Tuesday, 26 November 2002  
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Government - Gazette

Sunday Observer

Budusarana On-line Edition

Rapidly diminishing elephant population - Its decimation and fight for survival

by M. B. Dassanayake

Once again we hear of wild elephants terrorizing and harming villagers after going on rampage. This could be, of course, because its living area is decreasing in extent everyday and it comes into contact with people whom he considers its tormentor. Most of the elephants were shot when 'kraals' were conducted during the British Period from 1920 - 1950.

In all eighteen (18) kraals were held from the years 1820, 1846, 1847, 1857, 1859, 1860, 1863, 1866, 1871, 1881, 1883, 1887, 1895, 1896, 1902, 1907, 1924 and the last and the final kraal in 1950 and at this 'kraal' Lord Soulbury was the guest of honour. A short account of these 'kraals' are included in this article.

Some of the elephants driven into the stockade remained within the 'kraal' and others who broke through the line of beaters and averted being noosed and became dangerous were shot.

Elephants were strictly protected during the times of the Sinhala Kings and the penalty for killing one was whipping, confiscation of property or banishment.

By tradition elephants from other parts of the world, including Africa, were believed to incline their heads or kneel to the Sri Lankan elephant, recognizing it instinctively as their superior. Other legends affirmed the superiority of the Sri Lankan elephant; Onesicritus, a pilot in the navy that Alexander the Great brought to India, reported in the third century B.C., that the Sri Lankan elephant was fiercer than the Indian (quoted Deraniyagala, 1955-1).

The elephants great sagacity, its reliability, and its comparative docility are not myths, however, and in Sri Lanka its record of service to man is a long and distinguished one.

Elephants have always been part of the history, culture, pageantry and folklore of Sri Lanka and many parts of Asia.

Elephant fights were one of the more popular Sinhala sports 'Gajakeliya' since wild elephants, being strictly protected, were so abundant that they could be driven into stockades or arenas with little difficulty. The elephant was of great economic importance, being the fore-runner of the modern armoured 'tank' in war and also of much use as a worker during times of peace.

The animal also played an important role during the New Year festivities, both as a combatant and in sport, while another use to which it was put, was an executioner. Elephants were strictly protected during the times of the Sinhala kings, and the penalty for killing one was whipping, confiscation of property or banishment.

During the time of the Sinhala Kings

During the time of the Sinhala Kings elephant establishment was important. The 'Gajanayake-Nilame' was in-charge. The 'Ath-Bandina-vidane' master of the hunt, 'Ath-Panthiya-Arachchies', overseers - the 'Ath-Bandina-Rala', who supervised the 'Bandinno', noozers - 'Vel-karayas', custodians of lianas, 'Vaga-Kareyo', scouts who located the herds, 'Panikkayo', officers over the 'Karunayake', Mahouts, 'Dureyo', who assisted in tying the tamed elephants, 'Pannayo' - Foragers, 'Diyakum-kareyo' suppliers of water, 'Gaja-Pattiya', or elephant veterinary officer, 'Oli' - who collected ingredients for medicines, 'Thondugattena-Hulavalliyo', headmen of the 'Rodi' caste who were the rope makers or 'Thondu-Gattene-Kareyo'.

Ancient Sinhala Elephant Lore

Some idea of the mediaeval Sinhalese system of subdividing the elephants into breeds or varieties can be ascertained from the following works on various breeds of elephants (a) 'Gajayoga-Satakaya' (b) 'Hasthi-Lakshana Vidyava' )(c) 'Gajatu-Lakshanaya'.

Breeds of elephant are -

(1) Kalavaka-breed, (2) Gangeiya, (3) Pandara, (4) Tambara (5), Pingala (6), Gandha (7), Mangala (8), Hema (9), Uposatha (10), Chaddanta. The 'Castes' in ascending order are as follows:- 'Kalawaka-kule, Gangeye-kule, Pandara-kule, Thambe-kule, Pingala-kule, Gandha-kule, Mangala-kule, Hema-kule, Uposatha-kule, the highest being the Saddantha or Chatdanta-kule'.

Nerve Centre or 'Nila'

Old palm-leaf manuscripts set out in detail the points of the animal, the numerous 'Nila' or nerve centres goaded in controlling it, the different types of seats afforded by elephants, the making of the goad 'Henduwa' or 'Ankusa', the medicaments employed for coating an 'Ankussa' to ensure submission, to stimulate, madden, kill or heal an elephant, the choice of an elephant-keeper, the training of elephants to different types of gait a head carriage, and a number of other items including a full description of the various ailments of elephants and their cures. In employing the 'Ankussa' the depth of prodding increases by half an inch for each caste, from three inches for the lowest to seven and half inches for the highest. The half of the 'Ankussa' or goad is generally of 'Nika' wood.

On a day auspicious to the mahout two different preparations are applied to the spike and hood respectively and a third to the haft.

The effect of these mixtures is supposed to enforce obedience, to pacify, madden or kill according to the wish of the owner of the 'Ankussa'.

Pressure on 'Nila', unaided by voice or gesture, suffice to induce an elephant to complete any type of work a mahout desires, and an expert, by pressing 'Nila' with his feet, can cause an elephant's hind quarters to collapse.

'Ath-gale' or Elephant Kraal

The work 'Kraal' is probably a corruption of the Sinhala term 'Gal' or 'Gala' which was mispronounced by the Portugese and Dutch who occupied parts of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and captured elephants which they exported.


Each Headman is expected to produce able-bodied men in the area and is assigned a part of the line. When the herds are located the beaters form a rectangular around them and gradually drive them towards the 'Gala' which might be thirty miles distant.

Upon nearing the stockade the nearest short side of the rectangle of men bifurcates, and each half lines up with a wing of the enclosure so that now the herds are within three sides of the human rectangle and the area enclosed by the wings of the stockade.

The entire drive-in usually lasts about two months. The beaters line is termed 'Rakma' or watch. The long sides of the rectangle are the 'Diga-rakma' or long watch the short sides being the 'Haras-rakma' or transverse watch. Under the Sinhala Kings these beaters were service tenents and 'it was usual to supply them all with food and clothing while actually on duty. The Portuguese and the Dutch employed mostly forced labour and 5,000 to 6,000 villagers had to drive in herds in their territory.

The first 'Kraal', was conducted in 1820 in Galkadawala situated near Kala Oya. Again after 20 years on 1846 and in 1847 by Emmerson Tennant, the erstwhile historian and Colonial Secretary. The 1847 kraal took place in

Nillegoda when Lord Torrington was Governor of Ceylon. Nillegoda was also the venue of the kraal held in 1857 in the banks of the Kimbuluwawa Oya where E. L. Milford administered the North Western Province. There is a record of a kraal at Nellugolla in 1859 and in 1860 at Ruwangirikanda which ended in a terrible fiasco. The elephants broke through the line of beaters and retreaded to their forest haunts.

There was also a Kraal at Ebbawalapitiya in 1863, another in 1866 at Nellugolla at which Sir Herculus Robinson (later Lord Rosmead) and Lady Robinson were present.

In 1870 a kraal was held in honour of the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh at Ebbawalpitiya and the duration of this kraal lasted six months. In 1871 a kraal was held at Tihiragama during the time of Kadigamuwa Ratemahathmaya but it was soon abandoned due to some disagreement and manifestations of ill-omens. A large kraal was held 28 miles away from Colombo in Labugama in 1881.

This was on the occasion of the visit of King Edward VII and his brother.

The year 1883 saw another kraal held in the North Western Province which was a difficult time for the Kandyan chieftains as the Governor Sir Arthur Gordons (later Lord Stanmore) was very impatient for he had been kept waiting several days before any elephants were captured. In 1887 a kraal was held again during Sir Arthur Gordons time. The event was saddened by the death of one of the elephant keepers when he was mauled by one of the elephants he was looking after. In 1895 a kraal was held in Lenawa. It was the easiest kraal that took place as the elephants were near the stockade, and all that had to be done, was to drive them in, and this was accomplished with the greatest ease.

Again a kraal took place in 1896 at Danduwawa during the first year of Sir West Ridgeway's administration. Fifty five elephants were captured and Bogahalanda Ratemahathmaya was in charge of the operations.

One of the most successful kraals held in the Island took place in 1902 as a 'Farewell kraal' to Governor Sir West Ridgeway.

There was no difficulty in driving the elephants into the stockade and over 100 elephants were captured, but 55 were allowed to escape, while the others were taken over.

In 1907 another kraal was held in Panamure with the 'town' consisting of 30 rough huts built of bamboo and talipot palm leaves.

At this kraal seven elephants and a calf marched into the camp.

In 1924 Galgamuwa in Kurunegala was the venue of an interesting kraal described by Brooke Eliot in his book 'A Real Ceylon'. In this kraal he says, "---- in all 42 elephants were stockaded, including a little one about the size of a large pig. The cleverness and agility of the noosers on foot astonished me. Often they were in tight corners but with the help of a tame elephants or a tree found a miraculous way of escape".

The last kraal

A kraal within living memory and the last was held in the 1950's at Panamure on the vast acres belonging to Maduwanwala Dissawa. There are records of kraals over a period of 80 years held in Panamure and the last of which closed the chapter of elephant kraals in Sir Lanka.

Lord Soulbury was the guest of honour at this kraal. He was invited by Sir Francis Molamure, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The kraal opened on 1950 August 8th at 9.00 a.m. the auspicious time. People by thousands from all parts of the Island flocked to get a glimpse of what was happening in the stockade at Panamure. Soon an angry elephant and the largest and most magnificent could not be noozed, for he made a desperate struggle for freedom and a breakthrough from the stockade. He was the leader of the herd and soon began to pull down large trees. He was greatly feared by everybody and at dusk his capture was postponed for the next day and he was yet at large within the stockade.

The next day, too, he struggled to free himself and a verted being noosed and became dangerous. However, he was left alone, but on Thursday the order was given that he should be put to death and the fatal shot was fired by a young planter.

Elephants captured in Colombo - and slaughtered thousands in the hill country The English maintained this system for about 30 years and Governor North kept 2,000 men on such work for 3 months' to the danger and ruin of the men's health' (Pridham) also 'they compelled periodically to engage in the work of sharing them for Government' (Ferguson 1868).

In kraals organised by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the district of Colombo (one was organised, it is interesting to note, on the present Ridgeway Golf Links) elephants were captured in such large numbers that 160 animals were stockaded in a single kraal. Just over 100 years ago, over 200 elephants were caught in a kraal held in early British times, some of which taken for training in the usual way and others which could have been released in the jungles, were shot (Tennet, 1861 - 4).

From the 18th century onwards, elephants were shot on sight, and driven further and further away from their accustomed haunts by the speculators who invaded the forest areas, opening up roads and plantations. Major Thomas Skinner, as unusually benevolent man and one whose public career was of great service to the country, is reported to have shot 600 elephants himself, and in his autography gives an interesting account of his first exploit of this kind at Maturata within a week of his arrival in Ceylon.

The elephant - a tusker - was feeding half a mile away from his barracks; word was brought to him of his presence, Major Skinner loaded his guns, went out, and shot the beast (Skinner 1891). Major Thomas William Rogers is said to have slautered 1,400 elephants, justifying these numbers with the statement that he needed the ivory, with the proceeds of which he was to buy his army commission (Tennent - 1861 - 5); and argument that does not stand up to close examination, for tuskers are rare in Ceylon, and the few who exist have poorly developed tusks.

By mid-century (19th), the tusker in Ceylon had come to be a kind of spectre, to be talked of by a few who have had the good luck to find one. And when he is seen by a good sportsman, it is an evil hour for him - he is followed till he gives up his tusks. (Baker - 1855 - 1).

Major Roger's killings work out at an elephant a day, everyday, for 4 years.

A Captain Gallway was known to have killed 700 elephants, and a less known sportsman followed suit, with 300 to 200 animals to their credit (Tennent - 1861 - 6). Some of Ceylon's major sportsmen have left memoirs that speak for themselves without need of elaboration.

Sport of Sinhala Kings

Vasco da Gama noted, during his pioneer voyage in 1497, that - "the King of Ceylon has many elephants for war and for sale (quoted Nicholas, 1954 - 2). The docility of the tamed elephant makes it easy to train, and in the Kandyan period fights were staged in the great city square between pairs of large bull elephants; but the tales of these pale before the fight between two wild herds, a form of sport which no animal combat, staged in any part of the world approached immensity. These fights were staged in a ...... stone enclosure over which was built a pavilion from which the King watched the fight. On New Year's Day, as the herds drew near, bets were laid freely by the assembled populace as to which herd would enter the enclosure first, and which will in the fight.

The traditional four fold army of the Sinhalese Kings consisted of detachments of elephants, horses, chariots and infantry (Nicholas 1954 -3). King Raja Sinha I had 2,000 fighting elephants in the army that besieged the Portuguese Fort at Colombo in 1588 (Deraniyagala 1955 - 3), and after the introduction of cannon and shot discouraged the use of elephants in battle. The King of Kandy was reported to have maintained 300 tuskers for ceremonial functions (Nicholas 1954 -4).

Protection to elephants

The Sri Lankan elephant is considered to be the 'type' elephant of Asia, and to make sure that it does not disappear from the Island altogether, Wild Life Authorities here will have to learn from the mistakes of countries such as China, where elephants have become extinct. There were elephants in Persia, Mesopotamia and Java, too, but they have been extinct for many years now. With the increasing popularity of elephant hunting in this Island, the herds were driven further and further away from their natural feeding grounds in lush jungle country into drier and less congenial areas.

All animals suffered, but particularly the elephant, who is a great water lover and thrives in regions where green food and water are present in abundance. The greater part of the South West and Central Regions of the Island, is now occupied by man, and the elephants have wandered to areas where they undergo great hardship in times of drought. Elephants, who spend most of their day browning leisurely on grasses and leafy branches or in the water, need an extensive acreage in which they can roam to satisfy their essential wants. But this is just what they do not have. It is believed that the life span of our elephant has been greatly reduced by this enforced change of habitat.

In East Africa, poaching is considered a theft against the State, and heavy punishment (including long period of imprisonment) is meted out to breakers of this law. In the Klov District of Soviet Russia, peasants are not allowed to keep cats as domestic pets because, as an old woman said, justifying this rule, "we have so many rare singing birds in the woods around, the authorities are afraid that cats will kill off their young". (Vander Post, 1964 - 1). Similar admirable regulations, and public awareness of its responsibility towards the country's natural treasures are very badly needed in the adequate protection of the Sri Lankan elephant.


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