In Sri Lanka no other animal has been associated for so long with the people in their traditional and religious activities as the elephant that goes back to the pre-Christian era of more than 5,000 years. Elephants which used to flourish in the country were captured and tamed being built like a tank, were used in war not only as a means of transport but also as an instrument of defence and offence. They were used to ram barricades and in time of war, they fix a heavy iron chain to the end of their trunks, which they whirl around with such agility, as to make it impossible for an enemy to approach them at that time of battles by ancient kings. Dutch, Portuguese and British reports and books record several instances of elephant capture, their use by the Sinhala Kings in their armies, elephant fights and the execution of criminals by elephants. In certain instances the strength of a King or Potentate was judged by the number of elephants he used in war. The King of Kandy maintained a special unit that dealt with all matters concerning elephants including their capture, training, conservation and export.
Earlier times there had been a significant demand for Sri Lankan elephants from other countries. As the Sri Lankan elephants were found to easily adapt for war were considered better than those from the Indian subcontinent and were highly priced; the export of elephants to India had been going on without interruption from the period of the First Punic War. India wanted them for use as war elephants, Myanmar as a tribute from ancient kings and Egypt probably for both war and ceremonial occasions. Their excellent qualities were well known to the Greeks even as far back as the 3rd Century BC, in the time of Alexander the Great. Elephants from Sri Lanka were exported to Kalinga by special boats from about 200 BC. From the port of Mantai the present day Mannar, such exports are also recorded by Ptolemy in 175 AD.
When the Portuguese captured the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka they found a flourishing export trade in elephants. They too, quickly got involved in the elephant export trade, and set up a revenue-gathering unit and maintained an annual demand of 37 elephants for export of value equal to 15% of the total revenue of the state. Elephants were also exported by the Dutch from Karativu the present Karainagar connected to the peninsula via a causeway and the Dutch held an annual sale of elephants in Jaffna. The elephants were driven into the Jaffna peninsula by a shallow ford that separated it from the mainland. This ford was later bridged and the causeway spanning the shallow lagoon that separates the Jaffna peninsula from the mainland was given the curious name “Elephant Pass” by the Dutch. Elephant Pass controls access to the Jaffna Peninsula, therefore it is referred to as the Gateway to Jaffna Peninsula. The British laid rail tracks parallel to the causeway and had its own bridge across the lagoon, while the causeway became part of the A9 Highway. In later years both rail and road bridges were replaced by a permanent earth bund as part of the “River for Jaffna” plan, not implemented due to the civil-war.
There were many more elephants then than now and Sri Lanka was considered to be the granary of the East; accordingly, no elephant could be captured, killed or maimed without the king’s authority. All offenders were punished by death. Unlike today the cultivators of that time could not plead that the elephants were harmed in the protection of their crops. Any depredation or damage to crops by wild elephants had to be prevented by stout fencing together with organized and effective watching by the farmers. When the British captured the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch in 1796, and later the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, they continued the capture of elephants for some time but on a low-priority basis.
The British however, indulged in the shooting of elephants as a form of sport. Elephant populations that had been able to withstand the detrimental effects of capture all these years now started diminishing rapidly with the wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the elephant herds. During the times of the Sinhala kings, even though there were tens of thousands of elephants in all parts of the country, this animal was afforded complete protection by royal decree and the penalty for killing an elephant was death and further decreed that the practice of selling elephants from his kingdom for export should henceforth be stopped and records of the 12th Century AD show that elephants were imported from Burma. The export of elephants too continued as the Ceylon elephant was superior, traders were prepared to pay twice or even up to four times for them compared to elephants from other countries.
In fact in 1828 the British passed a law prohibiting the capture of elephants except for the government, but this law was withdrawn in 1831 deeming it as an agricultural pest and bounty was paid for each elephant killed. As the elephant was a threat to the agricultural activities of the rural population, the British provided guns freely to villagers to keep away the marauding elephants from their cultivations. This action, which seemed necessary at that time, added to the destruction of the elephant. Farmers, who had hitherto protected their crops from marauding elephants by other means, now had a much easier method. They shot at them and either maimed or killed them. The British were also interested in developing plantation crops in addition to subsistence crops. British planters, who were opening up the railways and roads along with coffee and later tea plantations, also shot trespassing elephants at will. Here again the purported protection of their crops seemed to justify their actions. The planters combined their sport and the protection of their plantations and shot elephants at will, so much so that the once large elephant population in the hills dwindled rapidly.
Sri Lanka is home for thousands of the largest living mammal on land and the ruins of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka abound with carvings of elephants in many forms, attesting to the close association between man and elephant. The Sri Lankan elephant is one of three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant and Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia and the elephant population is largely restricted to the dry zone in the north, east and southeast of Sri Lanka, in various protected national parks. Also could find elephants in small groups outside protected areas, due to the conversion of elephant habitat to settlements and permanent cultivation. The elephants are scattered throughout numerous wildlife sanctuaries in the country and Minneriya is the place to be to see a multitude of elephants gathered in one place in a natural setting. Every year, during the dry season from July to September hundreds of elephants gather at the edges of the reservoir at Minneriya National Park; a great source of mud in which elephants enjoy playing and cooling themselves.
Sri Lanka had also earned a reputation for skilled elephant management. The Sinhala kings had special elephant trainers, they were the Kuruwe people from Kegalle. Training elephants caught from the wild, for both traditional purposes and war, was the responsibility of these people. Even persons (mahouts) who looked after the elephants after their training were trained by the Kuruwe people. Today elephants are used on all important ceremonial occasions especially where pomp and pageantry were required as in the annual Kandy Esala Perahera pageant which dates back nearly 220 years, brings together well over a hundred elephants that parade the streets during the nights on certain pre-determined days in July-August each year. New Year festivities in Sri Lanka feature elephants in various sports and competitive combat. Elephants suitably caparisoned still take part in ceremonial, cultural and religious pageants, processions and featured in various sports; provided transportation and assisted in logging operations and construction works.
Unfortunately, elephants and humans are not getting along well and it is more apparent in Sri Lanka, than anywhere else. Thus elephant habitat is shrinking daily and humans are encroaching on the territory of elephants. The number of elephants changing during the last century cannot be precisely concluded since the elephant population data is not available in a consistence manner. It is assumed that before the British colonial period, most parts of the land was under primary forests that were predominantly occupied by tall trees with sparse undergrowth that do not support high densities of elephants, but there may have been more elephants than what we have at present due to the higher percentage of forest cover. At the turn of the 20th century, it was believed that about 10,000 elephants lived in Sri Lanka. As per the last survey conducted in 2011, the elephant population in the country was 5,879.Therefore, one cannot simply say that the current elephant population in Sri Lanka is overabundant, because the habitat available in Sri Lanka is not adequate for the current elephant population. At the same time, many poor farmers haven’t changed their daily lives for hundreds of years but their crops and villages are being threatened.
As human takes over more and more of the land that traditionally belongs to the elephants, more die on a regular basis. According to the World Wildlife Organization the elephant population in Sri Lanka has fallen by 65 per cent since the turn of the 19th century due to the encroachment of human habitation into the wild. The elephants are losing their wild home to farmers and industry, and adult elephants are reportedly dying at a rate of one every two days. Often adult elephants are killed when their natural habitat collides with human farmland; lack of natural habitation and scarcity of food, force more of the elephants out of the jungle environment into human habitation. The farmers shoot them, or the elephants drown in irrigation tanks placed on the farms for the watering of crops. When this happens on a regular basis, baby elephants are orphaned and abandoned. As a baby elephant needs its mother’s milk for two years to grow and survive, this has become a major problem to the wildlife protection authorities. Many abandoned baby elephants that survive end up in the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala is today much patronised by tourists.
Since 1986 in Sri Lanka, the Elephant has been listed as endangered animal as the population has declined by half over the last three generations of 75 years. One major problem with the elephants entering the encroaching farmlands is that the government allows milk producers to raise their cattle inside the national parks. This means that in certain sections of the national parks, the cattle eat the same grass as the wild elephants, a grass which is imperative to the survival of the baby elephants, thus reducing yet again the food available to them. Elephants are also killed on a regular basis by the trains when the elephants venture on to the tracks, they are ploughed down by the fast trains and often lie there, severely injured, for days before dying or being found by rescuers. The blame falls squarely on the government, as it lacks a clear policy to safeguard this magnificent animal; for the government believes that by building electric fences, they can solve the problem of the interaction between the elephants and humans, but this merely restricts the elephants’ movements and often electric shocks cause miscarriages in female elephants as well as psychological trauma. The human-elephant conflict is increasing due mainly to human interference and today there are only a few thousand elephants are left, either in the wild or in captivity.