Domestication of ELEPHANTS over the ages
by Ifham Nizam
Island / Thursday, August 04, 2005
The exact date of the first instance of the domestication of elephants in Sri Lanka cannot be traced but it is possible that this practice existed when the history of the country was first written.
However, there is no specific evidence to indicate that domestication existed in pre historic times, says Jayantha Jayewardene, one of the foremost authorities on the elephants of Sri Lanka.
The present evidence from the work of P. E. P. Deraniyagala suggests that pre historic people of this country had some encounters with elephants, but most of them were limited to using elephant flesh as food after hunting or scavenging and using the bones for or tool making and as items of curiosity.
The first account regarding domestic elephants is with regard to the gift of an elephant along with several other gifts made by the Pandu king of India, when his daughter was sent to Sri Lanka as the queen to King Vijaya, who was the first king of the Sinhalese monarchy.
Jayewardene says that elephants were used extensively for various purposes during the early period around the sixth century BC. Elephants were used mainly as state, royal and war elephants for religious purposes including Peraheras, beast of burden engaged in heavy work, as an item of trade, as gifts, in some sports and for recreational purposes.
He went on to say that during the Portuguese and Dutch times, there was a special unit called the Elephant Hunt. There was a stable in Matara where elephants captured from the wild were tamed and trained.
Records show that there have been a considerable number of elephants in the stables. Most of these elephants were sold to buyers who mainly came from India. The Portuguese set up an organised elephant capturing unit headed by a Gajanayake.
However, he says that the British were not too interested in the sale of elephants and the income that this activity brought in. They were more interested in shooting as a sport. They also declared wild elephants as agricultural pests.
During their rule elephants were used as beasts of burden during the time the plantations were started and also for other works, which only elephants could carry out. Elephants were used in the service of the Public Works Department.
Jayewardene, who is also the Project Director of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded Protected Area Management and Wildlife Conservation Project, says that the need of the hour is to activate the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Asian Elephant Specialist Group or for the formation of a body comprising of representatives of all the Asian range states together with those experienced and knowledgeable on the Asian elephants.
He says that this organisation has to be very dynamic and give Asian elephant conservation a lead and new direction. It has necessarily to deal with governments if the programmes are to be effective.
"It has to look at the scientific management and research needs of each country, prioritize them, seek sufficient funding and ensure the proper implementation of each project.
"A great effort by many from many places is necessary to ensure the continuance of the Asian elephant in the wilds," he says.
Jayewardene also says that donors and researchers have concentrated more on working with the African elephants than its Asian counterpart.
"This is because there has been a greater focus worldwide on the African elephants and there is a greater western conservation influence in Africa than in Asia.
"Another reason is that there has been no collection body pushing the research and conservation needs of the Asian elephants to the donors and funding agencies," he added.
He also says that the US Congress passed a bill, a few years ago, where they make available US$ five million annually for the conservation of the Asian elephant. These funds are administered through the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Jayewardene called it a great step forward in the conservation of the Asian elephant.
He also said that there was an extensive elephant research project carried out by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1960s. However, thereafter there has been no significant research on elephants in Sri Lanka.
In recent years a team led by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and consisting of Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, Manori Gunawardene, Dr. Eric Wickremanayake, H. K. Janaka and L. K. A. Jayasinghe has carried out research on various aspects of elephant behaviour – their biology, ecology, ranging patterns and human-elephant conflicts.
Their seven-year research has been mainly concentrated in the south of Sri Lanka and also in the North Western Province.
Jayewardene says that Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and his team’s findings have been significant but unfortunately the Department of Wildlife Conservation is slow in adopting them in their elephant management and conservation strategies.
"I think that zoos have a very important role to play in the conservation of elephants in the wild. Apart from the breeding of elephants in some zoos on a scientific basis, the zoo can fund the various research needs that elephant conservationists have come up with," added Jayewardene.
All African elephants male and female carry tusks. However, if the Asian species only the males carry tusks and that too in differing percentages in different regions.
In Sri Lanka between five and seven per cent of the male elephants carry tusks, whilst just across the Palk Straits in South India 98 per cent of the males have tusks. In North India the percentage is much less.
According to Jayewardene, some believe that the reason for the low percentage of tuskers in Sri Lanka is due to the extraction of mainly tuskers during the Portuguese and Dutch periods when they were captured for war and export as gifts.
"Others have a theory that Sri Lanka did not have tuskers but that tuskers were imported from India and introduced to the wilds. Some believe that a female carries the tusker gene as well and is not carried exclusively by the tusker himself as popularly believed," he added.