Heart-rending images of an emaciated elephant at a festival in Sri Lanka have recently surfaced, prompting animal activists to urge tourists to boycott some attractions in the island nation.
"This is Tikiri, a 70 year old ailing female. She is one of the 60 elephants who must work in the service of the Perahera Festival in Sri Lanka this year," reads an Aug. 13 Facebook post written by Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation.
The Thailand-based nonprofit organization's mission is to "save the Asian elephant from extinction and give domesticated elephants a life worth living by preserving habitat and increasing public awareness on humane treatment practices," according to its Facebook page.
The Esala Perahera festival (also known as the Festival of the Tooth) is an annual Buddhist festival celebrated with elegant costumes, performers and decorated elephants in Kandy, located in central Sri Lanka.
The Facebook post explained: "Tikiri joins in the parade early every evening until late at night every night for ten consecutive nights, amidst the noise, the fireworks, and smoke. 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."
"This is beyond awful - I have tears in my eyes," one commenter wrote on the post. "This beautiful lady needs to a sanctuary to live out her remaining days. This breaks my heart."
The foundation urged readers to write to the Sri Lankan prime minister and ask him to release the elephant from its service. An online petition also was created, calling for officials “to end this barbaric torture and abuse.”
As of publication, the petition had collected more than 13,000 signatures.
A spokeswoman for the Sacred Tooth Relic, the temple that holds the festival, reportedly told the London Metro that “always care about the animals" and claim that Tikiiri has been examined by a veterinarian.
In an update posted Aug. 15, the Save Elephant Foundation wrote: "Please pray for her. It is too tiring for her to walk and work. On the day we met her the vet said she is strong and Ok to walk ???"
Despite the international outcry, Tikiri's current status is still unknown. "We are still trying to verify that information," the foundation told TODAY via Facebook.
Regardless, activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals believe that Tikiri is just one example of larger problems within elephant tourism.
"Tikiri is suffering as a result of the exploitation and abuse to which elephants at tourist traps and in temples are so commonly subjected," Elisa Allen, PETA U.K. director, told TODAY in an emailed statement.
"Sri Lankan authorities must stop allowing such atrocious cruelty," she wrote. "We remind everyone that elephants don't naturally obey human commands or allow humans to ride on their backs. They do so because mahouts (handlers) carry bullhooks – iron rods with a sharp hook on one end – to dig into their flesh and other weapons that they learned as babies to fear."
She continued: "Most elephants, even those at scam 'camps,' are torn away from their mothers' tender care when they're just infants and secured between trees with heavy chains and ropes – which cause painful wounds – or confined to a tiny wooden enclosure in order to break their spirits."
According to a 2017 report from World Animal Protection, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of the planet and the animals that inhabit it, more than 75% of nearly 3,000 elephants used for tourist entertainment in Asia are kept in "severely cruel conditions."
Of the 2,923 elephants investigated in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos and Cambodia, 77% of them were treated "appallingly."
So what can tourists do when traveling to this region of the world? PETA's Allen suggests that visitors refuse to ride elephants and avoid "any attraction that offers or endorses elephant rides, keeps the animals chained, or forces them to perform – including the Pinnawala Elephant 'Orphanage'; and Dehiwala Zoo."
She added: "Stay a mile away from any festival where these miserable wild animals are paraded, such as Kandy Esala Perahera – and complain, complain, complain."