Once Upon an Elephant
Hailed as ‘The pearl of the Indian ocean’, Sri Lanka is a beautiful island filled with a variety of flora and fauna. When thinking of Sri Lankan wildlife, the elephant, commonly referred to as Aliya in Sinhala, is usually the first animal that pops up in our minds. It is undeniably one of the reasons that attract thousands of tourists to visit the country each year.
The Sri Lankan elephant needs no introduction, because everyone knows what it looks like. The elephant has become a cultural icon. Even if you go shopping, you will not fail to see an elephant printed on a t-shirt or a mug. Let’s revise what we know about these giants before continuing, shall we?
The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is the largest elephant species in comparison to other subspecies of the Asian elephant, Indian, Sumatran and Bornean. The Sri Lankan elephant is endemic. Since 1986, they have been listed as endangered by IUCN as their population has been declining. These jumbos are commonly found in the dry zone in the North, East and Southeast of Sri Lanka. They can also be found in all the national parks except for the ones that are in the highlands, but it is also common to find them living outside protected areas.
Let us turn to some fascinating facts about elephants. Did you know that elephants need to walk a lot? They walk around 20 kilometers a day while eating around 250 kilos of food. Water is considered an important part of their daily diet. An elephant drinks around 150-200 liters of water per day. The trunk that they use to breathe is the most versatile part of an elephant’s body. They also use it to communicate with each other. Isn’t that fascinating?
Have you ever wondered how to identify an elephant? The major feature to look for is the fold of their ears, which is unique. If it’s a tusker, you’ll be able to tell by the shape of its tusks. Most of these tuskers have been given names based on their unique personalities, and each of them has mischievous qualities. They are well coordinated and intelligent animals. Learning and growing as family herds is a part of their lives.
History of the Sri Lankan Elephant
Dating back thousands of years, elephants have been the subject of many fantastic stories in Sri Lankan history. Some of these tales have had a profound impact on the lives of both animals and people. The elephant has always been associated with Sri Lankan culture as a symbol of royalty and power. Locals believe that seeing an elephant is a good omen because elephants are a symbol of prosperity. In Buddhism, a white elephant was the premonition of the Bodhisattvas birth, so it also has religious significance for Buddhists. In ancient times, kings reared elephants to establish their royalty. They also used elephants in wars, as a part of the king’s army. It is also said that in certain instances, the strength of a king was judged by the number of elephants he used in war. The prime example we can take is King Dutugemunu (200 BC). The Mahavamsa states that King Dutugemunu, who defeated King Elara, his South Indian rival, had a tusker named Kandula on which he rode to war. He was captured in the forest around the time of Dutugemunu’s birth. It is said that the elephant grew up alongside the young prince.
Elephants were often captured and tamed for use by ancient Sinhalese monarchs. They used elephants in many religious processions. The king kept all the elephants that were captured and tamed in his stables. This animal was given absolute protection by the royal order. No elephant could be captured or killed without the king’s authority. If someone got caught in the act, they were punishable by death. It is believed that when they shifted kingdoms from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa due to South Indian attacks, the kings ordered their captive elephants to be released into the wild. This could be the reason the tusker population in the country is higher around the North Central province.
When the Portuguese and Dutch came to Sri Lanka, they used various methods to capture elephants. They captured elephants for export. Compared to the English, they caused less harm to these animals. Using a pit to capture elephants was one method the Dutch and the Portuguese used. After digging a pit along one of the jungle paths, it was camouflaged with leaves, so the unsuspecting elephants will fall into the pit. Later, they had stopped using this method because elephants got injured as they fell into these pits.
The Kraal method was another mainly used by the English. Here, an entire herd of elephants was driven into a stockade- an elephant stable, Eth gala in Sinhala. This method needed a lot of workforce. They also used female elephants to lure male elephants in. They trained these females to return at a signal after mingling with the wild elephants, then the other elephants would follow them. Records show that many elephants were caught in kraals, both by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the Southern Province.
The period following the British colonization of the country in 1815 was the worst for the Sri Lankan elephant. Major Thomas Rogers had ruthlessly slaughtered over 1400 elephants, including over 60 tuskers, at a rate of at least one elephant per day until a bolt of lightning struck him. During the same period, Major Thomas Skinner and Captain Galway shot over 600 and 700 elephants for sport. This posed a significant threat to the fauna. In addition, the elephants were also captured in large numbers and exported. It is also said that between 1879 and 1883, 1,000kg of raw ivory was exported .
The British handed weapons to villagers to keep elephants away since they were a hazard to agricultural activities. This is how they altered the minds of our folks, who had always believed in peaceful coexistence. Elephants were used for a variety of jobs when the coffee and tea plantations were first established around 1830. Later, elephants were used to draw heavy machinery for plantation factories. Most plantations employed elephants at a rate determined daily on the type of work they performed. Today, no wild elephants can be captured except by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, that is also only when they pose a serious threat to people’s lives and property. In such situations, the elephants are captured and transported to a remote wildlife reserve or a national park. It’s now clear why the number of elephants decreased during the 1800s. Today, around 5,000 elephants are thought to be alive, and wildlife officials are doing everything they can to safeguard them.
For a change, we thought of presenting you a collection of elephant stories. One of them has changed history and the other stories will put a smile on your face. After all, who doesn’t like to read about these intelligent creatures? To collect interesting stories about these elephant characters, we spoke with Mevan Piyasena, naturalist and nature photographer who is always generous enough to help us bring you interesting stories about wildlife.
Panamure Eth Raja
The elephant Kraal located in Panamure in 1950 is significant in history as it was the last kraal of Sri Lanka. This land was a part of the forest that belonged to Francis Molamure of the famous Maduwanwela Walawwa. It was built around a natural water spring called “Diya Bubula”. During the dry season, elephants came to drink water from this spring. Molamure blocked this area by putting up a fence to trap elephants. It was, of course, for trading. This Kraal drove about 20-30 elephants, including a magnificent female elephant who is believed to be the matriarch of the herd who later got the name Panamure Eth Raja because of her bravery. Even though it was female, in popular media it was marked as male. She tried to rescue the others by refusing to leave and throwing a tantrum. It is said that they kept the doors open for the elephant to move out because they could not manage this elephant. She was noosed with strong ropes but every time she broke free with her strength, making her more violent. None of the tamed elephants even dared to go close to this elephant. That’s when they put her down. A single rifle shot by a hunter between the eyes brought about her death.
She was the heroine who fought to save her own kind but failed because of the cruelty of the two-legged man. Panamure Eth Raja rewrote Sri Lankan history as the public didn’t stay silent after this cruel act. As a result, the government passed a law banning Elephant Kraals and capturing and killing of elephants. This changed the fate of all Sri Lankan elephants. There are songs written especially for this elephant. There is even a memorial built for her in Panamure. These depict both the adoration and the conflict between humans and these giants.
Gemunu is another tusker who is quite famous for his interactions with humans and is loved by everyone. He has earned the reputation of getting close to safari jeeps in search of food. This has apparently originated from him being fed during his young days at the Sithulpawwa temple premises. Gemunu can be spotted easily around Block I of the Yala national park. He uses the main road often without staying on jungle paths. He is used to humans and hardly connects with wild elephants, therefore he avoids confrontation with other bulls. Elephants are good at mastering new skills and Gemunu is the perfect example. He is usually not interested in all these safari jeeps, and he doesn’t show any aggression. Food is all he wants. “I’ve once seen him picking up a bag from a foreigner and after failing to open the bag, he put it in his mouth and crushed it and a puff of smoke came out. Apparently, that was a camera. Then he took it inside the jungle.” Mevan shared one of his experiences. This is only one story, but there are many other mischievous acts by this jumbo not written here.
Mevan told us that Gemunu lost one of its tusks following an attack by another tusker named Sando. We will talk about him in our next story. Going back to Gemunu, Sando has attacked him twice and once he has even collapsed on the ground. Because of these fights, he has lost both of his tusks. One of these tusks has been found, and the wildlife department took it under its care, but there is no trace of the other tusk. They believe it has fallen off somewhere in the jungle. Gemunu has been tuskless for some years now. He is probably around 30 years old today, and luckily, according to Mevan, the elephant’s tusks are growing back and that is indeed good news!
The tusker “Sando”, has been quite infamous for its aggressive behavior in the park. He is a mysterious character, as no one knows exactly where he comes from. The authorities believe he roams around block III and IV in Yala, especially during the month of February. Around this month grasslands grow after the rainy season and Block I is the best for the animals during this period. As the herds move into this zone. Sando comes to this part of the park in search of a female to mate with.
According to Mevan, Sando is a very picky elephant, so it is hard for him to find ‘the one’. It is also a fact that females fear him. His main purpose is to find a mate, and that is why he becomes aggressive, because he is in musth as they tend to get aggressive in this period. He is described by many as “moving very fast like a tank” hitting whatever is in his path that is a disturbance to him.
Galgamuwa tusker (Dala Puttuwa)
This majestic tusker of Galgamuwa was loved by all the villagers in the Galgamuwa area, which is an area highly affected by the human-elephant conflict. He lost his eyesight due to a gunshot injury in the early 2000s. This tusker was known to be aggressive before he went blind.
He became harmless after going blind, and the locals even tolerated him and let him come to their gardens and eat whatever he liked from the trees, because of the love they had for nature. Even when he was injured, he allowed officials to approach him and observe him. He used his sense of smell to locate food, because of this he was confined to in and around villages. Unfortunately he was shot dead when he was around 50-55 years old, by a poacher who was greedy for his tusks. It was a tragedy because he was loved by many in the village. No one deserves to die like that. It shows the nature of the human kind. Some of them are attached to nature and respect it in return for what nature gives them while others destroy it.
Elephant gathering in Minneriya
One of the most spectacular wildlife events in the world happens in Minneriya during the dry season. It is known as the largest gathering of elephants anywhere in Asia. This happens mainly between June and October. During this period, elephants go in search of food and water in different areas, one of them is Minneriya national park. Why is Minneriya special? As the water level drops gradually during this season, they release water from the tank to the paddy fields, exposing the tank bed that allows the grass to grow. As new grass shoots up, the area around the reservoir becomes a lush green pasture. Therefore, elephants gather around where the earth-bed is rich with grass. They come from areas beyond the reservoir. Herds with numbers as large as 300-400 elephants can be seen feeding here. It also makes a great breeding ground for them as different elephants come together here. The sheer size of the gathering makes it spectacular.
These gigantic animals need a widespread habitat as they need vast quantities of food and water, but unfortunately they are currently threatened by the loss of habitat due to fragmentation and blocking of the elephant corridors. The habitat of the Sri Lankan elephant has been fragmented because of deforestation for human settlements and crops. Every year in Sri Lanka, around 180 wild elephants get killed by people in order to protect their properties. Poaching has also become a tremendous threat to the future of these elephants. However, we should look at the human side of the human elephant conflict as well. Where annually about 80 people die after being attacked by elephants. This is one of the biggest issues in Sri Lanka and the wildlife department has been trying to control this issue. There are several organizations that are trying to protect these animals. One of them is the Center for Conservation and Research (CCR), led by Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, who provides scientific methods to reduce this issue. The only problem is that getting these proposals approved has proved to be a daunting process.
One thing we have to keep in mind as humans is that we shouldn’t wait till someone tells us to protect these animals. We must be part of the solution. If we can make sure that we are not being a threat to the wildlife, then we can eventually defeat those who are a threat.
Written by Isora Liyanaarachchi