Eric Swan - daring wildlife photographer
Exactly 61 years ago on September 18, 1951, Eric Swan was killed by a
wild elephant while he was photographing.
Being a student of Lionel Wendt, he was a well-known wildlife
photographer at the time. His exhibitions in our country and abroad were
Swan went on the fateful photo safari to collect material for his new
film, the Jungle River.
A group of eight people accompanied him. It included his brother,
William Blake, another photographer of repute, Stanley de Silva, the
game ranger, two ladies and the labourers. The accident took place at
Tamankaduwa in the Polonnaruwa district. They took some close ups of a
herd of elephants numbering over 40 in the afternoon.
Later, they came across a lone elephant feeding peacefully in the
‘Villu’. As the elephant was a big specimen, Swan wanted some closer
ups. They left the ladies and the others on a hillock where it was safe
and advanced towards the elephant whose back was turned towards them. As
the wind was in their favour, they managed to get very close.
They observed that half of her tail and a part of her left ear were
missing, normal battle scars of an outcast from a herd.
Eric Swan carried a rifle and still camera, William Blake, a movie
camera and de Silva was armed with a 12 bore shot-gun. May be it was the
whirring of the movie camera or just pure coincidence, the elephant
suddenly turned to face the people.
The last photograph taken by Eric Swan showed the elephant turning
towards the cameras with its trunk curled up in its mouth - a sign of an
elephant about to charge.
Blake recalls, he heard a shot and somebody shouting “run for your
lives, she’s charging”. Blake ran towards a climb of trees in the
distance with de Silva close behind him. Eric knelt and fired at the
charging elephant. When Blake looked back he saw the elephant striking
Swan once with the trunk and he lay still. Then de Silva fired and it
left Swan and started chasing Blake and de Silva. While running de Silva
tripped and fell. He lay still and the charging elephant went past him
to the dump of trees. Reaching the trees and not finding Blake she
trampled the bush around and ran away after trumpeting loudly, a couple
The post-mortem showed six ribs and the skull fractured. The whole
island mourned the untimely death of the wildlife photographer.
Soon after the funeral there was a talk that Swan’s friends were
planning to shoot the elephant which killed him. There were loud
protests from wildlife enthusiasts. But the hunters were trying to show
that killing of this elephant was justified.
They argued that the elephant was a killer now and had lost its fear
of humans. They said it was only a matter of time before the animal in
pain after the gun shot injuries would start attacking every man it came
Widow and the family
The local press carried many letters from readers who were for and
against the killing of the elephant. A fund to help the widow and the
family of Eric Swan was opened. Dr L G Rajapaksa, LL.D. (London), K C
Minister of Justice (Later Sir Lalith Rajapaksa) wrote to the newspapers
“I am very happy to hear that a fund was started to help the widow
and the family of late Eric Swan. I feel confident that the lovers of
photography of jungle life will support it. I annex a cheque for Rs 100
being my contribution to this fund. I shall be glad to accede to our
request to hand over the amount collected to his widow when the fund is
closed. May I add that I appreciate very much the acceptance of my
suggestion that Swan’s brother and friends should give up the proposal
to track down the elephant, after all her jungle domain of which she was
a monarch had been trespassed and she must have been frightened at the
sight of men with cameras. I trust no other will undertake to hunt this
To clear the misconception William Blake wrote to the press, “of all
animals in the jungle there is none I have had greater respect for than
“The accident that took place at ‘Meeu Villu’ was due to no fault of
the elephant, but our own. Encouraged by earlier successful encounters
with elephants, we moved in too close and paid the penalty with a life.
The elephant only acted in self- defence. It is true we only pointed
cameras at the animal, but how was she to know that what was pointed at
her was only an instrument that could do her no harm. I am sure Eric
Swan too, had he survived the accident, would have said the same thing
because he was a wildlife enthusiast himself.”