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Sri Lanka

Wild elephants

2,000 ~ 1,000

Charles Santiapillai

Domesticated elephants

400 ~ 600

Richard Lair



FAO (Anon., 1995d)

After great exterminations of wild elephants in the 19th century caused numbers to plummet from about 50,000 to 12,000 by the 1930s, man and Elephas maximus in sleepy Ceylon had come to a degree of equilibrium, however uneasy. But the years after World War II brought an unexpected, convulsive series of elephant problems to a newly independent Sri Lanka, which became free in 1948.

For owners of domesticated elephants, keeping their animals became more difficult after the war but not significantly different from earlier days. With the final kraal or stockade capture in 1950, Sri Lanka lost a primary source of new recruits. (Sri Lanka’s last kraal, though few would have thought it at the time, was held at Panamure; as a portent of things to come, all 17 elephants captured were found to be wounded or scarred by gunshot.) In the 1950s licenses for capture became harder to attain and the export of elephants by private parties was curbed. The last legal capture by a private citizen, or so it seemed, was in 1960 (Kurt, 1969a). As forests were logged, food sources for domesticated elephants shrank and work in forestry declined. Still, most elephant owners successfully struggled along much as always until the Land Reform Act of 1972 virtually overnight divested aristocratic owners of their vast estates.

If the world of domesticated elephants had steadily grown ever more troubled, problems with wild elephants had positively exploded. Fuelled by a high human birth rate, the 1950s and even more the ‘60s witnessed a burgeoning population with a vovacious hunger for land - and most of the available land was in wild elephant country. The Land Reform Act split the aristocrats’ vast estates into many parcels, 50 acres (20 ha.) being the most that could be owned by an individual. The new division invited a human invasion which rapidly exacerbated man-elephant conflict. Politicians found it difficult to stem the human tide, and ecological conditions deteriorated rapidly. Many of Sri Lanka’s wild elephants lost territory to settlers and to a wide range of development projects, especially the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme which, according to Jayewardene (1994b), received “over 200,000 farmer families.”

Many elephants pocketed in a shrinking forest home resorted to crop raiding, whereupon many were shot, usually with primitive shotguns which maimed and blinded far more often than they killed. (See Photo 8, p. 32.) Inevitably, some elephants ended up killing human beings. Five elephants pocketed in Bogaswewa in Mahaweli B, for example, were said to have killed 12 people. Retribution by villagers, whether by shotgun or even agricultural poisons, skewed the sex ratio, as did the shooting of so-called ‘rogues’ at the hands of officials. Bull elephants, in particular young ones, are often bold about crop raiding, and thus males were particularly prone to confrontations and wounds. As early as 1970, Eisenberg (1970) noted that for every 100 wild elephants in Sri Lanka there were about 40 adult females but only 16 adult males, and that males “suffer the highest death rate at puberty - eight to ten years.” Conflict between man and elephant escalated so quickly that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) was forced to hastily improvise new policies and to implement them with no research and insufficient resources.

Tragedies which had once played out quietly in the wild suddenly began reaching into private homes, at first in newspapers and radio and later on television. Referring to rising public outrage, Perera (1971) wrote, “It took a prang from the press to get things moving.” (Public anger is easily aroused when the subject is a “poor dying mother” with her “mammae shot to pieces. Milk and pus dripped alternately....”) When one estate owner could not get permits to capture the elephants ravaging his coconut plantation, he ordered them shot; the carcasses were cremated and as the twenty-third animal was being burned (Wienman, 1958), a live calf, according to Jayewardene (1994c), “burst out of its mother’s uterus and died writhing in flames.” This horrific image became headline news.

The question of what to do with increasing numbers of displaced elephants has long been extensively debated in parliament. Particularly perplexing has been the dilemma of how to deal with dangerous crop raiders, mostly males ranging from adventurous adolescents to adult man-killers. Both translocation and capture have been repeatedly tried, delivering at best unsatisfactory results. After four decades of strife, elephant management remains in turmoil.

One source reappears constantly throughout this chapter: The Elephant in Sri Lanka (Jayewardene, 1994c). This attractive book is remarkable because across Asia it is the only comprehensive and professionally-produced publication to systematically describe a national elephant population. Accurate while remaining a pleasure to read, it can only be hoped that one day every country in the region will have such a book.

Wild elephants

Sri Lanka was estimated to have 2,700 to 3,200 wild elephants in 1990 (Santiapillai and Jackson, 1990). In 1996, Dr. Charles Santiapillai (Pers. comm.) estimates 2,000 to 3,000. About 120 wild elephants are killed annually by poachers and farmers (Samarasinghe, 1996). Beyond raiding on villagers’ fields, commercial concerns also suffer damage; it is said (Anon., 1991b) that, “The Sevengala sugar cane plantations and estates owned by the Pelwatte Sugar Company, for example, have both suffered over 250 million rupees (US$6.25 million) worth of damage by elephants.” The civil war has wreaked havoc on wild elephants in the north and east; in 1990, 12 elephants were found dead by gunshot in Lahugula and 16 dead on the Kumana-Panama road. Many have been killed or injured by land mines (Anon., 1991b). (See Photo 11, p. 33.)

Distribution of domesticated elephants

A curious demographic anomaly in Sri Lanka is that while elephants are everywhere on the island except for the coasts, the ‘ranges’ of wild and domesticated elephants barely overlap. Where you find the one, you do not find the other, although this separation is of recent origin.

The distribution of domesticated elephants is quite simple. Sri Lanka has 22 districts but virtually all domesticated elephants are found in 14 smaller districts in the south-west quarter of the island. In 1969 (and the pattern is surely much the same today) the majority of elephants lived in a central strip of the southwest, reaching from the coastal district of Colombo, through Kegalle, to Kandy; these three districts possessed 334 elephants, or 62.7% of the island’s total population (Jayasinghe and Jainudeen, 1970). Most of the remaining animals lived in nearby provinces. There were six elephants in Colombo and about 25 in the suburbs. This general distribution pattern is confirmed by a 1982 census (Anon., 1982d).

The Colombo-Kandy elephant corridor would seem to derive from a combination of environmental, economic, and cultural factors, all of which are discussed below. Basically, the food and water are plentiful, there is cash-paying work to be found, and this is the area where, in the words of Jayasinghe and Jainudeen (1970), “the more wealthy and aristocratic families reside. They keep the elephant as a status symbol, work being only a secondary factor.” This central core could grow even more pronounced as the Colombo-Kandy tourist infrastructure develops and, as would seem likely, work opportunities decline elsewhere.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

In 1946 Sri Lanka was said to have 736 elephants in captivity (Santiapillai and de Silva, 1994), and by 1955 there were said to still be 670 elephants (Deraniyagala, 1955). A 1967 census conducted by the University of Peradeniya and the Smithsonian Elephant Research Programme showed 532 elephants, with two owned by government and the remaining 530 in private hands (Jayasinghe and Jainudeen, 1970). The published account of the 1967 University-Smithsonian census unfortunately includes no biodata such as age, sex, etc., although the actual count seems to have been fairly exhaustive.1 Lair (1986) suggested a follow-up on the original data to analyze the status of the same elephants fifteen years later, both to gather hard data and to “tell us about the social and economic forces responsible for their decline.” Even in 1997 a re-examination of the original material and its surviving subjects would be fruitful.

In the early 1980s a census conducted by the DWLC listed 344 elephants, including 29 tuskers and 154 mukhnas (Anon., 1982d); but A.B. Fernando, who handed the mimeographed single page to the author (as presented slightly rearranged in Table 13), estimated that about 10% were uncounted, the addition of which would give about 380 elephants {A.B. Fernando, 1988}. (The original table rather demeans mukhnas by listing three classes of elephants in the order: Tuskers, She Elephant, and Elephant [mukhna].) In Table 13 both tuskers and mukhnas have been counted as males.

Table 13: Domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka, 19821





















































Nuwara Eliya








































1 This data is, according to A. B. Fernando, from the DWLC, though that name appears nowhere on the one-page document dated 12.09.1982.

2 In the original, this column lists districts as “G. A.’s [Government Agent’s] Division.”

One private individual, W.H. Ranbanda of Bamunakotwa, conducted his own count and believed that circa 1988 there were 400-450 domesticated elephants on the island {A.B. Fernando, 1988}. Santiapillai (1987) says of domesticated elephants on Sri Lanka that “the number has declined ... to less than 500.” Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) concur, saying “it is likely that the number has declined to less than 500.”

In the absence of a proper census, numerous interviews would suggest that a subliminally shared consensus - nobody could cite a source, but many people gave the same number - is that there are about 350 domesticated elephants on Sri Lanka. (This number might well be an echo from the 344 elephants of the 1982 DWLC census.) A reasonable low figure might thus be 400 elephants: the commonly accepted 350 plus another 50 thrown in to compensate for the universal tendency to underestimate.

Recently two plausible estimates of higher numbers have emerged. In a soon to be completed dissertation on the management and economics of domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka, Wasantha Senenayake believes that there might be as many as 500-600 animals (Wemmer, pers. comm., 1996). Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995), although giving no details, say that beyond the elephants of the National Zoo and the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage “there are about 600 privately owned elephants.” A reasonable high estimate is simply to accept Senenayake’s or Jayasekara and Atapattu’s very similar estimates.

Thus, Sri Lanka probably holds between 400 and 600 domesticated elephants, most probably on the higher side. (Either estimate is quite a contrast from the 2,200 elephants which were said to have been mustered for a single battle four hundred years ago in 1588.) Whatever the actual numbers, it is clear that Sri Lanka’s domesticated elephants are in decline. Jayewardene (1994c) says, “Since elephants are not widely captured from the wild now and the Pinnawela animals are not available for sale, the animals with private owners and temples are being reduced.”

Characteristics of the population

Three noticeable characteristics strike the observer of Sri Lanka’s domesticated elephants: median age, the sex ratio, and the ratio of tuskers.

Median age

The most disturbing probability about the future of domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka - a population bereft of significant numbers of young recruits from the wild for decades - is high median age. Santiapillai and Jackson (1990), citing a personal communication from V. Nugegoda, state, “Most of the elephants in captivity are old and so, in the years to come, the captive populations in Sri Lanka will see a rapid reduction in numbers.” Citing nine elephants which died in two months of 1993 alone, Jayewardene (1994c) simply says, “Most of the tame elephants are now old.” Most pertinent, if the sample was representative, is Ilangakoon’s (1993) survey which included 99 female elephants; 20 cows were aged between 1-20 years, 42 were aged 21-40 years, and 37 were over 40 years. All of these figures re-echo a far earlier observation by Eisenberg (1970) claiming of Sri Lanka’s elephants that “their average age exceeds 25.” A high average age coupled with an extremely low birth rate suggests that Sri Lanka’s domesticated elephants are a population inexorably growing moribund, with ever fewer cows of prime breeding age. If so, any attempt to improve breeding will prove more difficult as time goes by.

One cow elephant in Sri Lanka is aged 79 years, which is nearing the so-called world record {Molligoda, 1995}.

Sex ratio

Table 14 lists in descending order the male-to-female sex ratios of all large published samples dealing with South and Southeast Asia. Somewhat surprisingly, there does seem to be some hard evidence suggesting a preference for male elephants in Sri Lanka, especially in the past.

Listing sex ratios of domesticated elephants begs citing the wildlife biology literature on the sex ratios of wild elephants. Suffice it say that wild males are usually born at a very slightly higher rate than females but are generally thought to experience significantly higher mortality than females in their early years. The sex ratios for domesticated elephants in Thailand and Myanmar, males numbering 75% to 85% of females, are probably fairly close to the norm amongst wild elephants uninfluenced by man. Thailand and Myanmar’s domesticated elephants are given for comparison, being the only other available samples of any size across the whole subcontinent.2

Table 14: Sex ratios of large samples of domesticated elephants, 1955-19951

Ratio M/F

Sample size








Sri Lanka

National census

(Deraniyagala, 1955)


Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka ratifies CITES and stops imports




Sri Lanka

National census

DWLC (Anon., 1982d)




Sri Lanka

Blood sampling

(Silva and Kuruwita, 1993b)




Sri Lanka

Survey by NGO

Ilangakoon, 1993)




Sri Lanka

Registration effort






National registration

MI (Anon., 1994c)





Logging elephants

MTE (Mar, 1995a)

1 Arranged by male:female sex ratio in descending order; totally fortuitously, the dates for Sri Lanka arrange themselves in perfect chronological order.

The higher number of males in several of the above sex ratio samples for Sri Lanka, assuming those samples accurately mirror the whole domesticated population, could be interpreted to indicate a preference for male elephants in capture. (The likeliest source for bias, if any, in the Sri Lanka samples is that bulls are more visible because of their religious role.) Most of the 391 males in the Deraniyagala sample of 1955 would have been wild caught, with very few captive births. A few would have been imported elephants - nearly all tuskers and, thus, males - but imports probably had little effect on the overall male-female ratio. Deraniyagala’s 1955 1.40:1 ratio is, assuming no bias, clearly statistically significant and particularly so because it represents the historical norm; the last kheddah was not long over and noosing was still widespread, with the hunters being able to choose the sex of the animals they captured. (Jayewardene {1996} says that in mela-shikar it is easier to catch males than females.)

The 1.18:1 ratio of the 1982 DWLC census (Anon., 1982d) would seem to offer support, but with a smaller sample and only 18% more males the evidence is not so strong as Deraniyagala’s - although even 1.18:1 is still highly significant compared to Myanmar’s 0.74:1. Deraniyagala’s 40% overage for males nonetheless remains the only strong case difficult to explain.

A similar traditional preference in capture might have existed regarding age. Though seemingly at odds with other information, Jainudeen et al. (1972) state of a sample of 132 animals in 1967 that, “The majority of the animals were 3 to 5 years old at the time of recruitment from the wild population.” This would seem to indicate a preference for very young animals, which are both easier to noose and to train.

Ratio of tuskers

A great rarity of tuskers in the wild has long been noted in Sri Lanka, with most present estimates holding that only 5-10% of wild males are tuskers. The Mahaweli region is the home of the marsh elephant, a ‘race’ or ‘subspecies’ (E. maximus vilaliya) once denounced by ‘lumpers’ but now probably valid and of great scientific interest; evidently only 2.8% of male marsh elephants are tuskers, far lower than the 7.3% national average cited by Jayewardene (1994c). By comparison, a normal wild population on the mainland might range anywhere between roughly 50% tuskers, as in Thailand, to 90% tuskers, as in Indonesia or even across the Palk Straits in nearby south India (at least before recent poaching decimated tuskers in many areas).

Two sizeable samples of domesticated elephants are available which list both the number of tuskers and of all males. Deraniyagala (1955) gives 40 tuskers out of 391 males, or 10.2%. (Jayewardene [1994c] cites two earlier samples by Deraniyagala for 1949 and 1951, both showing 7% tuskers.) The 1982 DWLC census (Anon., 1982d) showed 15.8% tuskers, or 29 out of 183 males. Given that Sri Lanka has had so little captive breeding and absolutely no selective breeding to elicit tuskers, Deraniyagala’s 1955 sample suggests a preference for tuskers in capture operations, 15.8% tuskers in captivity being considerably higher than an assumed 7% in the wild. But, however suggestive, a 15.8% rate is simply too lean to be conclusive, particularly because that rate might reflect a bias in data gathering. A further complication is that some of the counted tuskers could be elephants from the mainland since import was legal and unrestricted until Sri Lanka ratified CITES in 1979. Most imports would have been tuskers. (Probably very few mukhnas, and only the most magnificent, have ever been imported to Sri Lanka, which abounds with tuskless males.)

Broadly stated, traditionally three possible scenarios have been advanced to explain the scarcity of tuskers on Sri Lanka. (Just across a narrow band of sea in south India, the natural pre-poaching tusk-bearing rate is about 90% [Sukumar, 1986]). First, following Sri Lanka’s separation from the mainland perhaps 10,000 years ago, the tusk-bearing genes of a normal mainland population simply diminished greatly through natural evolution, and thus the scarcity of tusks is purely evolutionary; current research in genetics would suggest, however, that 10,000 years is probably too little time to explain the loss. Second, another time-honored scenario suggests that while the indigenous population did have very few tuskers, fine tuskers have long been imported into Sri Lanka and some invariably escaped or were released to subsequently sire calves in the wild, thus regularly introducing some tusk-bearing genes for two thousand years or more. (As far back as 1916 Lydekker suggested that there were two “races” on the island, an indigenous race with few tuskers and an “almost surely introduced race” with tusks relatively frequent.) Third, tuskers are rare simply because centuries of incessant capture of tuskers for war and ceremony (and in colonial days simply shooting elephants for their ivory) has removed most of the tusk-bearing genes from a normal wild population. A newly arrived conjecture has thrown a spanner into the theoretical works; Prithiviraj Fernando {1995} believes that the tusk-bearing gene could possibly lie with the female, thus leaving the ‘problem’ the same as in the first scenario - the absence of indigenous tusk-bearing genes - but shifting the guilt from the bulls to the cows.

Legal status

The wild elephant was given full legal protection in Sri Lanka with the passage of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No. 2 of 1937, subsequently modified or expanded by numerous amendments. (Jayewardene [1994c] gives a good summation of the history of law pertaining to wild elephants.) Sri Lanka ratified CITES in late 1979. These laws and conventions have little effect on domesticated elephants beyond bestowing on them a fine-sounding but counter-productive status as wild elephants and requiring their owners to register with the DWLC. Despite their exalted legal status, domesticated elephants are de facto considered to be just the same as any other domestic animal, to be bought, sold, and cared for at the owner’s whim. As elsewhere in Asia, the law is most important simply for which agency is assigned jurisdiction.


Registration has had a long and erratic history in Sri Lanka. Jayasinghe and Jainudeen (1970) wrote, “It is noted that although there is legislation enacted to register and licence dogs in Ceylon, there is no such compulsion in the case of elephants.” It took twenty years, but the goal of registration has been reached - after a fashion.

As far back as the mid-1950s the DWLC intended to prepare a register of all domesticated elephants, both to provide a record and to discourage the capture of wild elephants (Jayewardene, 1994c). When the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No. 2 of 1937 was amended by Act No. 1. of 1970, it required the DWLC to register all domesticated elephants (and all owners of tusks), a requirement that has remained imperfectly fulfilled to the present. Jayewardene says, “In 1992 however the new Director of Wildlife Conservation directed that an up to date register be maintained but very little progress has been made.”

The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1937 as amended by ‘Regulations and Licensing of Tuskers and Elephants Regulations, 1991’ requires that all domesticated elephants be registered with the DWLC for a fee of Rs. 500 (US$10). Renewal of licence is required annually, at a fee of Rs. 200 (US$4). The licence is to be carried at all times by the owner or by the mahout accompanying the elephant, and the licence is to be shown on demand to any relevant civil servant down to the level of village headman. Upon any sale, transfer, gift, or death, the registration papers and the licence are to be surrendered to the issuing authority, immediately or within 14 days depending on the particular form filed. Buyers are required to file within a month of acquiring an elephant. Escapes are to be reported immediately.

The licensing procedure seems aimed at law enforcement rather than science or conservation since only the most basic biodata data is recorded: whether or not a tusker, sex, age, height, circumference of forefoot, and both temporary and permanent distinguishing features.3 (Regulations also require a 3” X 3” photograph of the elephant from the side.) The only socio-economic data collected is a tiny space which enquires “Whether tusker or elephant is hired” (the forms are in both Sinhalese and English), ascertaining whether the animal works and if so what sort of work it performs. Indicative of the passion for tuskers on Sri Lanka, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (including associated registration and license forms) classifies all elephants as either “tusker or elephant,” with ‘elephant’ meaning everything other than tuskers, the tuskless bulls being thrown together with the cows.

Registration began in 1992 with letters written to known owners and announcements made in newspapers and on television. Unfortunately, the DWLC was unable to control the nature of the publicity, and many owners have resisted registration. As of July 1995, only 92 elephants had been registered, 49 females and 43 males, including only two tuskers or 4.6% {Sumanasena, 1995}. (This rate of 4.6% tuskers is far lower than the 15.8% of the DWLC’s own 1982 census, perhaps suggesting that owners of tuskers are especially anxious to avoid registration.)

The DWLC does maintain an intriguing bound book with a full side-view photograph of each registered elephant and a full page of information hand-written in Sinhalese. Given the considerable energy expended in data collecting, it would seem desirable to turn that information into a more useful form.

The DWLC’s presently registered 92 domesticated elephants are far fewer than a DWLC census of 344 elephants in 1982 (Anon., 1982d), and significantly fewer than many private and academic research efforts. As a textbook illustration of how private efforts can easily be more fruitful than official ones, a study conducted in 1991 (Ilangakoon, 1993) at two religious processions collected a wealth of information on 181 elephants, almost exactly double the DWLC’s registrations. Data collected included name, sex, age, height, physical features, work performed, and behavioral characteristics. Many personal details on mahouts were collected, and all of the information was entered into a computer database.

Several motives explain most owners’ unwillingness to obtain licenses. First, there is a deeply entrenched mistrust of government and civil servants generally shared by rural people all over the world. Second, since upon having registered an elephant the best to be hoped for is simply to come to no harm by it, absolutely nothing is to be gained by getting a license. Third, even well-intended and law-abiding owners cannot help but see licensing as a considerable expenditure of time and money. The time spent registering elephants in Sri Lanka far exceeds other countries because the licence must be renewed annually, including a new set of photos. (The norm in other countries is simply to report a change in status: a move, a sale, a death, an escape, etc.) The fees, while not exorbitant, are stiff enough to impact on a poor family; worse is the loss of working time and subsequent income. The money derived from licence fees go into the Wildlife Preservation Fund rather than government coffers, a laudable intention but surely a subtlety lost on many poor owners. (Rudran et al. [1995] wrote, “The proceeds of these auctions should be given to local communities rather than be sent to the government treasury.”)

While the intent of licensing and registration is totally praiseworthy, the implementation is awkward because the agency assigned responsibility, the DWLC, has had little say in creating policy. Further, whilst from a CITES perspective the DWLC is unquestionably the appropriate organization to register Elephas maximus, if viewed in terms of practical management the DWLC is poorly placed to implement even rudimentary registration, much less to conduct routine inspection, supply basic veterinary care, control abuse, assist breeding, and monitor wild-caught elephants through training. Even simple registration would practically seem better addressed by the expertise and resources of a livestock agency than a wildlife conservation agency. Given computer technology, however, registration need not be exclusive; the DWLC and any other agencies or researchers could share the same core data and, indeed, the wildlife biologists of the DWLC should help to define the data which needs to be collected.

Institutions involved

Beyond the Department of Wildlife Conservation, whose activities will be discussed further, only one other government agency is deeply involved with domesticated elephants. The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, 80 kilometers northeast of Colombo, was founded in 1975 by the DWLC, but in 1978 it was taken over by the Department of National Zoological Gardens. The orphanage’s intent is to provide a refuge for wild elephants captured or injured or found abandoned in the forest. The facility is open to visitors for a small fee. Although there is no formal show, each morning and afternoon most of the elephants are led to a beautiful stretch of river to play and bathe. Visitors are free to wander around and most people seem delighted. The facility at the end of 1995 housed 60 elephants, as listed in Table 15.

In 1982 the Elephant Orphanage began an active breeding program which has produced ten calves at the orphanage, plus another two calves at the National Zoological Gardens (commonly called the Dehiwela Zoo), which has eight Asian elephants and two African elephants. Of nine mature cows at Pinnawela, five have dropped calves, one having produced three. The youngest age of a cow at calving was a very young 11. Another birth was also somewhat unusual since the dam dropped her first calf at the age of 42 {Alahakoon, 1995}.

Of seven mature bulls, three come into musth regularly and two are used for stud; only one bull is a tusker while six are mukhnas. Unfortunately, most of the orphanage’s tuskers are taken away at the orders of government, most often to be sold or gifted to temples. Elephants in temples will have far less chance to breed than at Pinnawela, so their exile from a well-rounded community is contrary to Sri Lanka’s passion for tuskers. Divesting the orphanage of its tuskers can only be counter-productive, since they would be more beneficial if left to breed. Even if the tusk-bearing gene lies with the female, a possibility suggested and under study by one researcher {P. Fernando, 1995}, it would still be wise to give tuskers every chance to breed.

Table 15: Elephants at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, 19951

Age class



Immature (under 5 years)

Wild born



Captive born



Juvenile (5-9 years)

Wild born



Captive born



Mature (10 years up)

Wild born



Captive born






1 Data is courtesy of Dr. Jayanthi Alahakoon, National Zoological Gardens.

Not all of the ‘orphans’ are the young animals which the word evokes. The saddest case is undoubtedly a 45-50 year old bull named Raja (‘King’, a very common name for bulls) kept at the Orphanage for two years since being caught in the wild in Anuradhapura. Raja is blind in both eyes, almost surely from being peppered by farmers’ shotguns, and since he is not accepted by the other elephants he is chained apart. Although well cared for, his is a very bleak and miserable existence. From being quite ‘aggressive’, he has become very tolerant of people. (See Photo 7, p. 32.)

Like the majority of Sri Lanka’s elephants, the orphanage’s elephants are fed on a monotonous diet of palms supplemented by a few other plants. (See “Veterinary Care and Health,” which follows.) The food - 6,500 kg daily - is cut in surrounding areas and carried in by elephants. At night the elephants are led to open-sided sheds where they are chained in rows, much like the ‘lines’ in many Western zoos and circuses.

A shortage of mahouts is probably the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage’s most worrying long term problem. Admission fees are kept low so as not to exclude local people, and consequently income does not meet costs. Contrary to the recommendations of on-the-ground management, money is saved by limiting the number of mahouts employed. In August, 1995, the number of mahouts was increased to 15, or one mahout for every four elephants. Consequently, except for a few tricky or dangerous animals requiring their own mahout, the Orphanage’s elephants in early 1995 were herded exactly like buffalo or cattle, a sight quite unlike anything the author has ever witnessed in nearly 20 years in Asia. (See Photo 24, page 38.)

Pinnawela’s manpower shortage has several deleterious side effects. First, the elephants are bored and lack exercise, having to spend far more time on chains than if each had its own mahout. Second, the elephants lack training - under the circumstances it would be unfair to say that they are poorly trained. Third, the situation is dangerous. The elephants’ herding instinct keeps things under control presently but the sight of these animals freely wandering around tourists cannot help but make any experienced elephant manager shudder. Elephants should be trained and worked from an early age so that when the maturing animals inevitably begin to test their keepers there are thousands of hours of teaching and discipline to fall back on. (Table 15 shows that the orphanage has 17 males under the age of ten.) At institutions like the orphanage all will go well until maturing elephants, bulls especially but even some cows, begin to raise serious problems. Although no deaths or injuries to visitors have yet occurred, it would seem inevitable that someday an ‘accident’ will happen. Saving money on mahouts is false economy.

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage does seem to receive a fair amount of mild criticism. Typically, one unpublished paper (Thouless, 1994) says, “If capture and domestication is to be used as a tool for removal of elephant herds which are pocketed and suffering to an unacceptable extent from gun-shot injuries, facilities for domestication should also be improved. Pinwale [sic] elephant orphanage does not appear to have adequate physical facilities for holding and domesticating wild elephants.” There is some truth in such negative statements in that the 11.2 hectare space is very cramped, food sources are limited in both kind and quality, and there are too few mahouts. It should be noted, however, that the orphanage is very clean and well-managed, morale is good, captive births have been high, and the animals all receive fine veterinary care. In short, management is excellent given the meager resources available, and the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage’s undeniable shortcomings proceed almost entirely from limited space and an inadequate budget.

Santiapillai and de Silva (1994) recommend a second elephant orphanage be established very near to areas where wild elephants are being threatened. Beyond orphanages, the establishment of captive breeding facilities has been suggested.

· See “Breeding,” page 153.

Veterinary care and health

Sri Lanka has some, although probably not enough, private veterinarians who are competent with elephants. Private veterinarians are particularly important because Sri Lanka lacks the master field veterinarians produced by long-lived government forest departments in Myanmar, Thailand, and India.

Some observers have little confidence in the overall level of care. Jayewardene (1989), for example, flatly states, “Veterinary facilities and experience in respect of elephants is ... poor.” Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995), describing newly-caught elephants with septic rope burns, state, “The number of deaths was more than otherwise might have been because the elephant owners preferred to use the local traditional herbal medicines for treatment, on the grounds of cost and that they were considered better than ‘western’ treatments.” A comprehensive survey should be conducted to ascertain the quality and availabilty of modern veterinary care, particularly for the elephants of poorer and more isolated owners.

Moran (1986b) mentions the existence of “traditional Sinhala elephant doctors” called Vedarala; such indigenous knowledge is probably vanishing and thus some research would be very welcome. Traditional veterinary medicine, usually herbal concoctions supplemented with ritual, is always of great interest and often useful.

Most health problems in Sri Lanka are common throughout Asia, but a few complaints are peculiar to the island. One unique problem is damage to teeth and jaws caused by skidding logs with a rope held in the mouth; Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995) provide a good description of this “side method” of dragging. Another condition common in Sri Lanka but rare on the mainland is foot and nail infections suffered by musth bulls left to stand for months in their own urine and dung. (See “Mahoutship,” page 157.) Lehnhardt (1995) notes that most elephants, not just musth bulls, had “extremely rotten looking feet, with festering nails and pads that were separating from the foot.”

Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995) briefly describe the common diseases and disorders of elephants on the island. Filariasis is a common problem but Ivermectin, though costly, is widely available and prescribed. Dissanayake (1994) writes that newspapers have reported the spread of haemorrhagic septicaemia amongst wild elephants, resulting in the death of several animals.

Too little food of too few types is damaging the health of many domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka. Wherever domesticated elephants can feed in natural landscapes, they will enjoy the same vast variety of foodstuffs eaten by their wild cousins, at least 50 plant species and possibly over 200 in rainforest. (There is a common shrub in northern Thailand which domesticated elephants will, entirely on their own, seek out and eat as a vermifuge - but only one day a year, usually in April.) One researcher discovered that wild elephants in Sri Lanka eat as many as 225 plant species (Vancuylenberg, 1977).

In the old days in Sri Lanka, and even today in Thailand and Myanmar, when not at work elephants were normally taken to natural areas and freed on hobbles or tethered to a tree where they might eat any plants within a 15-25 m. radius. But food sources are scarce in Sri Lanka today, and thus food must normally be brought to the elephants rather than the elephants to the food. The staple food for domesticated elephants is the core and leaves of the toddy palm, called kithul (Caryota urens), supplemented by other plants including fronds of coconut palm, leaves from jackfruit trees, etc. Olivier (1978a) wrote that, “Although palms are extremely abundant in rainforest [and other forest types], their productivity is extremely low in comparison to grasses, and feeding on them incurs a comparatively greater energy cost for the same benefit.” Olivier believed that the ability to exploit the palm niche is so unusual that he proposed the neologism ‘palmivory’, or palm-eating, to be used in a parallel sense to ‘browsing’ or ‘grazing’.

Upali, an aristocratic elephant owner interviewed by Moran (1986b), said that, “In the old days elephants roamed the big estates and foraged from a wide variety of wild plants. Now elephants have stomach ailments because they ... do not have the opportunity to choose the food their body tells them they need.” Jayewardene (1994c) remarks that domesticated elephants get only four or five kinds of food and that “the tame elephant gets much less food than its wild counterpart is able to obtain.” He adds that kithul and jak (Artocarpus integrafolia) are expensive, posing a problem for poorer owners. One veterinarian {Kuruwita, 1995} believes the monotonous diet leads to anaemia, roughened skin, and calcium-phosphorus and iron deficiencies. De Silva and Kuruwita (1993) studied the blood of 108 animals and posited that variations in potassium levels might be attributable to nutrition.

An extensive study is clearly needed to define the nutritional problems facing elephants in Sri Lanka.

Santiapillai and de Silva (1994) recommended that the DWLC establish a veterinary unit to treat wild elephants injured by poachers or disgruntled farmers, the losses from which are high. Thouless (1994) says, “In 1993 a veterinary consultant was employed under the GEF project, but there is no departmental veterinarian.” As of 1996, no veterinary unit has been established for wild elephants and the idea seems to lie inactive.

The primary intent of any hypothetical DWLC veterinary facility has always been assumed to be to provide care for wild elephants and for newly-caught elephants. But should such a veterinary section also provide basic care to hundreds of privately-owned domesticated elephants? After all, these animals are also wild elephants, both in Sri Lankan law and as Appendix I animals in CITES. Rudran et al. (1995) recommend that “the DWLC should assist private individuals who own elephants to maintain their animals in good health and physical condition.” They recommend the establishment of “a Captive Elephant Management Center” by the DWLC to conduct veterinary research and extension services, and also as a place where captives “should initially be tamed or domesticated.” (They also suggest many other possible roles for the Center: captive breeding, training khoonkies, monitoring captives in private hands, training elephants for work, finding or creating work, etc.) Another observer interviewed {Jayewardene, 1996} said, “I think the government of Sri Lanka and especially the Department of Wildlife Conservation should actively support owners of domestic elephants by providing effective veterinary services and also by training keepers and owners on the care, management and breeding of elephants in captivity.”

To provide complete coverage of the island’s domesticated elephants the DWLC would need about five full-time veterinarians, assuming an individual case load of 100 elephants. Any such effort is obviously far beyond the present or the likely future resources of the DWLC unless its efforts are significantly bolstered from outside. Absolutely no criticism is intended because to supervise and doctor livestock (for elephants in domesticity are clearly livestock in practical terms, no matter what their legal status) obviously lies far beyond the expertise and the mandated duties of the DWLC.


After spending six years in Ceylon beginning in 1675, Christopher Schweitzer wrote of its superb elephants: “These are finer and more docile than in other countries. Therefore they catch a great many of ‘em ... which they make tame and fit for war, and send them to the kingdoms of Persia, Surat, the Great Mogul, and other places....” Wild elephants have been captured in Sri Lanka for at very least 2,600 years, or ever since the settlement of the Sinhala people in the 6th century BC. Very early capture is proven by historical accounts of international trade very soon after the Indo-Aryans arrived from across the Palk Strait. Ships bringing soldiers and possibly even war elephants could have returned with captive elephants on their short voyage home to India.

The amount of information about Ceylon’s elephant trade which reached Europe very early is astounding. The export of elephants from Sri Lanka in 200 BC was recorded by Ptolemy in 175 AD. Alexander knew of the commonly perceived superiority of Ceylon’s elephants, and a list of the writers who mentioned the island’s elephants would read like a Who’s Who of the Greco-Roman literary world, from Onescritus and Megasthenes (the ambassador of Seleukos to Chandragupta Maurya at the end of the fourth century BC) through to Aelian, Pliny, and Ptolemy.


Capturing wild elephants has always been the predominant means of recruitment in Sri Lanka, and a wide variety of techniques have been used. Jayewardene (1994c) gives a good overview of the history and techniques of capture in Sri Lanka. Tennent (1867), in his classic The Wild Elephant, and the Method of Capturing it in Ceylon, describes both kheddah and noose capture.

Capture methods

Over time, four successive capture methods have predominated until superseded: pit capture, kheddah, noosing, and, now supreme, drug immobilization. Pit capture, probably the earliest technique, remained common until outlawed in 1761 by the Dutch governor because of a high mortality rate (Thouless, 1994). Kheddah, said to have been introduced by the Portuguese, then took center stage but has now been defunct for nearly fifty years. Noosing from on foot survives but it would seem that such skills will vanish soon because the catchers are unable to regularly test their skills. Catching elephants with drugs from a dart-firing rifle or ‘drug immobilization’, has become the favored capture method and could soon become the only method.

Kheddahs, usually called kraals when referring to historical Ceylon, became the most visible capture method, though not necessarily the most productive one, throughout the colonial rules of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. (Kraal derives from the Portuguese ‘curral’, from whence also comes ‘corral’ in modern English.) Deraniyagala (1955) gives some incomplete capture figures for the Dutch period between 1666 and 1697 (six kraals netting 96, 13, 104, 270, 160, and 97 elephants) and the British period between 1779-1871 (five kraals netting 176, 300, 43, 6, and 28 elephants). The last kraal was held in 1950 according to Jayewardene (1986, 1994c), who notes that the elephants captured suffered “trauma” which resulted in high mortality rates, although the losses were considered unimportant because wild elephants were so plentiful.

“Noosing is one of the earliest methods of elephant capture,” according to Jayewardene (1994c). Noose capturing from on foot is still conducted by a people called ‘Pannikan’ (spelled variously Pannikar, Pannickar, Pannikea, etc.). Originally the term ‘Pannikan’ was applied solely to a particular group of Muslims, often described as descendants of Arab seamen, from northeastern Sri Lanka, but for some years ‘Pannikan’ has commonly been used generically to refer to anybody who captures elephants by noosing (Deraniyagala, 1950). The Pannikans make catching-ropes from sambar leather and restraining-ropes from vines and creepers.

Noosing takes two basic forms: a man slipping a noose on the elephant’s foot or fixing in place a noose which the elephant will trigger itself. The most audacious method is to follow a carefully chosen elephant for as long as necessary before deftly slipping a noose around a back leg; Tennent (1867) remarks, “On overtaking the game their [the Pannikans’] courage is as conspicuous as their sagacity.” Usually a particular elephant is chosen only after scouting the herd for many days according to De Zoysa (1967), who describes a successful hunt in which the loose end of the rope terminated in a deer horn intended to snag roots or stumps, stopping the fleeing elephant. Wienman (1958) describes a fixed-noose trap very carefully placed where an elephant is likely to place its foot. Fixed-noose capturing is largely non-selective because the hunters cannot guarantee which animal will be snared, but a skilled team which has reconnoitred extensively can partially target a desired animal by knowing its habits and can further shape events by some men diverting the desired elephant towards the noose while other men are simultaneously keeping unwanted elephants away from it.

A few non-Pannikan trappers have captured elephants recently. (Punchihewa 1974). A group of “pioneer Sinhalese elephant trappers” who favored fixed-noose traps in the Pannikan style caught several elephants in the area of Uda Walawe in 1974.

Casual references to the Pannikans abound in the wildlife literature but it appears that no in-depth anthropological research has been done into language, ceremony, magic, and the larger cultural aspects of the Pannikan-elephant relationship. Jayewardene (1994c) gives a glimpse of the magic when he describes the Annavi, “the local sorcerer and magician who undertook to propitiate the demons that were in charge of the elephants in the wild.” Some research would be welcome.

Because of a lack of opportunity to practice their skills, the vast knowledge of the Pannikans, which is handed down father to son, is declining rapidly. Jayewardene (1989) baldly states, “Due to the lack of work the Pannikars ... are a dying breed.” The decline in noosing skills is unfortunate because noosing (and associated skills) is a very beguiling and potentially important management tool - though, as will be seen, a very imperfect one. Excluding fixed-noose traps, noosing is the unmounted equivalent of mela-shikar because it allows for perfect selectivity, a quality it shares with the newly arrived alternative, drug immobilization.

Drug immobilization was first practiced in 1961 as the last resort of an unsuccessful capture attempt by Pannikans which itself followed a failed translocation drive. The very first animal to be darted, an aggressive cow, died within twenty minutes, although the method has since been used to better effect.

Capture for wildlife management purposes

Translocation is conceptually the ideal way to deal with problem wild elephants but in practice moving elephants has not proved very successful in Sri Lanka.4 Wherever translocation is impossible, the most humane alternative to shooting crop raiders or otherwise doomed elephants is to first capture them and then sell or gift them into domesticity. Many conservationists, mostly wildlife biologists, have recommended - sometimes blithely, sometimes with considerable insight - captivity as a last possible refuge for hopelessly threatened elephants.

Six recommendations for capture for humane reasons are easily found for Sri Lanka alone. Wienman (1958), at the time director of the Zoological Gardens of Ceylon, says, “Every elephant captured is an elephant saved, as these poor creatures are being mercilessly shot when they stray into cultivated areas.” Punchihewa (1974), speaking of one capture operation, says, “These animals like similar herds elsewhere would be doomed if not successfully captured.” Thouless (1994) writes that, “A widely used management technique for removing problem animals, either particularly troublesome individuals, or pocketed herds, involves capture followed by translocation to new areas, or by domestication.” Santiapillai and de Silva (1994) state, “If an elephant has killed several people, then it should be destroyed if it cannot be captured and trained ... domestication of stray, problematic elephants is to be encouraged....” Kotagama (1991) says, “Troublesome elephants with proven crop-raiding records would be the first to be captured and domesticated.” Jayewardene (1992) wrote:

Now the decision has to be taken as to what is to be done with the excess elephants. One is to capture and domesticate them for work in this country. They could also be sent abroad to zoos and circuses and for breeding programmes abroad. The other is to eliminate them by slaughter. I think every effort should be made to capture excess elephants, even though the number is large.

Given such suggestions and given Sri Lanka’s ancient tradition of capture, it should not be surprising that capture justified in the name of wildlife management has been intermittently conducted for decades.


The following narrative presents the confusing maelstrom of recent capture chronologically. Four intertwined strands are of particular interest: capture methods, elephant deaths in the early days of captivity, the effectiveness of capture as a management technique, and, finally, the role of the DWLC. If the tale is convoluted and muddy, that only mirrors the events on the ground.

The steadily eroding remnants of the Deduru Oya herd remained in the public eye for years. In 1960 when the once 200-strong, trouble-raising herd had shrunk to 65 elephants (23 had been ‘destroyed’), the DWLC assigned responsibility to capture the remaining elephants to the Director of the Dehiwela Zoological Gardens (Jayewardene, 1994c). The Director then employed twenty Muslim Pannikans who managed to capture thirty animals without a single fatality, a safety record never remotely approached since. Just like the final kraal in 1950, every elephant caught suffered from gunshot wounds. Fifteen elephants were exchanged for other animals with foreign zoos, some were kept by the Dehiwela Zoo, and some were sold locally. In 1969-70 “after shooting was no longer seen as an acceptable option,” ten elephants were captured on the right bank of the Uda Walawe scheme (Thouless, 1994).

In 1972 a new government policy allowed elephants to be captured under permits issued by the DWLC. Licenses cost private citizens Rs. 2,000, and the department itself was allowed to employ trappers, paying them Rs. 1,500 for a successful capture (Punchihewa, 1974). The first elephant captured by Muslim Pannikans under this policy was “maimed and severely wounded in the process and died in transit.” Of four elephants of the Ethbattuwa herd caught by ethnic Sinhalese, one with a pre-existent gunshot wound died and one cow soon gave birth to a calf which died within days, an event widely noted in the media.

In 1974 at Uda Walawe about 30 pocketed elephants had taken to crop raiding, which provoked farmers to shoot at them, which in turn provoked some of the elephants into aggression. The DWLC subsequently captured three large bulls thought to be particularly dangerous (Jones, 1975). The results were tragic because one of the bulls “became dangerous and unhandleable after capture, broke the restraining ropes and had to be destroyed. The other two died within three weeks of being caught, almost certainly due to prolonged stress, chronic injuries and poor physical condition prior to capture.” One male of 6’6” (2 m.), although in good condition when caught, died three weeks after being sold as a result of “severe rope wounds.”

“Chemical immobilisation was first used on a large scale in Sri Lanka in 1979 to deal with the pocketed Deduru Oya herd,” according to Thouless (1994). Ten elephants out of about thirteen were captured and moved to Wilpattu National Park, though one cow returned and had to be redarted and moved again.

In 1985 the recommendations of an AESG meeting (Anon., 1985a) “noted with grave concern the decision of the Government of Sri Lanka to permit commercial capture of elephants” and asked the government to “continue the existing practice of capture by the Department of Wildlife Conservation only.” In 1985 the DWLC captured ten elephants using tranquilization, two being translocated into the wild and eight sold at public auction (Thouless, 1994). Two bulls found to be blind and severely wounded were shot for humane reasons, while the third bull died from the capture drug. Jayewardene (1986) noted that a cow of about 40 years and a pregnant cow of indeterminate age both survived, as did two younger animals, but that two males aged approximately 40 years subsequently died. It is probably no coincidence that the two animals which died were the two older bulls; they were bought very cheaply, partly because of their age but also because the buyers had little hope of realizing any value out of them (See “Prices,” page 154). Recently, Jayewardene (1994b) has written of these same eight captives that, “All the animals that were sold died subsequently.”

Of a noosing capture in the Resvehera area in 1990, Thouless (1994) says, “Four animals were caught; one was kept for domestication, and the other three were released but they were all later found dead, apparently as a result of injuries from ropes which had not been removed from the animals’ legs.” Whether the offending ropes were catching ropes or restraint ropes is not clear, nor how long the elephants were held before released.

Referring to a controversial policy shift, Jayewardene (1994c) states, “In 1990 the Department of Wildlife Conservation decided to capture all solitary wild elephants that were crop raiders and translocate them to national parks, sanctuaries, etc.” In February 1991, eleven elephants, including some purported by the DWLC to have killed 12 people, were captured but the operation “was called off due to the deaths of most of the animals that were captured....” Rudran et al. (1995) wrote that, “Since the capture of herds is a very complex operation, it should be undertaken only by the DWLC”; but they noted that until the DWLC acquires the ability to capture elephants “private individuals may be permitted to capture solitary crop raiders.”

In 1992 the DWLC advertised in the press its intention to capture 500 elephants, declaring that interested parties should apply for licences. Thouless (1994) says that, “A figure of 500 elephants was suggested, although this was controversial.” Jayewardene (1994c) says, “The logistics of capturing 500 animals, who the new owners would be, the cost of maintaining an elephant that the new owners would have to bear, the present low demand for work elephants, the shortage of food for tame animals, are some of the potential problems that the Department appeared to have overlooked in this regard.”

Fernando (1993) is quite scathing, calling the program “ad hoc and haphazard” and “carried out in fits and starts in far flung regions....” Fernando believes the quota of 500 elephants was so arbitrarily derived as to be ludicrous; and he further believes that elephants were caught without careful study and then moved about willy-nilly to be released, unmonitored, in national parks. (He also asserts that the DWLC has exaggerated human deaths, fallaciously stating that two bulls had killed 13 and 18 people respectively; Jayantha Jayewardene {1996} says the DWLC’s motive for exaggeration was to try to justify culling.) Fernando is concerned about high mortality in capture and “taming”; for example, of eleven elephants captured in early 1991 and sent to a holding center for “taming before disposal by public auction,” the DWLC’s own records show that five elephants died of severe “rope cut wounds.” Four of the remaining animals were quickly sold to the public, and it is not known how many survived. This incident became known to the Cabinet of Ministers, who viewed it with alarm and lowered the allowed rate of capture.

Post-capture care and mortality

Since the government began to capture elephants for wildlife management purposes in 1967, according to Jayewardene (1994c), only 30 elephants have been captured, thus giving the DWLC “a wider but as yet inadequate experience ... in the capture of elephants.” Warning against a DWLC proposal to capture 500 wild elephants, Jayewardene (1994a) wrote, “In the event that buyers could be found for all these animals, it is very unlikely that many of the new owners [and many of their hired mahouts] would have the experience necessary to maintain these animals.” Piecing together Sri Lanka’s recent capture history from the published literature (nowhere has the data been presented systematically) it seems that at least 25 elephants, mostly bulls, were sold into captivity and that nearly all of them died soon after. Except for at least one drug overdose, these elephants died not in the act of capture but during post-capture care, what in the wildlife conservation literature is nearly always called ‘taming’ or ‘training’ but might more accurately and honestly be called ‘rough breaking’.5

The major cause of death, although undoubtedly complicated by factors such as stress and nutrition, would appear to be systemic blood poisoning after rope burns turned septic. (Insufficient evidence exists to determine exact causes of mortality, particularly as expressed in time into rough breaking.) Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995) state that, “Some elephants, in their attempt to break away from the manila leg ropes, cut themselves badly, and secondary infections developed. Many of the elephants died of blood poisoning.” Rope burns causing death might sound like the result of incompetence, and in many recent instances in Sri Lanka this is undoubtedly so; but in northern Thailand and elsewhere (almost surely including Sri Lanka itself in the old days), master mahouts often intentionally inflict a different sort of rope burn. Skilfully tied ropes are a seemingly simple but actually quite sophisticated tool to project power by inflicting pain, carefully modulated pain which ceases when the elephant stops struggling and learns to be still.6

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC)

After some very fine work in the early years, great scandals arose around the DWLC and more than one senior official was removed or forced to resign, all fully exposed to the public eye courtesy of Sri Lanka’s lively media. A change of DWLC directors in 1984 brought the contentious disbanding of a highly effective elephant conservation unit formed in 1979 and cancelled a successful attempt to drive pocketed herds from Resvehera to Wilpattu National Park. The DWLC was even publicly accused of withdrawing the game rangers needed to block the elephants’ return home, thereby ensuring that they returned to their old territory to die (Anon., 1987).

Such scandals and the above litany of tragic post-capture deaths makes it easy, even convenient, to see the DWLC as the villain in the piece; and the author has, by not mounting a running defense above, deliberately allowed that image to prevail. Examination of media coverage indisputably shows that the DWLC of late has most often been portrayed in a very bad light not only in the local and international press but even to an unprecedented degree in the conservation literature. In the DWLC’s defense, however, on four counts a very powerful if not overwhelming case can be made explaining and exonerating the department’s policies and actions in capture and post-capture care.

First, this is a clear case of a government agency being given the wrong job for the right reason. A legal quirk has dumped the work of a livestock agency (except perhaps for actual capture) onto a wildlife conservation agency simply because the subject animal has been legally classified as an endangered wild species. Not a single wildlife department anywhere in Asia, quite understandably, has the knowledge of mahouts, training methods, knot-tying, veterinary medicine, etc., to professionally conduct or supervise post-capture care. The DWLC was even more poorly placed than its mainland wildlife counterparts because Sri Lanka has no recent history of keeping government-owned logging elephants; thus, the DWLC lacked even the few remaining expert government elephant managers still found in the forestry departments of Myanmar, Thailand, and some Indian states. Choosing, supervising, and supporting the private citizens who are expected to safely capture, rough break, train, and ultimately work wild-caught elephants is logically the work of veterinarians and animal husbandry experts, not wildlife biologists and game rangers. Assigning the DWLC with full, sole responsibility for capture and supervising post-capture care was a bit like a headmaster assigning a professor of chemistry to teach biology - and then accusing him of being a bad teacher. This was a fundamental injustice.

Second, financially, the DWLC was and is a perennially underfunded government agency which was delegated immense extra work without being allocated anywhere near sufficient extra funds, manpower, or expertise to do the job properly. Even if the DWLC had possessed the competence to provide post-capture care - an unreasonable expectation - it would still have lacked the resources. (Santiapillai [1994] writes, “One must not forget the good work done in the past by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka often with meagre resources.”)

Third, customary law makes it difficult for the DWLC or any other government agency to exert any significant after sale influence on buyers of wild-caught elephants. In Sri Lanka, just as in India and Thailand, while the Asian elephant is a wild animal by law, in practice the elephant is private property just like any other domestic animal.

Fourth, the resources and the expertise needed to humanely capture and care for domesticated elephants were and are simply too enormous and too varied for any one institution. Santiapillai (1994) wrote, “It would be unfair to expect the Department of Wildlife Conservation alone to save the elephants in Sri Lanka. Conservation of elephants requires the participation of the public and private sectors....” From a larger perspective, the failure to efficiently and humanely deal with troublesome elephants is not the fault of the DWLC alone but rather of Sri Lankan society as a whole.

Disregarding the shortcomings or poor policies of a few individual senior managers, in retrospect it is quite clear that the DWLC was unfairly shoved into an impossible situation where it would become the whipping boy if it did anything less than pull off a succession of miracles.

Conclusions: Capture

Several lessons can be drawn from Sri Lanka’s experiences of capturing wild elephants.

To ‘domesticate’ doomed elephants is a very neat and appealing concept but the hidden catch is that while conservationists justify capture mostly for incorrigible crop raiders, those animals are usually highly intractable in captivity. (Contrarily, thanks to drug immobilization capturing troublesome elephants is presently as easy as catching any other elephants, perhaps even easier because crop raiders will brazenly visit open areas near settlements in broad daylight.) The unavoidable downside of catching troublesome elephants is that as a class they will be highly resistant to breaking, resulting in many deaths - often slow, long-suffering deaths - to produce only a few successfully trained survivors. This is true even with healthy captives, and doubly true for elephants which are wounded or injured, as so many are in Sri Lanka. Of some elephants captured at Uda Walawe, Jones (1975) observed that, “It is unlikely that adults of this age, size, condition and disposition would be suitable for domestication or relocation .... Owing to the difficulties of holding and relocating or domesticating the largest animals ... and in view of their present temperament and condition, consideration should be given to destroying these animals humanely.” The mortality rate for captured problem elephants in rough breaking is so high that in many cases a quick bullet to the brain in the wild might be better than a slow, painful death in chains. (Buddhist precepts of Karma in Sri Lanka might, however, prevent such ‘euthanasia’, as they have for some injured elephants in Thailand)

The training and use of captured elephants must be continually monitored and supported. Better kept and more widely disseminated records are badly needed in order to analyze the deaths of wild-caught elephants by sex, by age, and by cause. “The progress of those animals that were captured and sold were monitored for some time by the Department,” according to Jayewardene (1994c). Nonetheless, it is clear that post-capture monitoring has been haphazard and incomplete. Thouless (1994) says, “There is ... a lack of information on elephants that have been domesticated after capture, since they are no longer the responsibility of the DWLC.” Ideally, all captives should be properly monitored for life, a job requiring a high degree of order, which suggests that standard forms related to registration might be developed for use across Asia.

· See “International Registry of Domesticated Elephants,” page 242.

Another essential step in preventing post-capture deaths is to assess the character and experience of prospective buyers and the skills of their hired hands. Sales should be allowed only after buyers are approved.

For buyer-related reasons, the public auctioning of captured elephants to the highest bidder, however good for being honest and transparent, is clearly disastrous to elephants. Prospective buyers knowledgeable about and kindly disposed towards elephants will instinctively shy away from troublesome animals, being all too aware of the dangers and cruelty needed to ‘break’ such animals. (At least using traditional methods; perhaps the old ways have deteriorated so far that more modern methods might be used.) By default, buyers of problem elephants will mostly be tougher types buying a cheap but stubborn elephant in the hope that do-or-die breaking methods will produce a valuable animal. Elephants should be sold or even given outright to the most experienced and responsible person, not to the highest bidder - especially because even the high bids are so paltry. (See Table 16, page 154, for prices.) Even before capture it is known that many doomed elephants will be old and wounded, and most of the rest will be extremely recalcitrant; but if worthy of capture at all, then even if useless in terms of work, they deserve to be placed in the hands of caring and knowledgeable owners, and perhaps even subsidized.

Perhaps the concept or ideal of ‘saving’ troublesome elephants is ultimately unworkable, but perhaps it could be made viable if a more scientific approach and a more humane ethos permeated the whole procedure: planning, capturing, vetting the new owner, long-term monitoring - but most especially rough breaking and early training.


Captive births have been very rare in Sri Lanka, and nearly all of the few calves born have been sired by a wild bull. Kurt (1970) boldly states, “No single record can be found that working elephants have been bred in Ceylon during the last two centuries.” Both Deraniyagala (1955) and Eisenberg (1970) stress that most of the very few captive births arose from either accidental matings or from wild cows pregnant when captured. One Sri Lankan (Elapata, 1969) who grew up surrounded by elephants says that people were afraid to allow elephants to mate for fear the animals would be uncontrollable and “in the last two or three decades I have not heard of more than two or three acts of mating in captivity.” Remarking on a survey of 181 animals, Ilangakoon (1993), say that “a large percentage of captive elephants of both sexes in Sri Lanka are in the breeding, adult age group at present. However very few of these animals are ever used for the purpose of captive breeding, possibly due to the fact that this has not been a traditional practice in this country.”

The question is whether Sri Lanka’s low-birth rate derives from a simple preference for wild elephants (a common view in many times and places with plentiful and cheap wild captives) or whether there are active cultural prejudices against breeding. Much evidence, including a similar low birth rate in south India, suggests inhibiting cultural factors. Eisenberg (1970) lists several folk beliefs thought to inhibit breeding, including the fear that bulls would breed only when in musth and would then become unmanageable, and the fear that bulls allowed to breed would lose their strength and vitality. Jayewardene (1994c), on the other hand, mentions nothing remotely resembling prejudices or prohibitions against captive breeding; he flatly states that Sri Lanka’s low birth rate arose from the elephant’s long gestation period and from the many years invested in rearing a calf before any possibility of profitable work. Such discouraging economic factors are operative in Sri Lanka, but so are they in the Buddhist countries of the eastern range where births are mostly much higher. Cultural inhibitions are very likely present.

In 1995, as a result of better educated owners and mahouts, any traditional factors which actively inhibit breeding have probably lost much of their potency. Certainly the Pinnawela Orphanage has a good breeding rate, and at least one private owner has had a calf born to a domesticated cow covered by a domesticated bull (Siripala, 1991). Sri Lanka’s low birth rate could probably be raised quickly and inexpensively with some education and the easy availability of skilful studs. Any efforts to improve breeding should begain soon because Sri Lanka’s breeding females are growing steadily older with very few new recruits to replace them. Twenty years from now there will be very few cows of prime breeding age.

Lack of proximity to other elephants, whether for work-related reasons or pure geography, is another factor helping to explain Sri Lanka’s low birth rate. Jainudeen et al. (1972) say of a sample of 132 elephants that they had “very little opportunity to associate with each other.”

Nugegoda (1992) mentions the need for a captive breeding program apart from Pinnawela. Jayasekera and Atapattu (1995) suggest that one possible solution to the low birth rate would be “to establish elephant camps, as has been done in South India and Thailand, managed by the State or an NGO.” Jayewardene (1996) says, “There have been suggestions earlier with regard to the setting up of Captive Breeding stations.” He suggests that breeding centers might best be placed in buffer zones or protected forests.


The data in Table 16 is too sparse to reach any firm conclusions, although points of interest do emerge. The low prices for two 40-year old wild-caught bulls in 1985 (Jayewardene, 1986) are chilling because such low sums indicate just how little hope anybody saw in training those elephants to become valuable animals. (Both bulls died soon after being sold, probably after being treated pretty roughly.) Middle-aged wild-caught cows seem to fetch decent prices, suggesting that buyers expect to break and train them successfully. Moran’s average price for 141 elephants in 1986 is probably quite accurate because owners assigned values to their own animals in a questionnaire, where they had no reason to greatly overvalue their animals.

Table 16: Prices of elephants in Sri Lanka, 1970-1995


- Origin -

Sex Age Rs. US$ Comment, (source)









(Jayasinghe & Jainudeen, 1970)







7’6” tall, (Punchihewa, 1974)






7’10” tall, (Punchihewa)







Died, (Jayewardene, 1986)






Died, (Jayewardene, 1986)






Lived, (Jayewardene, 1986)






Pregnant (Jayewardene, 1986)






(Jayewardene, 1986)






(Jayewardene, 1986)







6’ tall, (Moran, 1986b)






Average of 141 elephants (Moran, 1986b)







“High risk” (Jayaseara & Atapattu, 1995)






“Good health” (Jayasekara & Atapattu)






“Peak age” (Jayasekara & Atapattu)







Tusker, (Lair)

Tuskers are, not surprisingly, the most costly animals. In 1995, it appeared that whereas the average price for a cow or a mukhna was between Rs. 600,000-1,000,000, a tusker might reach Rs. 1,500,000 (US$30,000). Rudran et al. (1995) wrote that, “there is probably a local demand for trained animals, which currently fetch between US$7,000 and US$30,000 per animal depending on age, physical condition, work experience and other factors.”

The price for the 4-year old tusker in 1995 might seem low until considering that even if he survives and even if his tusks emerge long and symmetrical, it will still be twenty years before he might be called magnificent. Tuskless male calves and female calves are nonetheless considerably cheaper than tuskers. Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995), all of whose 1991 prices are for trained animals, suggest a preference for cows: “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.” Clearly, tuskers aside, preference for sex of working animals is an individual matter, with some buyers preferring docile cows for their dependability and others preferring troublesome mukhnas for their strength.

Prices seem high compared to Thailand and Myanmar, especially for tuskers. Prices also seem high compared to the potential income. High prices relative to earning potential are probably a reflection of the rarity value which comes when rich people buy elephants only for prestige and not for work. Perhaps an economist could adjust the rupee for inflation and unravel whether, as one would expect, elephants are becoming more expensive.

The market

The market would seem to be one of low demand except for an insatiable hunger for fine tuskers. Moran (1986b) says, “More domesticated elephants can be absorbed into the Sri Lankan economy, as most owners seek and pay high prices for the few elephants that are sold.” But most other observers see Sri Lanka as suffering from a shortage of employment, which must suppress market demand. Warning against capturing high numbers of wild elephants ten years ago, Jayewardene (1986) stated that, “Incomes from hiring elephants for work would be low, as the influx of new working animals into an already diminishing market for working elephants, would depress it further.” Warning against the DWLC’s 1990 proposal to capture 500 wild elephants, Jayewardene (1994a) wrote: “Even if a quarter of the targeted number was captured, disposing of 125 animals by sale would have been very difficult.”

Contemplating the relatively high price of elephants, it might be possible to turn a profit breeding elephants, so long as the market genuinely wanted them. Producing calves might be even more remunerative than either logging or tourism. The price of a healthy young calf safely past weaning in Sri Lanka might be Rs. 200,000 for a female to Rs. 400,000 for a tusker, the average price being perhaps Rs. 300,000 or US$6,000. Assuming that, for safety, the cow is kept off of work for at least two years, specifically the last year of gestation and the first year of nursing, a calf sold for US$6,000 would compensate for the mother’s lost work at the rate of $3,000 a year, a sum probably easily comparable to what she would have earned working any other way. (As a bonus, when at home the pregnant and then nursing cow requires relatively little attention, leaving the mahout mostly free to do other work, although most Sri Lankan mahouts know or will do no other work.) Weaning and the actual sale should ideally wait for at least two more years, with the nursing calf at the side of its lightly worked mother.

Breeding elephants has similar potential in Thailand and anywhere with rural areas experiencing depressed economic conditions but relatively high prices for calves. Clear risks exist for prospective breeders, such as suffering a stillborn calf or wasting time and money breeding a cow which does not conceive, but the primary factor inhibiting breeding is undoubtedly the lost regular income from the cow. Even if made aware that breeding a calf would be profitable, few owners could afford to forego the steady income from their cow, no matter how low. A management possibility to stimulate breeding might be to offer financial support, either subsidies or loans (perhaps with insurance attached), to people who wish to breed their elephants. Technical support might include helping to track estrus cycles, teaching techniques to encourage mating, providing a stud service, etc.


Finding paying work seems to be a common problem for elephant owners in Sri Lanka. Some log skidding still occurs in the central hilly region, but that work is nothing like the scale of bygone logging. Tourism provides some work by way of doing small shows, posing for photos, or offering rides. Most elephants join in annual religious processions or Peraheras, but no income is derived because it is deemed an honor to participate in such merit-making events. Ilangakoon (1993) interviewed some 181 mahouts and determined that some 52.7% of the elephants work only 10-15 days a month, with only 13.3% working between 16-22 days a month. Logging elephants work about 200 days a year and are not normally worked full-time during the intense heat of February to April (Jayasekara and Atapattu, 1995).

Moran (1986b) gives two pie graphs of work types based on questionnaire results for 141 elephants. Her first graph divides types of work into recreation, ceremony, and labor; the second graph divides “labor” into sub-types. Table 17 contains every detail in Moran’s graphs.

Table 17: Types of elephant employment in Sri Lanka, 19861

Work type


% of Labor




Tourism rides, shows, etc.



Participate in Peraheras, other ceremonies





Skidding or other timber work



Carrying goods other than timber



Lifting beams, dragging equipment, etc.



Other (not specified)



Plowing, transporting crops, etc.



Training or controlling another elephant

Road work


Pulling a roller or grader, crushing rock, etc.

1 Data is all from Moran (1986b); the sample comprised 141 elephants.

Despite its sparseness, Moran’s data is noteworthy on two counts. First, data on work is badly needed all over Asia, and Moran’s small sample seems to be the most exhaustive survey ever conducted. Second, Moran’s data clearly shows the astonishing variety of work performed by elephants in a traditional society; construction, for example, might initially seem odd work for elephants but their utility is understood instantly upon seeing a trunk raising a heavy roof beam. The Director of Public Works in 1867 complained that half of his 19 elephants were normally out of service because the building stones which they had to manipulate were too heavy.

Moran (1986b) describes the operations of one of Sri Lanka’s largest elephant contracting businesses, a family operation with twenty camps in the Sinharaja. The family owned seven elephants and sub-contracted another twenty. The business regularly made one-year contracts with the State Timber Corporation (STC) to skid a fixed amount of logs to trucks, normally about 85,000 cubic feet every week with 60,000 of it being skidded by elephants. Agents called Bas-unnehe (‘foreman’) served as go-betweens linking contractors and elephant owners; many Bas-unnehe had been elephant trainers on large estates before land reform.

As for profitability, Moran’s questionnaire determined that 56% of the elephants were worked for a profit while some 27% of owners kept their elephants primarily to gain religious merit and worked them only enough to meet running costs; some 17% of owners lost money, but they were wealthy and kept elephants solely for “social, political, and religious reasons.” The daily rate for elephants was Rs. 250 (US$8.60) a day, paid only when the elephant actually worked.

In the southern and western provinces most elephants are worked hard; Jayasinghe and Jainudeen (1970) said of their owners: “To them the elephant is not a showpiece but a slave.” One veterinarian {Kuruwita, 1995} believes that overwork is very common. Overwork is sometimes ordered by owners, but overwork also occurs when mahouts unhappy with their pay surreptitiously do extra work without telling the faraway owner, dangerously curtailing the animals’ feeding and rest time. Thus, Sri Lanka probably has simultaneously a shortage of work and yet many overworked elephants. Overwork in Sri Lanka also occurs because most work performed has a piece-rate incentive. Traditional high-caste owners will possess the knowledge and the concern to prevent hired mahouts from overworking elephants, but very few businessman owners will possess either the knowledge or the empathy needed to prevent overwork.

“There is a tremendous potential for using trained elephants in nature-oriented tourism,” wrote Santiapillai and de Silva (1994). In 1994 Sri Lanka was visited by 408,000 tourists who spent US$230 million, making tourism the fourth largest generator of foreign exchange. Tourism areas, including many wildlife areas, are unaffected by terrorism and thus there is no reason not to proceed {Santiapillai, 1996}.


Even after 25 years, the best published information on ownership remains that of Jayasinghe and Jainudeen (1970), whose findings for 366 owners in 1967 are surely still broadly applicable in the 1990s. Most owners (76.2%) possessed only one elephant, while 16.1% had two elephants and only 4.4% had three. (In mid-1995 one owner in Kegalle district had 10-12 elephants, probably by far the largest number presently in a single private owner’s hands.) Discounting institutional owners - ten temples, the zoo, and the army - an analysis by “racial basis” showed that 359 of 366 owners were Sinhalese while six were Muslims and only one was a Tamil.

Temples in 1967 owned ten elephants or only 2.6% of the total, but in 1991 a much smaller sample of 181 elephants included 19 animals belonging to temples (Ilangakoon, 1993). Lehnhardt (1995) noted that there seemed to be increasing ownership of elephants by Buddhist temples.

Jayewardene (1994c) remarks that with wider use of heavy machinery “the earning capacity of an elephant dropped and the maintenance of the animal became an increasing burden on the owner resulting in a reluctance to keep elephants, except among the rich, who kept them as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.” Some of Sri Lanka’s budding nouveau riche also buy elephants, perhaps occasionally spurred by genuine affection but more often simply to acquire instant status. (See “Cultural Dimensions,” page 159.)

Only about ten mahouts in Sri Lanka own the elephants they ride, according to one well-placed observer {Molligoda, 1995}, while all others work for wages, an unhappy situation discussed immediately below. One of the island’s largest contractors is quoted by Moran (1986b) as saying the incidence of mahouts owning elephants is increasing; the contractor himself preferred to hire mahout-owners because their elephants were healthier, less troublesome, and more productive. An effective registration program would clarify the balance of owner types.


Sri Lanka is unique amongst the traditional elephant-keeping nations of Asia for the homogeneity of its mahouts. (Indonesia is equally homogeneous but from a tradition barely ten years old, not two millennia.) Elsewhere in Asia, myriad questions arise as to whether the mahouts own the elephants, whether the mahouts are tribal, whether they catch wild elephants, etc. In Sri Lanka it can safely be assumed that virtually all mahouts and owners are Buddhists, though of two different castes. The mahout almost surely does not own the elephant he rides but rather works for wages. All mahouts use the same 27-29 command words. All mahouts share the same keeping techniques and the same world view.

It can also be safely assumed that mahouts do not catch wild elephants. The Sinhalese people who keep elephants do not capture them, while the Muslims who capture elephants do not keep them. There is, or was until recently, an absolute division of labor.

Transmission of skills remains primarily from father to son {Alahakoon, 1995}, partly from a sense of tradition but also because better jobs are scarce when the national unemployment rate is 15% nationally and even worse in rural areas.

All observers seem to feel strongly that the quality of mahouts is dropping. Lehnhardt (1995) remarks that most of the mahouts he met were “fairly young and inexperienced” and “surprisingly transitory”; he says that, “Training elephants seems to be a lost art. None of the mahouts we interviewed had actually trained their animals, they had inherited them already trained.” Kuruwita {1995} believes that perhaps only half of Sri Lanka’s mahouts reach traditional high standards; he believes that the quality of grooming and foot care have declined and that many younger mahouts feel conspicuously less affection for their animals than do older mahouts. Jayasekara and Atapattu (1995) state that, “In Sri Lanka, the elephant is very often controlled by uneducated and ill-trained mahouts, who may drive an animal too hard.”

The present method of keeping musth bulls might reflect a decline in mahoutship in Sri Lanka. The standard practice is to chain bulls in one place for the duration of musth, a practice which leads to foot problems from standing in urine and dung. Musth bulls which can be moved are considered to be either exceptionally even-tempered animals or to be ridden by superior mahouts. This situation is not normal; most mahouts in other areas of Asia also chain musth bulls but most bulls remain sufficiently controllable to be shifted to a clean new area on a daily or weekly basis.7

If the newest generation of mahouts are far less capable then their fathers and grandfathers it is because they have been poorly taught, a lack explainable in part by the loss of expert supervision from aristocrats. (See “Cultural Dimensions,” page 159.) A registration program coupled with a socio-economic survey could do much to elucidate the quality of mahoutship and possibly lead to remedial measures.

After interviewing 181 mahouts, Ilangakoon (1993) said, “Most of the mahouts ... stated that they found it a satisfying occupation and would not give it up for any other job.” No matter how much job satisfaction mahouts derive, however, many are quite disgruntled with their wages. Mahouts in 1986, according to Moran (1986b), were paid Rs. 1,000 (US$35) a month and a daily allowance of Rs. 50 (US$1.75) when actually working; the base salary was only about half the Sri Lankan average salary of Rs. 2,000 (US$70).

The perceptive visitor to Sri Lanka very quickly senses in the mahouts a resentment so pervasive as to be tangible. Mahouts you have just met will gratuitously tell stories of their meager wages and how they are the perpetual victims of greedy owners. Conversely, many managers and owners portray the mahouts as at best lazy and at worst as a pack of devious scoundrels. All over Asia managers stress the eternal need to closely supervise mahouts, but complaints about mahouts are especially strong and frequent in Sri Lanka.

Dissatisfaction will continue amongst mahouts so long as only a few own the elephant they ride and so long as most mahouts feel they are being squeezed by owners who freeze incomes at bare level. Low wages are especially galling because today’s mahouts are sophisticated enough to realize that they are caretaking a source of national pride - at considerable danger to themselves.

Being a mahout in Sri Lanka is, as everywhere, a very dangerous profession, at least for the roughly one out of three men who must work with problem elephants. One cow seen by Lehnhardt (1995) was said to have killed 17 people; he added, “Many of the elephants had killed one or more of their previous mahouts and it was a bit of a bragging right to work with an elephant who had killed.” One observer {Molligoda, 1995} knows a bull which, starting from the age of ten, has killed five mahouts and yet another which has killed 11 mahouts. He believes that some mahouts train their animals to kill strangers which try to approach or control them; the motive, which the author has also heard ascribed to mahouts in south India, is simply to provide lifetime job security.

Alcoholism is a specific manifestation of the demoralization of Sri Lanka’s mahouts mentioned by many people interviewed. (Alcoholism is also a problem in south India, especially amongst forest department mahouts.) Jayewardene (1994c) says, “Mahouts in general have a reputation of being addicted to liquor,” and he goes so far as to attribute many instances of mahouts being killed by elephants to drunkenness.

Cultural dimensions

Sri Lanka is famed for its Peraheras, or religious processions. Most famous is the nearly 220 year old Esala Perahera in Kandy, an annual procession which presently includes about 150 elephants. Many elephants carry relics, the most important being the Buddha’s Tooth or the Tooth Relic. The casket holding the tooth must be carried by a magnificent tusker, called the Maligawa tusker.8 For all important relics, only a tusker is a suitable conveyance, a considerable problem considering the ban on commercial imports, the virtually zero captive birth rate, and the law against catching wild elephants - very few of which are tuskers anyway.

To participate in a Perahera brings merit and increases chances of attaining Nirvana not just for the mahout and owner, it is believed, but even for the elephant itself. (Elephants, however honored, remain elephants; in 1959 a tusker named Raja ran amok and created a stampede in which 14 people were killed and 125 seriously injured before he was shot dead.)

Since the beginnings of the institution of Perahera in the 4th century AD, even the placement of elephants in the procession was ranked to reflect the social status of their owners. All of the human participants have played their roles as preordained by caste. “The Perahera gradually evolved into an elaborate ritual that expressed the status of lay participants in the sociopolitical hierarchy of integration between the state and the religion,” wrote Moran (1986b). The Perahera is thus not simply religious ritual but also a stylized drama mirroring the very social structure of Sri Lanka.

The tenets of two of the world’s largest religions have long been intertwined in Sri Lanka, with the elephant playing numerous powerful symbolic roles in both faiths. Theravada Buddhism is said to have come to Sri Lanka with the missionary Mahinda in 307 BC while Hinduism had reached the island 150 years earlier. Over time, it would seem that Hinduism’s preordained assignment of caste and social rank has come into uneasy but enduring confluence with Buddhism’s egalitarianism.

Such questions would be purely academic, indeed philosophical, if not for the near certainty that ancient dogmas still strongly influence the relationship between owners and mahouts and thereby influence the treatment accorded elephants. In the past the feudal roles of lord and fief must have greatly benefited both sides in Sri Lanka, otherwise those roles would hardly have survived for so long, but today it seems that an interdependence of over 1,600 years between mahouts and owners has now dissolved. Given the levelling nature of Buddhism and the open, modern society surrounding the mahouts, the feudal relationship has today become a divisive anachronism.

This hypothesis - or possibly evident truth - of a shattered feudal relationship and alienated mahouts is derived from the wider literature, from interviews, and from the author’s impressions in the field aided by a very insightful study (Moran, 1986b). Based partly on the historical literature but more importantly on extensive interviews in the field and questionnaires, Moran’s sources consisted of 46 owners, with 141 elephants owned between them, and 110 mahouts.

As long ago as the 3rd century AD, according to the Mahavamsa (a “semi-legendary chronicle” written in the 5th century AD), the king maintained an Elephant Establishment as a department of state, the chief officer being called the Gajanayake Nilame, a title which survives to this day. This establishment, according to Jayewardene (1994c), “dealt with all matters concerning elephants including their capture, training, conservation and export.” A complex feudal system resulted in the Gajanayake Nilame administering land entrusted into his hands by the king, land to which lower castes could attain guaranteed tenure so long as they performed free service to him. Mahouts were of a low caste since their livelihood required using the remains of dead animals, specifically the leather ropes used in securing elephants. There used to be at least one additional specialised elephant-keeping caste; Sinhala kings retained specialist elephant trainers called Kuruwe, who trained both mahouts and wild-caught elephants (Jayewardene, 1994c.) Over time, Moran (1986b) says, “caste, which originally expressed difference between occupations, had changed into a feudal organization in which status and power were manifested by land tenure. Low caste elephant keepers had tenure rights to land of high caste Gajanayake Nilames who had been given land by the king for maintaining his elephants.”

As late as 1970 Jayasinghe and Jainudeen (1970) were still able to say of “the more wealthy and aristocratic families” that, “They keep the elephant as a status symbol, work being only a secondary factor.” This ancient feudal system survived, watered down but intact, until the Land Reform Act of 1972 limited to 50 acres (20 ha.) the agricultural land allowed to any individual. Overnight, many aristocratic elephant owners no longer had sufficient land to grow food for their elephants or for their mahouts’ families. Some elephants were gifted to Buddhist temples and a few were given to the retainer-mahouts who had always cared for the animals, but many owners sold their elephants to anybody with enough money. Some elephants were bought by timber contractors, but even more fell into the hands of parvenu owners. Suddenly, anybody with money could buy the status that had for centuries been vested in a hereditary aristocracy.

Moran (1986b) interviewed a man named Upali, a member of an urbane and aristocratic family which had owned elephants since time immemorial but was forced to sell their six elephants after losing all but 50 of their 5,000 acres (2,000 ha.). In Upali’s family, which had “led the last kheddah” in Sri Lanka, elephants were so important that every child was given one. Upali received his elephant at the age of six, and as a boy he spent much time with the estate’s mahouts, trainers and elephants. He says, “Knowledge of elephants was part of my training.”

Even into the 1970s, according to as Upali, mahouts were still seen as low caste because “they took the life of a living thing to provide ropes and thongs to use in elephant management. Keepers never entered our house, but they and their families lived on our estate, were supported by us, and tenured small plots of land to grow food.” Upali abhors the change from a nearly feudal system to a capitalistic democracy, saying, “Elephants are now only to make money.” He holds grudges against the mahouts, blaming one for the death of the last elephant he owned, but his greatest resentment is reserved for the nouveau riche “merchant and entrepreneurial classes” which “buy elephants and buy elephant tusks to display in their homes and say they are ancestral tusks.”

Upali’s manner is haughty and insensitive; nonetheless, his vituperations against both mahouts and the new class of owners undoubtedly have some justification. For millennia the aristocrats had religiously nurtured both inherited knowledge of elephants and a reciprocal sense of obligation to elephants, but most new owners possess very little knowledge and even less conscience. (Even a kind owner is a bad owner, for the elephant, if he lacks the knowledge needed to expertly supervise his hired mahouts.) Even Upali’s elitist disdain for mahouts has some merit. Seeing themselves as disadvantaged hired hands, most mahouts feel little guilt about neglecting or overworking an elephant; a few go so far as to use their elephant as an oversized whipping boy, the only possible surrogate for gaining revenge on an exalted and otherwise inviolate owner.

Hopefully in the future academics will further explore the curious role of caste in the island’s ancient but declining elephant-keeping culture, from both the historical and contemporary perspectives. The strains which lingering feudalism impose on the mahout-owner relationship have seemingly not been studied by any academic discipline. Jayewardene (1994c), for example, in his excellent and comprehensive The Elephant in Sri Lanka, barely uses the word ‘caste’ and mentions neither the feudal nature of the mahout-owner relationship nor the death blow dealt it by land reform. Reflecting on many interviews and lively discussions in Sri Lanka, the author feels that every educated Sri Lankan concerned with elephants is so habituated to the schism between mahout and owner that they fail to see that the conflict would be of any interest to outsiders - or that such a cultural division might have profound impact on elephants.

Many if not most Sri Lankan mahouts are probably nursing some caste-based grievances, but they are also worldly men well aware that times have changed. Much current resentment presently seems focused on the undeniably low wages, and resentment about wages must be directed equally at aristocratic and parvenu owners alike. Perhaps the caste-derived animosity between mahouts and owners is the story of the last generation, and the current generation has new problems in place of that schism.

· See “Mahoutship,” page 157 for wages.


One well-informed observer asked of the likely condition of Sri Lanka’s domesticated elephants twenty years from now simply answered: “I don’t want to think about it.” Vivid testimony is given to such an attitude by the fact that two neighboring countries with brand new elephant catching-and-keeping operations, Malaysia and Indonesia, are able to use khoonkies while Sri Lanka, with a tradition over 2,000 years old, is forced to resort to bulldozers to move wild captives.

Sri Lanka presently has grave problems in recruitment, food and nutrition, unemployment, and, most ominous, the precipitously falling quality of mahoutsip. Without some massive effort, whether by government or NGOs (or both), current problems can only get worse with time.

Sri Lanka’s immediate need, as across all of Asia, is for efficient registration coupled with basic veterinary care. To sensibly determine a broad and effective management plan requires more registration-derived biodata and more socio-economic data on owners and mahouts so as to build a clearer picture of work performed, veterinary care accorded, market trends, quality of keeping, etc. The participation of government is essential, but unfortunately Sri Lanka is a prime example of the inaction that inevitably follows legislation which assigns sole jurisdiction for domesticated elephants to a wildlife agency. The domesticated elephants’ technical status as a wild animal pigeonholes them in a managerial limbo and deprives them of any hope for veterinary treatment. Sri Lanka, just like Thailand, needs a special, stand-alone law applicable solely to domesticated elephants and drafted to treat all of the elephant’s unique management problems. The special law should require participation from all needed government agencies, even across ministerial lines; the livestock department (the Department of Animal Production and Health), in particular, uniquely possesses many essential resources.

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