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The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus) belongs to the order Proboscidea, sub-order Elephantoidea. It is the largest living land animal and the last vestige of the mammoths that roamed the world in the Eocene period. The elephant population at that time would have been freely moving in a land mass covering the Asian Region and is thus indigenous to Sri Lanka, where the forest habitat has provided the elephant with a perfect refuge, whether it is for fodder, going in search of a mate, wallowing in the dust or immersing itself in pools of water.

It is a social animal and moves about in gregarious herds. Its habits show many similarities to human society, including admirable qualities of leadership, protecting and fighting for the herd, and helping weak members. Elephants show a high degree of emotion and intellect, and some consider its intelligence second only to humans.


Man has found the elephant to be an ideal tool and beast of burden. In the third century BC, Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants. In classical Rome, elephants participated in military pageants and were used in Roman amphitheatres. In World War II, elephants were used to carry heavy military equipment in the mud and steep slopes of the Asian war fronts.

Historically, in Sri Lanka, the elephant was used as a personnel carrier in the many wars fought in the country against invading forces. During peaceful times the ancient kings built their cities using elephants to haul heavy building material, such as granite columns, using low-bed carts.

The elephant has been used for hauling logs in forest operations for some hundreds of years, before mechanization of forest harvesting technology. However, with technological development, man gradually replaced the elephant with the motorized tractor, with greed driving the need to produce more and more in an industrialized world. Higher productivity was gained, but at the cost of heavy and permanent damage to the forest ecosystem, especially in rain forests, with consequent negative environ-mental impact. There is now much concern globally to stop such destruction, and even to stop trade in tropical hardwoods.


It is in the context of environmental responsibility that a fresh look at harvesting of logs is necessary, having principles of conservation in mind. A careful analysis of the use of elephants to haul logs proves beyond doubt that elephants are in many ways the ideal tool for forest operations. In the fragile ecosystems of tropical wet evergreen natural forests, mechanized logging causes ten times as much heavy damage as traditional logging using animals. Damage caused is both direct and indirect, including prevention of natural regeneration _ which can lead to genetic erosion; damage to the soil structure; and hydrological modification. The elephant is at home in the forest, whether it is carrying a burden or not. It is intelligent enough to understand the terrain types, avoid obstructions and take the path of least resistance, thus avoiding the need to open the expensive and environmentally damaging skid trails needed to run mechanized equipment.

There is no doubt that the elephant is an ideal means of handling logs in a multitude of forest operations, causing minimum damage. This contributes to conservation of the natural environment and is of major positive significance in any environmental impact assessment (EIA).


Trained elephants can be used in combination with machines, but what is significant is the kind of machines. For instance, there is no need to use a mechanized skidder where conditions are suitable for elephant skidding. When felling and bucking are done with power saws and transport is by trucks, elephants can be used for skidding to a roadside. Short-distance forwarding on available roads by agricultural tractors or forwarders are effective tools when worked in combination with elephants.

One positive advantage of elephants in skidding is their availability, as they have no down-time comparable to that of machines when they have to wait for costly spares and repairs. In fact Bill Williams, a veteran forester and lumberjack, in his book Spotted Deer, says that he prefers elephants to machines when logging in Burmese teak forests for the same reasons. He had even made use of the elephants to raft teak logs from island to island across short stretches of sea.

The elephant in its natural habitat, like most wild creatures, is peace-loving and shy of noise and strangers. Often they show offensive traits when confronted with strange colours or loud noise. When domesticated, however, the animal accepts strange noises and machines, though warily.

In logging operations, the main tools needed are power saws, skidders, loaders and trucks, in that order. The elephant can conveniently perform three of these functions, and so is often called a _three-in-one_. It can skid logs, and also push trucks through sticky terrain. The only time it is exposed to high noise levels is when power saws, loaders or skidders are in operation, and perhaps when logging trucks start away at high engine speeds. There have been no incidents of elephants reacting to high noise levels, although they dislike such disturbances. They have come to accept the noise of traffic, both in forest operations and living in the wild state in parks and sanctuaries.

Of the five senses, an elephant's vision and hearing are not as well developed as its keen sense of smell. Perhaps that is an advantage when working alongside machines. Nevertheless, a recruit elephant engaged in logging operations is introduced to noise carefully. For example felling, de-limbing and bucking using a chain saw is done before the elephant is made to go up to the stump site to start skidding. There are instances where elephants are transported by truck over long distances, and all indications are that elephants can be trained to accept machines as part of logging operations.


Comparisons of machines and elephants in forestry work are many, but significant conclusions are listed below.


_ Under forest conditions the elephant has the advantage of working in its natural environment. The trees, the terrain, rocks and boulders, streams and rivers are familiar and the animal is completely at home whilst engaged in skidding heavy burdens.

_ Reciprocally, the environment easily accepts the intrusion as natural, and comes to no harm.

_ To reach the stump site and return to the landing with a load needs a track of perhaps only one metre wide. By instinct and intelligence the animal treads the path of least resistance.

_ The initial investment to purchase an elephant is between $US 10 000 and $US 15 000, as against $US 150 000 for a wheeled skidder.

_ Monthly running cost of an elephant is in the region of $US 520, compared with $US 795 for a skidder.

_ In terms of foreign exchange, the elephant costs nothing, while machines require costly imported spares and fuel.

_ The animal is herbivorous and survives on grasses and other fodder, including climbers which can be detrimental to healthy tree growth. Thus it inadvertently exposes hibernating seeds to germination stimuli and removes strangulating tree climbers.

_ There are significant socio-economic benefits to rural communities living in remote forest villages, through providing employment as mahouts, helpers, food suppliers and other spin-off jobs.

_ In Sri Lanka, the elephant is traditionally and culturally recognized as a glorious animal.

_ Elephants do not emit polluting gases and particulate matter as motorized equipment does.


_ Wheel skidders and loading cranes are more efficient and faster, resulting in better productivity, but cause greater damage to the local ecosystem.

_ An elephant cannot work continuously day and night.

_ Logs have to be sniped _ at extra cost _ to offer less friction and to avoid jamming, causing minor volume losses.



The most painstaking and important work undertaken by the elephant is skidding logs. The elephant sets off carrying its skidding gear around its neck to the stump site. The mahout leads the elephant with the assistance of a choker-man or foot mahout. The foot mahout is often engaged for the day on a casual basis by the concession holder.

By the time the elephant reaches the stump site the tree would have been topped, de-limbed and bucked to convenient lengths. The bucking is done to match the volume or weight of log that can be skidded by the elephant. All logs would have a minimum diameter of 30 cm, the length varying from 7 m to 10 m depending on the capacity of each elephant, and could weigh up to 2 t.

However, there are other factors, such as the shape of the log (round; with or without buttresses); the type of terrain; surface evenness; firmness of the soil; etc., which will have a bearing on the log volume and weight that can be safely skidded by the elephant. Sometimes skidding is along a watercourse or on dry land, or both. The elephant has a distinct preference to skidding along watercourses, as it can quench its thirst and splash water over itself to control body temperature. Skidding in streams can be less strenuous since the boulders offer little resistance and logs slide over them easily. An elephant's feet are susceptible to skin disease when skidding in marshy conditions, but in water streams the toes are kept clean and it is thus more hygienic. Besides these advantages, the water gives buoyancy to the log, thus lessening the effort required to move a given weight. A disadvantage is the presence of large boulders which can jam the log or make progress slow and slippery. Ergonomically, skidding in water is ideal as it minimizes the possibility of heat stress, and is less strenuous, although it can disturb the bottom and leave bark and dung in the stream.

In Sri Lanka, elephants are made to skid logs basically by two methods, selected according to terrain type: the harness method, or the side method. The harness method is used when the terrain is flat and offers no danger of the log rolling down a slope. If this happens there is always a risk of injury to the elephant as there is no way of immediately releasing the log from the harness. Skidding on slopes is done by the side method, so that the elephant, when sensing danger, can simply jettison the bit from its mouth and release the log instantly. An elephant does not take any risk if there is danger _ however much the mahout urges it. This has been shown again and again, as elephants seem more sensitive to danger than human beings.

It is not usually necessary to skid logs uphill, but the necessity may arise, depending on the location of the roadway.

If the road is located downhill, the elephant can be made to slide logs down a chute or to roll them downhill, depending on the surface characteristics. When rolling logs, the elephant uses its front legs, knees, trunk or even the forehead to push the log. For haulage on hillsides and narrow paths, the animal should work on the uphill side and not on the lower side, as there is always the danger that the log can roll down and injure the animal.


The harness method (Figure 1)

 _  The effort needed to haul the log is distributed throughout the body, and not localized.

 _  A bigger load can be handled than in the side method.

 _  Ideally suited to hauling on flat ground.

 _  As the entire length of the log is in contact with the ground there is more friction, and hence greater effort is necessary.

 _  It damages the ground by creating gullies and compacting soil.

 _  While using the harness method, the log may sometimes slide, especially when hauling downhill, and the elephant is then directly in the path of the sliding log. Instances of this nature have been observed in forest work, where the elephant has intelligently taken preventive action by side-stepping the sliding log rather than trying to run ahead. There have also been instances of accidents where the log has rolled down the slope.

 _  Elephants can feed and drink whilst hauling, whenever succulent fodder is passed.

Figure 1 Elephant hauling a log using a harness

The side method (Figures 2 and 3)

 _  The log is lifted slightly and this helps to get over obstructions.

 _  The side method is suited for skidding on hilly terrain.

 _  Disadvantages are that

_  application of effort is confined to the mouth, especially placing strain on the molars and the facial muscles, which can lead to serious dental problems later, and

_  the elephant tends to turn its head to the side of the drag, which places more strain on the neck muscles on that side.

 _  The elephant is prevented from feeding itself whilst hauling.

Figure 2 The side method of haulage, with the elephant sorting logs at the landing


Elephants are used very effectively by concession holders to lift logs into trucks, thereby avoiding the need for additional equipment. Loading is done by lifting one end of the log using a chain bound round that end of the log, in a similar way to gripping logs when skidding by the side method. The lifted end is placed on the deck of the truck (Figure 4). The chain is then slid towards the other end of the log, and the process repeated till it is firmly balanced on the deck of the truck.

Figure 3 The side method of hauling _ the elephant bites on the small branch to which the chain is fastened that is passed around the log to be hauled.

Figure 4 The elephant lifts the log on to the truck deck

The log is then pushed home against the cab guard by the elephant using its forehead or trunk (Figure 5). The elephant knows not to push too hard so as to avoid damaging the cab guard. Sometimes the elephant uses the upper part of its legs or body to prevent logs rolling. It uses its full height to the best advantage to load tier after tier of logs. Where necessary, additional height is gained by stepping on a log used as a platform. A well-trained elephant uses its intelligence, and works quickly and effectively. It takes about 45 minutes to load 7 m³ onto a truck.

Figure 5 The elephant gently pushes the log into position on the lorry deck


Elephants are also employed in sorting logs at landings and depots. The main functions here are rolling, lifting and pushing. The elephant uses its legs, trunk, tusks and forehead very effectively for this. The same occurs when breaking up log jams. It is interesting to witness how the elephant winds its long trunk around, sometimes using the mouth, to lift a log from a jam (Figures 6 and 7).

Figure 6 The elephant requires little space to operate in at landings. Here it is sorting out logs, while the mahout keeps watch for possible dead branches falling as the logs knock the trees. Safety gear is conspicuous by its absence.

Figure 7 The elephant requires little space to operate in at landings. Here it is stacking logs.


Sometimes it is necessary to uproot whole trees, especially for land clearing work, such as in levelling playing-fields and preparing building sites, or for re-planting purposes.

Elephants can easily nudge over trees up to 50 cm diameter, especially those species which do not develop deep roots. When in search of food it will not hesitate to topple trees to feed on the bark, foliage or small branches.

When re-planting rubber and coconut plantations, old stumps need to be grubbed out as they are a possible reservoir of plant pests and diseases that could attack the successor trees.

Where tree diameters are over 50 cm, it is common to use elephants to uproot the tree after ripping the lateral roots and loosening the soil. The elephant uses its forehead, trunk or foot to bear the tree down.


To reduce friction whilst skidding, it is necessary to sharpen, snipe or point one end of the log, the end where the drag holes are. Drag holes are about 10 cm square, and pass through the log, allowing the drag chain to run freely through the hole. The drag holes are made about 30-40 cm behind the tip of the snout (Figure 8). There is an unavoidable small loss of wood due to this, about 1% of the log volume. Sniping and drag holes appear to be the most practical way of skidding under difficult terrain conditions.

Figure 8 Ends of logs, showing the amount of timber lost to sniping and to drag holes


As experience with mechanized logging has accumulated, the elephant has come to be recognized as ideal for certain forest operations, both in terms of cost and in response to current demands for sensitive and responsible environmental management.

It is the adaptability of the elephant that makes it such a good tool, and in particular, logging in tropical forests in hilly terrain is very effectively done using elephants, which are at home under those conditions. Hence all encouragement should be given to forest concession holders to continue and increase their use of elephants.

In Sri Lanka, the elephant is very often controlled by uneducated and ill-trained mahouts, who may drive an elephant too hard. This can lead to the death of the animal, or the mahout's own death at the _hands_ of an infuriated animal. The mahout has intimately to know the psychological and physiological needs of the animal. The elephant has also to be trained systematically and scientifically, taking into consideration its capacity to work. One of the constraints faced in Sri Lanka is the dwindling elephant population, and hence the need for a programme of breeding in captivity.

Elephant owners in Sri Lanka do not usually allow animals to breed in captivity, for economic reasons. During the long period of gestation of 22 months and the long post-natal period, the work output of the animal is reduced or nil. One solution to this problem is to establish elephant camps, as has been done in South India and Thailand, managed by the State or an NGO. Practical training programmes on the use of elephants in logging could be introduced by agencies responsible for forest work. Such programmes should employ all possible media _ including audio-visual techniques and general publications _ and disseminate the results of research so as to promote the cause of elephant logging.


To own elephants in Sri Lanka is a status symbol, either of social status or of wealth. Often, economic considerations of the owner come first, before the care, health and multi-plication of the animal. The public sector acts with more responsibility for the welfare of their animals, as they have easier access to veterinary services and elephant husbandry specialists, and look after their animals with due respect for hygiene. They are also not driven by such immediate economic considerations.


8.1.1  The elephant orphanage

The elephant orphanage at Pinnawela, established in 1975 and maintained by the Zoological Gardens, occupies a 12 ha coconut plantation, about 80 km from Colombo on the Kandy road. In 1990, waifs and stray elephants in residence comprised 30 babies and 12 full grown adults (Figure 9).

Figure 9 A baby-sitter fondling a baby elephant in the elephant orphanage

8.1.2  The Zoological Gardens

The Zoological Gardens are located within the municipal area of Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia, some 15 km from the city centre. As with the Pinnawela Orphanage, the Zoological Gardens are publicly owned.

The Zoological Gardens are open to the public and the elephants are a daily attraction, especially for children and foreigners, as the elephants are trained to entertain visitors. There is a daily show, including circus-type performances. The population is about 14 elephants, and they are quite placid. The ages range from 6 months to 40 years. Occasional elephant auctions are held to dispose of animals in excess of the zoo's requirements.


Besides those in the two publicly owned elephant centres, there are about 600 privately owned elephants. It is traditional that major Buddhist temples, such as the Dalada Maligawa, own elephants, acquiring them through donations, gifts from foreign countries, or from the Government of Sri Lanka by way of Sannas and Rajakariya, which are traditional presentations by decree by rulers and governments in power. Such decrees are part of the Buddhist culture, in recognition of the services rendered by the Buddha Sasana to the Royal Court. The principal Buddhist temples also have annual pageants. Here the elephants, numbering from a few to as many as 150, participate in processions parading the city streets, and caparisoned in attractive regalia carrying the relics of Lord Buddha.

Elephants owned by the temples and private citizens have their own training programmes, where seasoned mahouts and the owners jointly carry out basic training.


The infrastructure needed for an elephant camp includes:

 _  An area of slightly undulating open land adequate to support the number of elephants in the camp, with high-roofed stalls for housing them.

 _  A perennial and ample water supply _ the ideal being access to a river or stream with clean running water.

 _  Shade trees offering a cool atmosphere. The trees should be big enough for elephants to be tethered, especially at times of musth.

 _  There should be a plentiful supply of fodder in the vicinity.

 _  Proximity to veterinary services is always an advantage.


The ideal age for training an elephant is when it is 10-12 years old. As with humans, this is the age at which it is easiest to mould the mind of youngsters and teach them to understand and carry out commands given in training. Young elephants can be easily disciplined by kind words, offering rewards of love, care, admiration and recognition for good behaviour. The older the elephant, the more difficult it is to train, because elephants captured after they are 10 years old will have acquired traits which are difficult to discipline. In fact, elephants bred in captivity are the easiest to train.

An elephant from the wild has first to be broken in, like a wild stallion. It is restless, easily angered, trumpets and can run amok like an uncontrolled locomotive, a reflection of its enormous strength. The first step is to subdue it. This is done with the help of fetters on all legs, binding rope around the neck and body, and around sensitive spots. Veteran monitor elephants are also made to flank the new recruit to keep it under control. Often the monitors play their role by lashing, nudging, kicking and beating the newcomer. Their mere presence is an influence on the wild elephant. For the first week the trapped elephant is starved, except to give an occasional drink. In any case the wild one is in no mood to eat and is in a state of trauma. As it gets weaker, the mahout tempts it by offering water. Gradually the elephant responds to the approach of the mahout.

An elephant's weakness is its desire to be in water. This is exploited to the full. After splashing the elephant with buckets of water or from a hose, the next stage is to lead it to a pool of water, escorted by monitors. In the meantime, the mahout gains the confidence of the elephant by feeding it with sugar cane, bananas, salt, fruit and other tempting foods. Elephants love to lie in water for hours, cooling themselves, and while it lies there the mahout would give it a good scrubbing down, with coconut husks used as brushes (Figure 10).

Figure 10 The mahout ensures the elephant has water and is cared for

The next stage in the training is to get the elephant to carry a small bundle of fodder, which could be salty coconut fronds, juicy kithul stems (Caryota urens, toddy palm), or lush jak leaves (Artocarpus heterophyllus [syn. A. integrifolia], jackfruit). The weight of such a bundle would be around 100 kg. The made-up bundle is given to the elephant to be held in its mouth, which is initially detested, but the mahout cajoles it to hold by its teeth, and sometimes an extra rope is wound round the neck to keep the bundle in place. Thus the elephant is tricked into carrying its own food by mouth. The weight is increased gradually. On delivery of the food parcel it is rewarded with immediate feeding (Figure 11).

Figure 11 The young elephant is trained by conditioning it to carry its own fodder

The food parcel is then replaced with lightweight logs of the kithul tree, which is a favourite food of elephants. This is the first lesson in handling logs, and now there is no going back. Depending on the age of the elephant and its degree of wildness, it takes 2 to 3 years for an elephant to be fully trained for forestry work. Monitor elephants are also used to demonstrate skidding and hauling of timber, and the young recruit follows the leader. A fully-trained elephant displays a touching diligence in its effort to please its trainer, on whom it is now entirely dependent for food.

Figure 12 The mahout mounting his elephant. Note the tools _ the angus and the long stick.


By nature the mahout has to be a lover of animals, but has also to be tough and fearless. His physique matches, proportionately, that of the elephant in strength. Under Sri Lankan law, he is permitted to carry a pointed kris knife, which has a 20 cm steel blade sharpened on both sides, at his waist belt, in addition to the driving hook (angus). This is an auxiliary weapon used to control the elephant (Figures 12 and 14). He must be able to recognize the various moods of the animal and know the principal nerve centres. A touch or a nudge on a particular nerve centre makes the animal responds instantly. Often a wayward animal can be controlled simply by using the angus on such a spot.

The mahout has to be knowledgeable in treating his elephant for many basic ailments, and this comes through experience. An elephant has a retentive memory, and it is believed that an elephant never forgets. There have been quite a few instances where an elephant has taken revenge later on a hard-driving or cruel master.

The choker-man, or apprentice, is usually disliked by the animal as the animal knows that the choker-man is the real taskmaster. Occasionally the elephant chases the choker-man, who is unarmed, and throws things at him. Hence the choker-man operates at a respectful distance, always ready to bolt in case of trouble. The choker-man is the logical successor to the mahout.

An ideal mahout shows his love for the animal and looks after it, both whilst working and during his free time, including putting the elephant into a water bath, brushing it down, manicuring its toes, scrubbing behind the ears, etc. Feeding and tending complete the relationship with the animal, and thus the animal's respect and regard for the mahout is assured, and the two become inseparable.

There is a case reported of an elephant standing guard over its mahout who had drunk too much liquor at the end of a hard day's work and had passed out, and the elephant would allow no-one to approach.


Communication between mahout and elephant is limited to a vocabulary of about 25 Hindi words, obviously coming down from the Indian pannikkars, the original trappers.

These commands are well understood by the elephants. It comes as a surprise to see how the elephant carries out all functions expected of it on the basis of these few words. Obviously part of it is the animal's capacity to understand without being told _ intuition. There are no words to tell the elephant how it should load a log onto a truck. It is astonishing to see how the elephant pushes the log on the lorry deck to just short of the cab guard. Whilst skidding, any obstruction it meets on the skid trail is avoided by taking the path of least resistance and without being told by the mahout. The mahout sometimes rides the elephant straddled across the neck. The mahout also guides by using his feet, heel and toe to nudge the elephant behind the ear and other sensitive spots of the body, to which the elephant responds.

The main commands are single words:

Hathderi _ Bite

Pitchet _ Release

Udderi _ Lift

Daha _ Proceed

Puru _ Push

Deri Daha _ Proceed with load

Dana Puru _ Kneel down

Dana Daha _ Kneel and Push

Hide _ Lie down

Diga _ Spread down

Theth theth _ Go back

Bila _ Lift log

In addition to the driving hook, the mahout also has a long rod which he does not hesitate to use on the elephant like an old-fashioned school teacher on an obstinate charge. Sometimes the mahout feints, as if to use the hook or the rod, to which the elephant grimaces in response and hastily carries out the command.


The daily working routine depends on geographical and climatic considerations. In the hot, humid southwest part of Sri Lanka, the elephant is given a morning bath from about 07.00 to about 08.30. It works from 09.00 to 16.00, including skidding and loading. After a day's work the elephant is given a second bath and is allowed to feed. However it prefers to rest during the hottest part of the day, i.e., about 12.00 to 13.00. At higher elevations, where it is cooler, elephants work from 08.00 to 14.00, and are then bathed.

As with humans, an elephant needs about 7 hours of sleep a night, usually from 22.00 to 05.00. Being a voracious feeder _ in keeping with its body size and needing up to 250 kg of food and 180 l of water daily _ up to 5 hours are spent daily in feeding. In the case of a domesticated animal, it does not have to go in search of food. Feeding is mainly before and after work, but in between, whilst working, it is common to see elephants browsing on whatever is edible alongside the skid trail.

An average elephant can work 6-7 hours, but needs a few minutes rest at regular intervals. Whilst skidding a log it takes its own time, resting from 1-2 minutes after each heave. In Sri Lanka there are 6 working days each week, but are according to religious rites. Thus physical labour is not performed on poya days _ the new moon, quarter moon, half moon, three-quarter moon and the full moon days, and the elephant too is rested on these four days of the month. The calendar therefore follows the Buddhist ritual rather than the accepted Gregorian almanac, and Sunday is a working day if it does not fall on one of the moon days.

Elephants work throughout the year, other than the period of 2 to 3 months which is the _musthing_ period for bull elephants. During this period of musth there is secretion from the special frontal glands of the head. This is a physiological phenomenon denoting sexual readiness and proves sound health. When in this state, the elephant is tethered to a tree and fettered on all four legs. The animal is kept in isolation, with plenty of shade, food and water. The elephant is very restless and can be extremely dangerous, so that even the mahout is cautious when approaching it.

Under conditions of high temperature the elephant suffers from heat stress, with resultant lethargy, and during summer in Sri Lanka, i.e., from February to April, elephants may not be employed in fulltime work due to the danger of heat stress.

In general, considering the poya holidays, summertime, musthing periods, time taken to participate in cultural pageants, etc., elephants work about 200 days/year.


The Asian elephant weighs about 5 t when it is full grown and is 3 m tall at the shoulder. The estimated hauling power is about half its weight. It has some 40 000 body muscles powering the haulage effort. However, its formidable size has no bearing to its haulage capacity. This may be more a psychological safeguard. The speed of hauling is approximately 2 km/hour, with frequent stops for rest. The best and most economical distance for skidding is 2 km, although it depends on several factors, including terrain, soil, undergrowth, buttressness and weight. Without load, an elephant takes at least 1 hour to cover 3 km. An average weight of 1 t can be carried in about 2 hours over a distance of 4 km, calculated on the round-trip time. It is common for an elephant to haul about 3 to 4 tons/day, depending on the weight of the timber. This is approximately a truck load. The maximum distance haulable daily by elephants is about 7 km, and that is in water.



In the harness method an braided 8-ply rope made out of a woody climber (such as Combretum ovalifolium or Dalbergia sisgoo) is put around the animal's neck. Since such lianes have no significant nodes and long internodes, they are ideally suited. If necessary, before weaving the ply, the climber is beaten to make it soft. In addition, further padding is added, using old gunny sacks, especially at the points where the harness touches the shoulders (Figure 13). The diameter of the rope is about 8 cm.

Figure 13 The harness _ a loop of plaited lianes to which is attached a loop of chain. The areas where there is most rubbing are provided with padding to protect the elephant.

Two unequal sized chains of about 8 m and 5 m run from the harness, one on either side. The longer chain is passed through the drag holes so as to avoid the knot getting close to the drag holes and jamming. The chain is made up of steel links 15 mm thick, and is an ideal tool since it has no tension and cannot be a source of danger to the animal. The padding and the softening of the harness is done to prevent chafing of the neck and shoulders. However, the mahout takes special care to massage these parts whilst bathing. Oils extracted from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) and the mi tree (Madhuca longifolia) are vigorously rubbed into the neck and shoulders after the elephant's day's work to help keep them in a healthy condition.


In the side method, the same kind of woody climbers are used to make the ropes, but the elephant holds them with its molars. The juice of these climbers is considered of medicinal value and is believed to help the animal's set of teeth. The stout climbers have diameters of about 4 cm, and the length would be 2 m (Figures 3 and 14).

The load is attached to the chain, which either passes through the drag hole or is wound round the end of the log. The other end of the chain is knotted to the end of the climber. The free end of the climber is picked up by the elephant and gripped by its powerful molars. The length of the chain is adjusted so as to give a slight lift to the end of the log. This is to reduce friction and ease its getting over obstacles. A shortened chain helps in particular when loading.

There have been no major developments in dragging gear over the years.


When skidding in marshy and soft soils, it is often necessary to reduce friction. Logs or poles are placed horizontally at right angles to the skid path over which the log travels. This is somewhat similar to the _kuda kuda_ system of Malaysia.

Sometimes a _Y_ shaped branch of a tree is shaped as a sledge to hold 5 to 8 railway sleepers where the terrain is marshy or boggy. This is a popular tool in hauling on long watercourses without obstructions like boulders. The lower limb of the _Y_ is skidded first, whilst the load is rested across the two other limbs. This is called _padawa_ in the local language.

Mechanical equipment, such as pulley blocks, are not used in ground skidding.


The driving hook is also called the angus. It comprises a semi-circular hook _ about 4 cm across _ and a single prong about 5 cm long, and is made of iron. This is mounted on a good quality pole 2-2.5 m in length. The mahout when standing should be able to reach to the highest part of the elephant's body with the angus. Both the prong and the hook are most painful when used on particular nerve centres. Often the mahout uses it on other parts of the body when the elephant is obstinate and gets out of control. The angus and the mahout are inseparable, because his very life sometimes depends on it. When the mahout mounts the elephant, the angus is with him and from this position he can reach any part of the animal's body (Figures 12 and 14). Sometimes the very sight of the angus keeps the animal under control.

Figure 14 The side haulage harness and the angus


Fetters can either be made out of manila rope or steel chain. Chain is used only after domestication, whilst rope is used at the time of capture to prevent any permanent damage to limbs when the animal strains to escape. The rope or chain encircles the ankle, and is sufficiently loose to prevent cuts and chafing. At the time of capture all four legs are fettered, but with domestication the rear legs are left free. However, during musthing and as a precautionary measure when elephants are paraded in processions and pageants, foot-cuffs are additionally used on the hind legs (Figure 16).

The fetters on the front legs _ unlike the foot-cuffs _ are free, with 10 m of chain leading from each foot and folded on the neck (Figure 15). This arrangement is to ensure recapture should the elephant break away. The folded chain on the neck will eventually fall as the animal wanders about, and it is easy to trace and tether the animal to a tree. A bell is often hung around the neck for the same purpose.

Figure 15 Normal fetters and attached loose length of chain


Whatever developments have taken place in Sri Lanka have been the result of the experiences of owners and mahouts, and purely on a trial and error basis. No systematic research has been done to improve technical aspects of the use of elephants. Sri Lanka is therefore not in a position to advise on the use of elephants, other than what is currently practised.

It is a matter of regret that there have been no developments in working methods or even attempts to improve gear design. There is no organization or individual carrying out any research to this end. The age-old, traditional use of climbers, ropes and chains continues and is considered satisfactory. However, it is a matter for some concern, as the use of the side method of haulage involves gripping the climber with the mouth, which places considerable, uneven pressure on the elephant's jaws, teeth _ especially the molars _ and mouth.

Even the harness method relies on only a few muscles, primarily at the shoulder and the neck. Ergonomically speaking, efficiency could be improved if the weight could be more equally distributed throughout the muscular system.

In this respect it could be advantageous to look into developments elsewhere in Asia. In Thailand and India there are elephant training camps of a much better-organized pattern than in Sri Lanka. The improvements made to harnesses in Thailand deserve closer examination, and perhaps warrant technology transfer. Tandem carriage and team work, as practised in Thailand, are sound examples of coordinated work. The need for improved technology is more acute in high terrain hauling than on the flat. It might even be considered immoral to use animals to carry heavy loads on flat ground when options like agricultural tractors are available. Hence, the elephant must be used sparingly, and where it has a natural advantage, such as in difficult tasks like skidding in high terrain, where use of machinery causes environmental damage.


There would appear to be some potential for developing implements for skidding, but in the Sri Lankan situation the timber resources released for felling are confined to scattered pockets of 5 to 20 ha working blocks. These are too small to warrant high technological investments. The terrain types can vary from site to site. For example, it could seem appropriate to use a sledge along a stream, if the rocky stream basin is rendered manoeuvrable for such a sledge. But blasting rocks and obstructions is costly, especially when operating small forest concessions.

On the other hand, if there is an annual cut of at least 100 ha a coupe in a series, it could be worthwhile developing tools to assist in elephant haulage on a definite drag path, be it a watercourse or an extraction path. As discussed earlier, logging carts with wheels, sulkys, etc., may not be practical due to the instability of such vehicles on slopes. The wheeled sulky drawn by horses in Finland is used only on relatively flat terrain. It would be an interesting exercise to see if such equipment could be made to operate with safety on steeper slopes.


The figures below are based on average round-trip times. The terrain classifications are, broadly speaking, easy, average and difficult respectively. The distance and time are kept constant, the variable being the production according to terrain class.

Terrain class

Production by volume



 I (easy)

2.5 m³


 II (average)

2 m³

4 km (round trip)

2 hours

 III (difficult)

1 m³


Alternatively the volume can be kept constant while the distance/time can vary.


There is naturally a significant added value for elephants after training. It is assumed that all elephants can be trained. The criteria for fixing the price of an elephant are: age; docility; sex; state of health; and body weight.

For example, a fierce animal can be a better worker, but due to its fierceness the owner would prefer to get rid of the animal rather than risk the lives of humans or damage to property.

In Sri Lanka at the time of writing (1991), the cost of an elephant in good health between 10 and 20 years old is about $US 12 500. If it is a cow elephant, it costs 20% more as she does not musth and so there is less downtime annually, assuming she is not allowed to breed. With advancing years the price of an elephant will decrease. By the time it is 65 years old it is time to retire from heavy work. Thereafter it would be used to train, monitor, transport fodder and other light work, such as participating in pageants, processions, circuses and in tourism.

The best age for a working elephant is between 25 and 50 years old. At 25 years old, after training, it would cost about $US 15 000, and gradually increase in value to a peak at about 45 years old, when they can be sold for around $US 20 000.

An elephant between 5 and 10 years old can be sold for $US 7 500, reflecting the fact that, as in humans, mortality in this age group is high, and therefore there is more risk in the investment.

The cost of hiring an elephant for 2 km round trips, with mahout and choker-man, for a working year (200 days) would be $US 5 200. On this basis, the hire charge would be $US 26/day or $US 3.25/hour approximately. The value per cubic metre of logs skidded by an elephant on a 2 km round trip would be $US 3.25.

On a daily basis, cost items are: (Sri Lankan rupees)

 _  for the elephant

_  hire of elephant      600

_  food of elephant      150

 _  for the mahout

_  salary       125

_  food and drinks 60

 _  for the choker-man

_  salary 60

_  food and drinks   45

SL Rs 1 040

At an exchange rate of SL Rs 40 = $US 1 (1 Oct. 1990):       $US 26/day.

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