Injured Giant (Sri Lanka)


Yasantha de Silva, Daily News

Date Published


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Sri Lanka as a nation has an enormous debt to pay to the wild elephants for safeguarding the areas of the present northern province, north central province, eastern province as well as Puttalam district for seven centuries. During this time, the island’s sovereigns completely abandoned Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and the entire Rajarata and shifted the seats of administration and capitals to the western, northwestern and central provinces: Kurunegala, Dambadeniya, Gampola, Kotte and Kandy.

King Parakramabahu the Great ruled for 33 years from 1153 AC to 1186 AC. Unfortunately, he died without issue and 13 sovereigns of whom ten were kings, two were queens and one was a three-month old infant ruled from 1189 to 1214 AC. of them, the only noteworthy sovereign, who was able to maintain the massive network of irrigation works constructed by King Parakramabahu the Great and also uphold the Buddhist traditions which climaxed under the king, was King Nissankamalla. However he could rule only for nine years from 1187 AC, as he died in 1196 AC. Eleven sovereigns followed thereafter in quick succession till 1214 AC, when a foreign despot known as Kalinga Magha wrested authority at Polonnaruwa. He and his depraved troops plundered and destroyed the entire Rajarata. By the end of 21, years of Kalinga Magha’s barbaric rule, there was massive depopulation and the Rajarata plunged into the depths of penury and the jungle crept back to hide all the traces of the former grand civilisation.

It was only the widespread and eternal presence of elephants that prevented travellers, especially from the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, who were frequent arrivals to Sri Lanka, from making inroads into the interior inland areas to establish settlements. The wild elephants also safeguarded the Buddhist shrines and various other historical monuments from treasure-hunters and vandals. When the Somawathy Chaitya, where a sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha is enshrined, was discovered in 1947, its vicinity was full of wild elephants and it has been observed by many that wild elephants visit the Chaitya around midnight to pay respects.

During the British Colonial period, a foreign vandal, who was taking aim to shoot at one of the Buddhist statues at the famous Gal Viharaya at Polonnaruwa, was killed, before he could release the trigger, by an elephant. It emerged suddenly from the forest behind him. These indicate that the wild elephants have been a source of extraordinary protection to the Buddhist places of worship whether they were in ruins or not, since the 13th century.

Army of wild elephants

The profusion of elephants that captain Robert Knox, a captive of the island’s king of Kandy, had encountered during the week of his escapade by fleeing through the jungle along the Malvatu Oya from Anuradhapura to the maritime boundry of the Dutch near Arippu in 1679 gives an indication of the density of the elephant population in the jungles of these areas at that time. The extreme mortal fear created by wild elephants in these jungles was as great as the oppressive fear the people had of the barbaric capital punishments of the ruling autocratic monarchs further down south of the island. It was this army of wild elephants which kept all the unauthorised activities of jungle clearing, settlements, treasure hunting and vandalism at bay.

Reverend Phillipus Baldaeus, a Dutch priest, who was in Ceylon for nine years, published a book titled ‘A true and exact description of the great island of Ceylon’. It was translated from Dutch to English by a Ceylonese, Pieter Brohier, and published in 1960. Out of the nine years, he spent one year at Matara and the rest in Manner and Jaffna districts, where he conducted missionary activities. He refers to elephants abounded in these districts and records a personal encounter with an elephant while travelling between Manner and Jaffna and even condoles the death of the chief of the elephant catchers in the Manner region by an elephant. In his description of the 11 churches built in Jaffna during his tenure, he mentions that the surroundings of the church at Pulopalai was subject to depredations of wild elephants. An illustration of this, depicting a herd of elephants and the wild palm trees felled by them, is also presented in the book.

Pulopalai is in Jaffna close to Elephant Pass. Further in his map of Vanni and Jaffna, the presence of elephants is indicated as extending right up to the boundary of Jaffna lagoon from Kilinochchi.

British colonial era

During the British colonial period, when the forests in wet zone were cleared for planting coffee, tea and rubber, the killing of elephants by shooting occurred in a massive scale. Shooting of elephants also occurred in the dry zone and intermediate zone by irate farmers for the protection of the settlements and cultivations with whatever type of guns they could lay their hands on, licensed or unlicensed, serviceable or unserviceable, imported or locally, turned out. When reading through the accounts of the exploits of shooting of elephants by hunters, who called themselves ‘ sportsman’ the descriptions of dead elephants invariably mention of innumerable gunshot injuries all over the body and these hunters have been the ones who fired the final fatal shots with their modern rifles to kill the elephants. The farmers have at most times shot elephants while perched atop their watch huts, built well above the range of the extended trunks of elephants, on strong trees.

The accounts of the pastimes of these ‘sportsman’ end with the grim tales of butchery for the removal of the forelegs, ears, tails and teeth of elephants for souvenirs as well as umbrella and walking stick stands for the porches of their bungalows. Actually from the commencement of the British colonial era up to now, the elephants have had no respite from being at the receiving end of bullets and suffering, for with the clearing of lands for the Galoya, Udawalawe and the Mahaweli projects, the last of which is still continuing, new colonists, settled in the former elephant habitats, continue to main and kill elephants using more and more sinister ways in addition to shooting.

Dr R L Spittel, the celebrated author, anthropologist and environmentalist of Sri Lanka, sounded these forebodings very succinctly in the editorial of the June 1951 issue of the ‘Loris’, the magazine of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, when large extents of hitherto elephant habitats were getting cleared for the projects at Galoya and Udawalawe.

The wild elephants are our biggest national asset and deserve a better treatment than being confined to the sixteen national parks and sanctuaries to eke out a living and get shot or electrocuted or die of bomb blasts in the mouth or get run over and killed by vans and trucks or railways or even get their calves stolen from them the moment they step out of the national parks or sanctuaries.

Currently 35 elephant calves, which were harboured in private premises, whose owners did not have valid legal documents to retain the calves, have been sent to the two state run elephant orphanages at Pinnawela and Udawalawe by the relevant authorities. The public are still not aware as to how these calves were procured from the wilds. Because elephants have become sources of easy income today from elephant rides and safaris for tourists as well as hiring out of elephants for religious processions, surreptitious capturing of elephant calves by contract catchers is a very serious threat to the survival of the wild elephants. Incidentally one cannot avoid wondering how elephant kidnappings have happened in such a massive scale in this country which only a few years earlier gained a notable victory over one of the most powerful terrorist organisations of the world.

Tragic consequences

Of the five continents in the world, elephants are found in only the two continents of Africa and Asia. The African elephant is Loxodonta africana and its two subspecies are the ‘Savannah elephant’ (Loxodonta africana africana) and the ‘Forest elephant’ (Loxodonta africana zyclotis).

The Asian elephant is Elephes maximus and there are three subspecies known as the ‘Ceylon elephant’ (Elephes maximus maximus) ‘Sumatran elephant’ (Elephes maximus sumatriana) and the ‘Indian elephant’ (Elephen maximus indice). The ‘Ceylon Elephant’ is found only in Sri Lanka and in the biggest of the Asian elephants.

The Solution to the ‘Elephant – Human-Conflict’ resulting in tragic consequences for both elephants and humans is long overdue. One is inclined to think that the elephants were forgotten entities in the land clearing equations at the planning stage of the mega projects of the Galoya, Udawalawe and the Mahaweli and the solution were from ideas which cropped up later as the ‘elephant problems’ were getting out of hand. Is it not better for us, even at this large stage, to have a sound, far sighted elephant conservation policy which can also be integrated into an economic development policy of the dry zone, which comprises 58 percent of the island’s land mass?