Sri Lankan Government Initiates Investigation After "Ailing" Elephant Photo Goes Viral

Sri Lankan officials have ordered an investigation into the care of a 70-year-old “ailing” elephant used for a Buddhist celebration in Sri Lanka following the animal’s collapse.

It comes after festival organizers were forced to pull the elephant from work earlier this week, according to Agence France-Presse, following international protests on social media and a petition that has already garnered more than 35,000 signatures.

"I have been informed that the elephant collapsed yesterday. Considering what has transpired, I have ordered officials to initiate an inquiry and ascertain how and why an elephant in such poor health was used in the (pageant) and to take necessary action against those responsible,” tourism and wildlife minister John Amaratunga reportedly said in a statement. IFLScience sent an email to Amaratunga but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Tikiri is one of 60 elephants participating in the Buddhist Perahera Festival this year at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka. It’s not the first time the temple has come under fire for its care of elephants. A 2012 BBC report found that festival organizers resorted to restraining unruly and sometimes violent elephant participants in chains. However, in Buddhist and Hindu cultures, elephants are revered and have been celebrated in religious ceremonies for centuries.

“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,” wrote Save Elephant Foundation in a Facebook post. “She walks many kilometers every night so that people will feel blessed during the ceremony. No one sees her bony body or her weakened condition, because of her costume.

“No one sees the tears in her eyes, injured by the bright lights that decorate her mask, no one sees her difficulty to step as her legs are short shackled while she walks,” said the foundation.

It is not immediately apparent exactly what is wrong with the elephant. Some commenters are quick to point out that the animal may in fact be frail from age or otherwise suffering from an illness – Sri Lankan elephants have a lifespan of between 55 and 70 years old. Regardless of her health status, some contend that an elephant of her age should not be working at all.

IFLScience reached out to an independent elephant expert and veterinarian who is neither affiliated with the foundation nor the festival in order to seek out another opinion and will provide an update.