Home Guest Posts Sri Lanka Elephants – The capture of the gentle giants

Sri Lanka Elephants – The capture of the gentle giants

by Sam Clark

This week we are delighted to have Sidantha Kumara as our guest blogger. Sid is one of our finest guides – a fantastic guy who has taught us so much about Sri Lanka. He shows a side of Sri Lanka not often seen and his passionate belief and strong ideas on the positive power of tourism has led him to develop some quite extraordinary tours. His main project is the Abode, but if you are looking for an alternative view of the cultural triangle or the Kandy region Sid is very definitely your man. He also organises and guides treks miles off the beaten track – for travel-hardy adventurers only! One of his treks goes deep into elephant country – and elephants in Sri Lanka are a subject he feels deeply about as the following article shows:

Safari tours first came to light in the early 18th century. The west made inroads in the spheres of discoveries. Before this large parts of Asia remain obscured form travellers eye. The post-war period saw a massive boom in the world population driven by successful runs in the health and pharmaceutical industry. The earth became a crowded house to live in and the ever increasing pressure on natural resources further fueled the diminishing flora and fauna. The notion to create protected sites was born as a result.
The following account has been extracted from various travellers notebooks and compiled unfolding timeless events in Ceylon.

Encounters with elephants were a commonality in the past in a much wilder way than today. It raised curious questions about the creature’s diversity and the actual size of the population in the Island.

The physical characteristics of Ceylon Elephants are distinctly different from their other Africa breeds. The ample supply of food and water has resulted in recording a low number of tuskers compared to African species. In the plains of Africa, the beast traverses miles and miles in search of food and water. And more often the succulent bark of the Acacia tree is ripped off using its tusks than the readily available Mea. The large ears and moderate body size aids the cooling and conserving water in a harsh climate. However, in Ceylon average tuskers accounts to 1 in every 100. This is common even among elephants of Indian origin. A popular myth prevailed that both Ceylon and Indian species are genetically similar. It was cast away when solid evidence surfaced the local breed has common ancestry with the Sumatra species. (maims maximus sumathras)

Elephants are generally solitude animals. Tyrants of the jungle share the same water hole with a host of other animals manifesting a peaceful co-existence other than his most feared contender – man.

The hunt is on

The foreign presence in Ceylon was marred by various calamities. The elephant was an icon in trade, war and sport alike.

The enclosed captive method or the ‘keddah’ was originally done in India. The beasts are lead to a large enclosure made out of stakes followed by the second consisting of a water hole (rivulet). The third enclosure has a narrow tunnel or corridor leading to the final nosing compartment. The animal is then secured from hind legs to a nearby stump before the taming process. The method is known to have caused many casualties during stampedes. Many have perished due to shock injuries and sadly to ‘broken heart syndrome’.

The natives adopted a rather humane or improved method later on. Instead of using repeated compasses of enclosures an army of men would form a circle and drive the beast to one enclosure. For days tom beaters and fire bearers make the silent march trapping the beast and driving them to the stockade.

The nosing art is the most interesting and the daring have a job on their hands. People hailing from North and the East of the Island affectionately known as ‘panickers’ are these men. Reputed for their bravery and mastery in tracking wild elephants these men follow wind patterns. Armed with indelible smell and instinct the only tool in their possession is a rope made out of deerskin for nosing. The ‘rodiya’, a tribe belonging to the lowest in the Islands cast system are the manufacturers of this rope.

The nosing

Men stage a run luring the animal to charge towards the trap while other coils the hind legs to a tree stump. The rope has a horn which dangles from one end and eventually tangles up in the thicket. Once the animal has been secured a hut is built on the spot to protect from sun and rain and the tedious taming commences by constantly creating fires to subdue rage. This is followed by offering fresh fruits and water after weeks of starvation.

Prized exports

Captive elephants are mainly exported to Arab lands from Mannar port. A local boat, or ‘dhonee’, is utilized for this purpose. Accounts of violent struggles erupted at these places and many are an eyewitness to creature flexing every muscle and nerve to stay on land. The animal is loaded on to the boat facing backwards to avoid fright.

A huge 100 – 200 beasts are exported after supplying to the state.

Interesting findings

The first elephant Korral took place near the banks of Kimbul Oya in Kurnegala district. (AD 1329 – 1349)
The labour was in the form of compulsory service by convicts waiting jai terms for various offences. This was an integral part of state service or ‘rajakariya’ existed till 1832.

The elephants are known to be reputed crop raiders. But during the hay days of the Sri Lankan monarchy, a different perception exited.

The access to the after holes and corridors where herds frequented are left undisturbed when farming crops. The fields had a provision for the beast to access water holes without damaging the crops. Once the harvesting is over they feed on the rice straw. During this time elephants have learnt to fear fences.

The famed captive ‘Rober Knox’ witnessed the ugly side where they employed elephants to execute criminals. The creature hind legs assisted by peculiar knee joints enabling to swing the legs close to the grounds tossing the body of the victim’s foot to foot until deprived of life.

Towards the later part of the 18th century, a massive decline in the elephant population was evident. Monocultural plantations decimated populations by half owing to the seizure of large tracts of land for cultivation. These beasts were classified as ‘agricultural pests’.

The demand for more arable land resulted in the creation of fragmented forest patches. The animal increasingly competing with man for food and water. The onset of human-elephant conflict by now had drained millions of rupees and claimed hundreds of innocent farmer lives.

Conservation programs today have paid off swelling the numbers mainly by captive breeding. But the loss of habitat goes unchallenged and there is no proactive measure to rectify it. Given the wafer-thin forest left behind it’s time to switch to managing wildlife rather than simply conservation.

Your excursion to the elephant country will show you the ecological challenges faced by these majestic beasts in their shrinking homes.

Sidantha Kumara, September 2009

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