishment.

According to wildlife minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, owners may get a second chance if they are able to prove that they did not know their elephants were illegally captured or the paperwork fraudulent.

He said: "There are some people who love the animals and maybe they have taken them without knowing. If there are genuine cases proved in court then the court can decide and tell us."

It was not clear when the court will rule or if it will take the government's view into account, but the suggestion has angered conservationists who say it sets a bad precedent.

"This is nonsense," said Sumith Pilapitiya a former World Bank environmental specialist. "The onus is on the buyer to make sure the paperwork is right.

"You are trying to legalise something illegal, looking for loopholes."

The Sri Lankan elephant is one of three subspecies of Asian elephant and is found only on the island. In the 19th century there were believed to be up to 14,000. That number fell to fewer than 3,000 before hunting and capture were banned.

But while the population has grown since then to nearly 6,000, according to the island's first official elephant census in 2011, they are still considered endangered and under threat from habitat loss and degradation.

AP

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