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 Post subject: Elephants a little used asset
 Post Posted: Sat Jun 03, 2006 1:54 pm 
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Elephants a little used asset

In Sri Lanka the elephant population is fast depleting. Although there is no accurate census available, it is estimated that about 2500 – 3000 elephants are still found in the wild and a further 500 odd in captivity. At the turn of the last century more than 10,000 elephants were found all over the island.

Written By: Chandra Edirisuriya
@WS


The African Savannah elephant is the largest living land animal. It is Africa’s true King of Beasts.

Asian elephants live in fragmented forests in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo.

The Sri Lankan species is the largest among Asian elephants. It is also the darkest and has patches of depigmentation (an area without colour) on their ears, face, trunk and belly.

In Sri Lanka the elephant population is fast depleting. Although there is no accurate census available, it is estimated that about 2500 – 3000 elephants are still found in the wild and a further 500 odd in captivity. At the turn of the last century more than 10,000 elephants were found all over the island.

In Sri Lanka, elephants can be used for many purposes such as was done during the past. Our kings used elephants in their armies. The Chaturangani sena consisted of elephants, cavalry (horses), chariots and infantrymen (ath, as, riya, pabala). All throughout our history elephants have been tamed and made use of as work animals. In other Asian countries too elephants are used to log forests, transport heavy loads and carry tourists. In India election officials transport ballot boxes to polling booths, inaccessible to vehicles, on elephants. About 15,000 Asian elephants are held in captivity as work animals. Elephants are important in Asian folklore and religion.

In Sri Lanka elephants, particularly tuskers, have been accorded a prominent place in Buddhist religious processions. The Esala Perahera of the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), in the month of August, with the majestic tusker carrying the Relic Casket is world famous. It is by far the most beautiful spectacle held in Sri Lanka. It is in this cultural pageant that the largest number of tuskers and other elephants could be seen. The Sinhala kings caused elephants to be caught from the jungle, tamed them and kept them in a pound (gala). In Gampola and in Katana there are villages by the name of Athgala.

In his war of liberation against Elara, Dutugemunu with his forces crossed the Mahaweli Ganga after having captured all the Tamil forts on the Ruhuna side of the river, but before progressing further it was necessary to reduce the Tamil stronghold at Vijithapura.

The Vijithapura fortress is described to have been of exceptional strength. The king’s elephant Kandula is said to have taken a conspicuous part in breaching the walls of Vijithapura. Dutugemunu mounted on his own elephant challenged Elara to single combat and the latter accepted his challenge. ‘Elara hurled his dart, Gamini evaded it, Gamini made his own elephant pierce Elara’s elephant with his tusks and he hurled his dart at Elara, and at this (Elara) fell there with his elephant’. With these dramatic words, the ancient chronicler has given us a vivid picture of this memorable single combat between two valourous foes - a combat which decided the island’s history for many centuries to come. The Dutugemunu – Elara single combat is the most famous encounter to take place in our country involving elephants.

During British times there was merciless killing of wild elephants by shooting by the white man. However, wild elephants were also captured during that time by the Government and sold to those with means to be tamed and used as work animals.

There is the dramatic tale of the leader tusker kralled at Panamure trying to save its brothers and sisters by breaking open the krall, being shot dead by the authorities. The whole episode is described in the heart rending song “Panamure, Panamure, Panamure Ath Raja” that became a hit.

Elephants are capable of heavy work in difficult terrain beyond the reach of machines. Around the year 1950 my father got the services of a she elephant to bring young coconut trees, weighing a few hundredweights, from a hilly land where he intended to plant budded rubber, about a quarter of a mile from our house, to be planted in our home garden. This she elephant also laid lines of rocks with huge boulders of granite on our rubber land. The mahout controlling her was Themanis. He was a coconut and kitul toddy drinkard and more often than not, when he took the elephant to be tethered in the evenings, after washing her, he used to fall by the road side and until he got up recovering from his drunken stupor the elephant kept watch looking after his goad and belongings.

Even now elephants are used in logging in hilly terrain such as Kitulgala. Elephants were also used to plough lands. My father had got a large size plough to plough our coconut land. But this practice seems to be fast disappearing. If the use of elephants for such heavy work is kept alive and practised increasingly like in countries such as Thailand and Myanmar the saving on fuel for machines will be substantial. When elephants are caught and sold to enthusiasts it will bring in revenue to the State. Most importantly, with the systematic removal of elephants from their jungle habitats the human – elephant conflict will cease.

There have been proud owners of large numbers of tuskers and elephants in our country. Sometimes each individual owned as many as two or three dozen elephants. One such person was the late P. D. P. Dharmavijaya, (Ali Veda Mahattaya), a King of Ayurvedic physicians, educated first at the Yakkala Siddhayurveda College of the legendary Panditha Ralahamy or Wickramarachchi Veda Ralahamy and then at the Ayurvedic Medical College in Calcutta. He owned one of the largest tuskers in Siyane Korale. He lived in his large coconut estate at Nedungamuwa, Veliweriya and bought a twenty five acre hilly land in the proximity of our rubberland and planted it with kitul and medicinal plants. The good Veda Mahattaya grew kitul because kitul is the elephants’ choicest food. There have been several such owners of elephants who could afford to feed them.

His tusker was looked after and worked by Seemon, Themanis’s assistant and pupil in the art of controlling elephants. Seemon takes this tusker to all parts of the country for logging and other heavy work. The Veda Mahattaya earned a good income from his elephants particularly from this tusker. Seemon’s daily earings were also substantial and unlike his guru, Themanis, Seemon consumes a few bottles of beer at the end of the day. However Seemon is careful enough to wash and tether the tusker before he starts his drinking because he knows that a tusker will not tolerate misbehaviour unlike a she elephant. With all his drinking Seemon keeps the home fires burning. His son entered Medical College and became a western medical practitioner.

Elephants’ that are engaged in work during the daytime eat during the night. After the day’s work is over the mahout invariably takes it to a river or oya and washes it thoroughly, scrubbing its whole body with a coconut husk cut in the shape of a brush.

I have nostalgic memories of watching elephants tied to coconut trees in our garden eating kitul trunks, coconut and jak branches. Sometimes the elephant has to be washed in the morning as well as it showers earth on itself with its trunk in the night.

The income from working elephants has been tremendous. It is well and good for the Wild Life Conservation Department to increase its present activities of running elephant orphanages and releasing elephants cared for and brought up in such orphanages to the jungle, as happens periodically, but it is equally important that elephants be made use of to do what machines cannot do. This will also indirectly control the elephant population in the scant forested areas and thereby greatly reduce the human-elephant conflict.

Elephants, especially tuskers, meet with their end at the hands of poachers. Some are killed by farmers and still others are knocked down by moving trains and also fall prey to terrorists.

It is also good to continue an indigenous tradition that has not been neglected by our other Asian neighbours. It looks as if we forsake some of our rich traditions rooted in the soil to ape the West, in too many ways, even at the expense of our economy.


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