The Special Sri Lankan Elephant and the Import Export Trade.
Posted on January 24th, 2021

Ashley de Vos

Stemming from the advice given by Arahat Mahinda to King Devanampiya Tissa (3 C.BCE), that all beings including the animals in the forest and the birds in the air have a right to live, tradition dictated that all precious resources, are always protected. The thick forest covered hills and mountains, referred to, by Ferguson (1815) as black, leach infested and full of animals”, were dedicated to the Gods or Devas, and as a royal decree ensured its continuous protection, very few went in to desecrate it.

The central highlands were mostly uninhabited; the few villages that existed were limited to the edges of the fertile valleys. The non-existence of a hillside building tradition confirmed by the fact, that every commencement of a building operation led to the flattening of the land or to the cutting of the hillside to prepare the ‘gevatha’ or platform on which the dwelling is constructed, reinforces the fact that this wasteful method of flattening the site in the hills, belonged to a plain’s tradition, as such is far removed from anything even remotely connected to a hillside tradition[i]. The undisturbed protection and preservation of the highlands from human habitation over a couple of millennia permitted a special bio-diversity to evolve, making Sri Lanka a bio-diversity hotspot. The flora and fauna including the elephant lived undisturbed. This made them all very special.

To the Greeks and Romans the island was known as the mother of the most stately of elephants”[ii]. the land of the sapphire and the hyacinth, the ruby and the pearl”[iii]. Ptolemy refers to the countries products as being, rice, honey, ginger, beryl, hyacinth and has mines of every sort, of gold and silver and other metals. It breeds at the same time elephants and tigers”[iv].

In succeeding ages writers and travellers from all chimes who have visited the shores, join in the chorus of praise of its natural attractions. The sides of the mountains were strewn with gems and the air is perfumed with the odour of cinnamon and Ribeiro says, as Ceylon is the key of India, it appears as if God had taken pleasures in enriching it with the earth`s choicest treasures”[v]

The historical records pertaining to the Island of Sri Lanka were written on Ola leaf and were maintained by the monks in the Monasteries. However, as they only recorded the deeds of the kings who assisted and fostered Buddhism and helped develop the different monasteries, there is little detail of the International trade that existed in the Prasamudra or Great Ocean, in the historic period. Fortunately, much of the details regarding trade could be gleaned from information gathered and recorded by foreign travellers and from objects found in the archaeological excavations. The records left by foreign writers[vi] refer to the role played by the island of Sihala-dipa or Taprobane in the lucrative trade that passed through the Prasamudra”[vii].

The renown of Ceylon as it reached Europe in the seventeenth century, is quaintly summed up by Purchas, in his `Pilgrimage`, the heauens with their dewes, the ayre with a pleasant holesomenesse and fragrant freshnesse, the waters in their many riuers and fountains, the earth diuersified in aspiring hills, lowly vales, equal and indifferent plains, filled in her inward chambers with metals and jewels, in her outward court and upper face stored with whole woods of the best cinnamon that the sunne seeth, besides fruits, oranges, leimons, etc., surmounting those of Spain: fowles and beasts both tame and wild, among which the elephant, honoured by a naturall acknowledgement of excellence of all other elephants in the world, these all have conspired and joined in common league to present unto Zeilon the chiefs of worldly treasures and pleasures with a long and healthy life in the inhabitants to enjoy them, no marvel then if sense and senualitie have here stumbled on a Paradise”[viii].

The elephant has always been regarded as special and was a protected species, and the Kings held the killing of an elephant a criminal offence[ix].  The elephant forests were not cleared[x]. Most of the elephants were usually captured when they ventured into the forests in the lower plains, and formed the most important component of the Kings’ stables, supervised by the Gajanayake Nilame who was appointed custodian of the elephants[xi], their training and their capture came under the supervision of the Kuruwe Lekham[xii]. This special elephant from the earliest historical period has been depicted and glorified on temple and palace walls in sculptural or in painted form. The continuous freezes of sculptured dancing elephants are a pleasure to behold. Carefully and lovingly tamed elephants were used for ceremonial purposes and personal travel, in the hauling of timber and other construction material, in the ploughing of the fields, in the hauling of farm produce, in battle, in the building of the dams of the wewas, also in the construction of the large stupas.

The Mahavamsa records the use of elephants wearing leather boots to consolidate the foundation of the Ruvanweli Stupa in Anuradhapura (3C BC)[xiii]. Indeed they were the first theoretical machines, the dozes used in construction. Elephants in full regalia continued to adorn the religious processions and were traditionally loved by all. In his 150 AD map of Taprobane, Ptolemy identifies the area between Adams Peak (Sri Pada) that includes the Walawe Ganga basin and the Rakwana hills to the sea, as being ‘Elephantorum Hic Sunt’, an elephant feeding ground[xiv]. During the colonial occupation of the country, elephants are known to have been captured in the Avissawella, Negombo, Mannar, Kalutara, Matara, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Buttala area etc.  During the earlier Dutch period, an elephant had even found its way into the Colombo Fort. The fact that elephants were encountered in a number of locations also confirms that they were in a habit of moving down from the thick forested hills in search of food and water. However, prior to the arrival of the British there is very little evidence of the unnecessary or willful decimation of elephants. 

 Over time the elephant evolved a special pair of feet, suitable to the terrain, the special hills and mountains in which it lived. Tennent refers to this special agility being due to a faculty that is almost entirely derived from the unusual position, as compared to other quadrupeds of the knee joint of the hind leg, arising from the superior length of the thigh bone, and the shortness of the metatarsus. The heel being almost where it projects in man, instead of lifted up as a ‘hook’”[xv]. It is this which enables the elephant, in descending declivities, to depress and adjust the weight of his hinder portions, which would otherwise over balance and force him headlong”[xvi]. He further states that, it is by the same arrangement that he is enabled, on uneven ground, to lift his feet, which are tender and sensitive, with delicacy and plant them with such decision as to ensure his own safety as well as that of objects which it is expedient to avoid touching”[xvii].

Tennent’s observation is confirmed by Dr. Hooker, writing in the Himalayan Journal, concludes that ‘the elephant’s path is an excellent specimen of engineering for it winds judiciously’[xviii].  During a Portuguese attack on the Balana fort, it is noted that, Gasper de Valadares tried to get in the Enemy’s rear by the elephants way (Ali Mankada), two leagues from Balane, when they made the diversion on that part, they found it well fortified’[xix]. Elephant paths were being used as access ways by man.

The great central plateau is called the Horton’s plains (7200 feet above MSL.), in honour of its British discoverer Lord Horton. The larger part of it is still covered with primaeval forests, alternating with dry or marshy meadows known as patenas. Leopards, bears and wild elephants are the sovereigns of this domain. As we came to the top of the plateau, after climbing to the top of a deep ravine, we came upon the characteristic Nilloo scrub, the favourite haunt of the wild elephant. The large heaps of dung, some quite fresh, which we saw in every direction and the trodden undergrowth, were ample evidence of the frequent visits of herds to this spot. The elephants steadily eat their way through the Nilloo scrub; one marching close at the heels of another. Every bush that is not devoured is trodden flat; and where a herd of twenty or thirty of these colossal beasts have marched in single file through the woods, an open road of some yards wide is left ready beaten, as good as heart can desire – in a wilderness. In fact, these elephant tracks were the only path used during the expeditions of the next few days, and by following them alone we made several very interesting excursions”[xx].

Emmerson Tennent states that; prior to 1840 and before the coffee plantations had been extensively opened in the Kandyan ranges, there was not a mountain or a lofty feature of land of Ceylon which the elephant had not traversed in their periodical migrations in search of water and the sagacity which they display in laying out roads is almost incredible. They generally keep along the backbone of a chain of hills, avoiding steep gradients and one curious observation was not lost upon the government surveyors, that in crossing valleys from ridge to ridge, through forests so dense as to obstruct a distance view, the elephants invariably select the line of march which communicates most judiciously with the opposite points, by means of the safest path”[xxi]. The astute early British surveyors followed the ‘Aliman Kadas’ or the elephant corridors in setting out the road traces and the transportation networks that connected the coffee and tea estates and the estate towns in the hills.

Tennent further confirms that, in Ceylon the districts in which the elephants most abound, are all hilly and mountainous. In the later, especially, there is no range so elevated as to be inaccessible to them”[xxii]. A statement confirmed by Major Skinner who mentions that in 1840, he found spore of an elephant on the very summit of Adam’s peak, at an altitude of 7420 feet and on the pinnacle which the pilgrims climb with difficulty, by means of steps hewn in the rock.” and in 1847 records, elephants on the Ramboda pass on the road to Nuwara Eliya”[xxiii]. The agility of the elephants to negotiate the steepest hill is highlighted in the Ceylon Observer (1865), which refers to the attempt to capture elephants in Avissawella. The Corral was constructed close to a wall of rock so precipitous and high that it was considered superfluous to continue the enclosure in front of them. But over the rocks the elephants made their escape and the corral was a total failure”[xxiv].

Tennent also refers to an interesting account of a Kraal recorded by a person he describes as an able and accurate describer, published in the Colombo Observer, March 1866, in which is stated that an infuriated tusker, the ‘property of the government’, made a rush to escape the enclosure and fairly leaped the barrier, of some fifteen feet high, only carrying away the top cross beam with a great crash”, completely forcing him to rethink his view and change that ‘the elephant is too weighty and unwieldy to leap, at least to any considerable height or distance”. Ferguson the editor of the Observer on the request of Tennent, had the height rechecked and concluded that the height was nine feet, but remarked that even this was formidable”[xxv]. It was not only the climbing or leaping ability but also smell that prompted the elephants to make a periodic appearance in the peninsular of Jaffna when the Palmyra fruit ripened”[xxvi].

Heydt records the Dutch efforts in the capture of elephants for export to the sub-continent, he refers to an elephant trap that was built and maintained as a permanent feature close to the Matara Fort, in great detail. Not far from Maderen, the company has an elephant trap, which is surrounded by many thousand stakes, and extends over a great length and breadth. When now they intend to capture elephants, as many Sinhalese as possible are brought together, and the more one can have of them, the better it is. These separate themselves very widely one from another: and by night with lights, by day with the noise of various instruments they cause terror among them, seeing that they cannot well bear such, but rather flee from it. In this manner the Sinhalese thus provided, all march towards the elephant trap, as is done amongst us when a hunt is made with beaters”[xxvii].

Katugaha in his article on the ‘The last Kraal in Sri Lanka’ held at Panamure, states that in the construction of the kraals, in the past the Dutch followed the Portuguese pattern, but was often a rounded triangle with a somewhat broader funnel. The stockade in this triangle form continued to be used till about 1800 when the inner enclosure was done away with leaving only one main enclosure and the funnel at the apex. In the early British times, prior to 1833, the shape of the stockade underwent radical change and became a plain rectangle with a narrow entrance and no funnel: from the front angles two lines of fencing, well concealed, were continued forward and outward so as to contain and guide the elephants to the stockade’s entrance”[xxviii].

Heydt has a detail description of how the Dutch elephant trap works, Near the gates, on which entrance they have ready some tame elephants, which must as if show the way, and must enter first.  These then the wild ones follow, until they are brought into an open space provided with 2 or 3 drop-gates, on which men sit hidden. As soon as these see that the wild elephants have been brought through by the tame ones, they cut the Rottangs (rattans) which hold up the gate, so that they fall and enclose the place. Then they take again the tame elephants and let them show the way to the wild ones, until they lead each into a very long and narrow path, so that he cannot turn around unless he is very small: and so he goes along this passage until he comes to the end of it, and as soon as he is there, they quickly push in some tree trunks behind him, so that he cannot now go backwards. Then they try to tie him up, and bring him slowly forward, between two tame elephants. If now he will not go forward, they set a third behind him, which must belabour him with his trunk in a most pitiful manner, so that he begins to weep and to cry out: and afterwards they bring him into a place destined for this purpose, and look after him well, and seek daily, now with kindness, now with beatings, to make him tame, seeing that they have a quite extraordinary intelligence, more than other beasts”[xxix].

Heydt has an equally interesting account of what happens to the elephant after capture and the need to partially train them prior to export. He refers to the Place (Matara fort) as being full of trees, bushes and coconut gardens, which are very abundant, not only inside the fort but outside as well, creating the impression of a forest totally hiding the buildings[xxx]. Behind the first half bastion some quite low roofs peep out from among the bushes, which (roofs) cover the elephant stables: the Company has in this island no other place which is so convenient for the capture of elephants as is Maderen (Matara). For that reason a large number are taken here yearly, or at least every 2 years, whereas on the contrary near Negombo, where as mentioned above there is also an elephant-trap, several years often go by before this happens. The elephants which they purpose to train are placed for safety between trees, which are in this Place (fort) planted 4 by 4 conveniently for this, where they can be better disciplined than in the stables. Often several months pass before they are somewhat tamed, and can understand the speech of their tutor, (and learn even) so much as to lie down: but they are often sold before they are properly trained. And to transport such safely, they are tied beside a tame one and thus led”[xxxi]. “In 1697 there were 97 elephants in the stables at Matara“[xxxii].

Heydt then goes on to describe how animals are measured, examined and priced for the international market and then escorted tied to tame elephants to the point of shipment. While I was still in Colombo, there came thus (tied) beside tame elephants yearly 50 – 60 which had been taken here, to be sent from there to the Coromandel Coast and Bengal: since the Kings there buy them from the Company to use them for their pomp. They remained usually for 3 to 4 weeks near Colombo before they went further, and first must be measured, according to the custom there, both in height and length, which is done by the Couber wherein linen is sold. At this measuring attention was given also to the tail, whether it were complete; and had also its tufts complete, on which are hairs which are about 4 or at the most 6 inches long, hanging down on both sides of the tufts. They are as thick as a raven-quill, or rather more, whereas on the contrary the other hairs of the body are thinner. When selling or purchasing these beasts one also looks very closely at the ears, seeing that in the case of many these are highly torn. Those now which have good ears and tails, and no visible defects, are highly valued: on the contrary those which are loaded with such defects suffer a great diminution of value”[xxxiii].

From Colombo they are led to Mannar or further to be shipped out across the straits[xxxiv], and one hour from Colombo they must cross the wide River Madual or Kelani River[xxxv].  Although the elephants are taken into flowing water twice daily, yet none the less those which are newly caught do not willingly go into deep water, and in this show themselves very obdurate. Among others, one tore himself loose from the crimp (as they call the tame ones) and backed out of the river; and when he found himself free began to run as fast as he could. Now not very far from the place where this river falls into the sea there lies as though a hamlet of many houses, in which live fishermen for the most part: and this is also called Madual (Mutuwal) after the river. The elephant now ran towards these houses. Those who sat on the tame elephants came with all speed to catch this one again; and all the remaining ones were compelled to wait. But after this they fastened him between two tame ones, and set a third behind him, to beat him with its trunk so that he cried out pitifully, and if blew on a trumpet. On this occasion, I was told that they can swim very well, but do not like to go into deep water; also the female elephants (coming) behind the males too easily drown, and for this reason are shy of water, especially when they see beforehand that they must swim a long way. I have also noticed that they like nothing so well as to lie for some hours each day in flowing water, and indeed so that nothing remains outside but a little of the body, and the trunk, by which they breathe”[xxxvi].   

Onesicritus (323C.BC) refers to the elephant species on the Island of Taprobane[xxxvii] as being bigger and more warlike, than those found on the mainland[xxxviii]. Aelian (4C.BC), records that the elephants on the island were physically stronger and bigger in appearance than those of the mainland and may be judged more intelligent in every way and that many were exported to Kalinga[xxxix]. Cosmos Indicopleustes (6C.AD) refers to the elephants in Kalinga as being the best on the sub continent. Probably, a reference to the elephants that had been originally, exported from Taprobane to Kalinga.  Until the 19th C, large numbers of captive animals were moved across national bounders, primarily as beasts of war and burden. The geographic extent and scale of this transport will never completely be known, but there are records of transport of literally thousands of elephants, over thousands of kilometers, especially during periods of war”[xl]. Most of the 3000 war elephants of the Delhi Sultanate came from captures from enemies in South India, as tribute from subordinate rulers, or as imports from various regions, including East Bengal, Sri Lanka and Pegu in lower Burma”[xli]. The elephant was much more valuable than the horse, but reserved for royal and army use and not a common trade object”[xlii]. For example, one historic trade route existed between Sri Lanka and the sub-continent by about 300 BCE and later in medieval times, another developed between Pegu in southern Myanmar to Sri Lanka and Bengal, and then to the Sultanate of northern India, where wild elephants had been largely extirpated by this time”[xliii]. Tennent gives an account of Arab traders transporting elephants from Ceylon to India in 1600[xliv].

History records that the Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 BCE, transported 20 elephants from the Greek peninsula to fight the Roman army in the Battle of Heraclea , which he won at enormous cost of life. The records are silent on how they were transported. However, later attempts, when Metellus had to transport elephants across the Straits of Messina for display in Rome, he made use of a raft made up of large jars lashed to a frame, the framework covered in planks, and covered in earth and brushwood, so that the raft looked like a farmyard. As the elephant`s eyesight is weak in bright sunlight, they may have been tricked to enter the disguised barge in the daytime[xlv]. The Carthaginians were later to transport elephants from Africa to Sicily by sea. And this could hardly have been on a raft.  Instead, as Asia used ships to transport elephants from the earliest period, this knowledge would have reached the Mediterranean and the efficiency of transport may have changed.

The Devanagala inscription of Parakrama Bahu 1 (12C.AD), records the details of his naval campaign in Burma where he commissioned a huge fleet of a hundred ships as a step against the Burmese King`s decree to discontinue the payment of elephants as tribute and the unfair increase in the prices for individual animals, making it difficult to trade in tuskers[xlvi]. The expedition was a success and normalcy prevailed.  In the 11C ADE, The King of Lanka sent a trade delegation to Cambodia. Due to the trade rivalry between Burma and Cambodia, while traversing Burma, the King of Burma captured the Envoys and confiscated their elephants, money as well as ships. The King of Lanka immediately stopped the selling of elephants to foreign countries and immediately increased the price[xlvii].

Most of these references confirm that the Sinhalese have been involved in the capture and the export and import elephants from time immemorial. Considering the number of elephants including tuskers that were imported for breeding and training, from the Pegu region of southern Myanmar a major source of elephants for Lanka[xlviii], some connections may have existed between the imported and those in the wild. Unfortunately this will ensure, that Sri Lanka`s claim to a separate strain will always remain under a cloud.

Parakrama Bahu 1 in the Nainativu inscription written in Tamil states that foreign merchants are welcome and assured protection. It mentions that the island traded in elephants and horses. But in the event of a foreign ship being wrecked, half the goods would go to the King. If the ships carried elephants and horses King would only take a quarter of the goods[xlix].

The Ceylon elephant was highly prized on the sub continent for its special docile qualities and were captured for export and for use within the country by the Sinhalese, the Moors, the Portuguese and the Dutch. Unfortunately, due to the paucity of Portuguese records, as most of them were burnt by Van Toll after the Dutch takeover of Colombo.  The real number of elephants exported by the Portuguese is not known. Queyroz records the customs duty on the sale of elephants paid as feudal tribute by the Vania of Putalao (Putalam) and the King of Candea (Kandy), which amounted in all to 20, good and bad (elephants) at 200 xerafis per head. Not counting the (elephants) what remained in the hands of the officers of the king on account of their customary laxicity, amounted to only 4000’ xerafis”[l] or 20 elephants. “Abeysinghe (1966) records that the Portuguese maintained an annual demand of 37 elephants for export from two kraals. These were valued at 9,250 rix dollars which was equal to 15% of the total revenue of the state“[li]. “Durate Barbosa (1514) refers to the Royal monopoly of elephants – a good elephant fetched 1,500 ducats on the Malabar coast, while Ribeiro states that, 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“[lii].

The Portuguese casado Tristao Golayo de Castel Branco owned a special loading area called the Quay of the elephant’s (today’s Kayts) for the holding and export of elephants”[liii]. They were herded through elephant pass, today, the name for the narrow piece of land through which elephants were led, tied to tame ones, on their way into the Jaffna peninsula and to Kayts for export.

The specialisation of Kayts as a holding and staging place for shipments of elephants is confirmed by  Friar Francisco de Oriente (who) went to Tanadiua, which is also called the Quay of the elephants, because it is facing another island from which alone elephants are embarked; and on reaching the village Vratura, he found Tristao Golaya de Castel Branco, a casado of S. Thome, who had come to build a boat, and from whom he asked for timber to erect a cross: and cutting down a thick jungle, the den of deer and other game’, he secured the timber for his cross”[liv].

The well documented Dutch records point to the fact that on an average, in excess of 150 elephants were exported annually[lv] even though the King of Kandy had granted permission for taking 20 – 30 animals only[lvi]. These animals mostly captured in the Western and South Western region, which covered an area from Mannar up to Matara, were marched all the way to Mannar or Kayts tied to tame elephants to be shipped abroad. The many rivers that had to be crossed on the way to the point of shipment, usually many miles away, was a constant worry, as there were instances when the animals while in the water tried hard to break away from their crimps[lvii]. Eventually to be shipped in large flat bottom wooden barges, ten at a time, to the subcontinent. Earlier elephants were also shipped out to the Coromondal coast via Kayts. Considering the 100 year duration of the Dutch stay in the coastal region of Ceylon, and even allowing for 75% of the Dutch presence in the island as the most productive, the possible total number of elephants exported is a staggering 11,250 specimens in their prime.

To the Dutch, the export of elephants was a lucrative item of revenue. In the 18th C. it produced an average of 100,000 Guilders per year, sometimes more, sometimes less. The Ceylon elephant s were greatly desired in India for war and as draught animals. Bengal and Golconda Muslim merchants  came along to purchase them. The sales took place in the port of Kayts from where loading of the animals was convenient. They were captured in an elephant kraal or hunt held periodically in different parts of the country where wild animals abound. Such kraals were held in the Colombo district, the Matara district and along the borders of the Vanni. The holding of the krall was an elaborate and specialised procedure which was carried out by a caste of people [lviii]whose occupation it was. They were in charge of a Master of the Hunt who was responsible for the whole organisation. They held land as accomodessans for the work they did”[lix].  

The animals captured in the south were marched northwards to Jaffna by land along the coastal road. They had to pass through the Kandyan Kingdom on their way and special permission had to be sought for this transit. Another source for the supply of elephants was the tax due from the Vanniyar of north Ceylon. In return for the rights they held in the land and the taxes they collected from cultivators in the Vanni, they owed the lord of the land certain taxes which for long have been commuted in terms of elephants. These had to be delivered by them annually in Jaffna[lx]. The merchants came to Jaffna every year to buy elephants. The market operates through brokers who were natives of Jaffna[lxi] and had functioned for many years. Many attempt to make direct sales to the merchants ended in failure. Under Imhoff the price had been increased but the results were discouraging. A new and revised price list was soon issued and was operating on Gollenesse’s time.  In fact, the decline of the elephant trade continued in Loten’s and Schreuder’s time as well ”[lxii].  In the meantime no extraordinary trouble has been taken this year to establish new hunts, as otherwise we would be over-burdened with these gluttonous animals with no small harness to the poor inhabitants from whose gardens they must be provided and, besides, at the ordinary time scale we will be able to bring to market about 150 animals this year”[lxiii].

The Dutch Governor Thomas Van Rhee in his 1697 record to the Company discusses alternate transport methods, ” We have been casting about in our mind for some other means of transport, but so far we could think of nothing better than the construction of two large pontoons, a little larger than the pontoon “De Hoop” which is 64 feet long, 18 feet wide and 3 and1/2 feet deep carrying 40 lasts”.  “It is a flat bottomed vessel with a round prow and keel, and carries a mast with a mizzen and foresail, so that it may go close by the wind; and because of its floating capacity may easily pass over the shallows of the Mannar River”[lxiv].

Commencement of the Human Elephant conflict in the British era

The dislocation and systematic elimination of the elephants from its traditional habitat, brought about by the British initiated expanding coffee and later tea plantations created the first real Human Elephant Conflict on the island and thereafter the magnificent elephant was declared a pest and hunted for sport. A reward of a few shillings was placed for the head of an elephant, and from 1845 – 1856, 3500 rewards were claimed in the Northern Province alone, and during the period 1851 – 1856, a similar reward of a paltry number of shillings was paid for 2000 elephants killed in the Southern Province between Galle and Hambantota. This may not include the 1400 claimed by Major Rogers and 500 each claimed by Captain Galloway and Major Skinner. Tennent records the official killing from 1845 – 1856 as being 5500 elephants in the Northern and Southern Province alone[lxv], of course, this figure does not include the injured that were afforded a solitary death in the forest.

As the tea estates of the British Plantation Enterprise continued to expand into the virgin cloud forests of the East, South, South East and South West escarpments of the central high lands, it destroyed many thousands of acres of virgin cloud forests. It may be also be concluded that many thousands of elephants, were forced to sacrifice their habitat, to the murderous British Plantation Enterprise to be killed as a pest to rid the elephant from the highlands, to make way for the establishment of the plantation industry, to move into the plains in the years that followed. Tennent concludes that at the rate they are being killed the species will soon be extinct in Asia”[lxvi].

The availability of patches of forests, in which the small herds, usually family groups of elephants under a matriarch, could recuperate in, with a number of family groups coming together in search of water, like that seen at Minneriya today referred to by some as ‘the gathering’, a coming together of different groups for water, an infusion of minerals and to ensure regeneration of the species.  In 1844 Tennent, made a similar observation of how,  several herds sometimes browse in close contiguity, and in their expeditions in search of water, may form a body of possibly one or two hundred members. But on the slightest disturbance each distinct herd hastens to reform within its own particular circle and to take action on its own behalf for retreat or defense”[lxvii].  

Unfortunately, the accelerated destruction of the forest covers from 1977 onwards, and its reduction to 18% today (we don’t regard rubber plantations as valid forest additions for biodiversity support), has encouraged the steady worsening of the ensuing Human Elephant Conflict. A sad conflict, that has led to the willful destruction of an average of 150 elephants a year or one elephant killed every two days. Considering a conservative average of 125 elephants a year, the total number of elephants killed over the 30 year period is in excess of 3750 elephants. These are mind boggling figures and do not include those dying from poisoning, the cruel ‘Hakka Patas’ an extremely cruel and inhuman form of tortured death and from gunshot wounds, unnoticed in the forest.

A survey conducted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in 2011 – 12, concluded that there are approximately 6000 elephants in the wild. Since 2000 with greater human encroachment into the forests for developmental exploitation, thereby reducing the elephant habitat and escalating the Human Elephant conflict, and the increased fatality due to train accidents, the numbers being killed annually, has increased considerably. Today, the mortality rates are closer to 150 -160 per year.

Certainly, with enhanced encroachment into the forests if the massacre continues at this accelerated rate, together with the proposed creation of holding pens for the troublesome animals, a process that will invariably and eventually capture the roaming males, the so-called troublesome animals, who provide and are responsible for the gene base. The continuing illegal capture of juveniles by individuals looking for objects, that they hope will, enhance their prestige in their limited social circle, will add to the problem and very soon the elephant will be extinct in the wild in Sri Lanka, and that for a certainty, within the next ten years[lxviii]. In the past those who had elephants knew how to care for them, they were mostly working elephants, well fed and bathed. They were regularly exercised, not kept tied to a tree in the garden to be exercised once a year at the annual pageants, to be born an elephant today is certainly an entry into ‘Apaya’[lxix].

In order to enhance and increase the elephant habitat within Sri Lanka, one possibility may be to use the genetic engraving, that helps map out the route for the elephant to engage in regular and periodic incursion up into the escarpments of the southern highland plateau, possibly the last bastion to fall to the once lucrative plantation enterprise, is confirmed by elephant sightings at Poonagala, Millennium point, Koslanda, Randeligala. Kanneliya, Adam’s Peak etc., an area usually entered from the southern plains and up the steep Koslanda hills, to advantage. With careful planning, enhancement and reforesting of the highlands being abandoned by the tea industry[lxx], to recreate the forest landscape, the area could then be reused, to successfully win back the lost habitat for the elephant and ensure the islands water security for the future as well.

Ashley de Vos


[i]   De Vos 1988, The Built Environment in 2025, Inaugural Conference, OPA, Colombo.

[ii]  Dion. Periegetes, ver.593: Hwen-Thsang.

[iii]  Khordadbah., Book of routes, Tr. M. Meynard in the Journal Asiatique, 1865. Ceylon. M.S An Officer, Late of the Ceylon Rifles Vol 1, 1876, London Chapman Hall. Asian Educational Services, 1994, Delhi. p1.

[iv]   Ptolemy. Bk Vll, Ch lV. Sect 1.Ancient India as Described by Ptolemy, 1927, Ed Chuckerverty. Calcutta.

[v]  Ceylon. M.S an Officer, Late of the Ceylon Rifles Vol 1, 1876, London Chapman Hall. Asian Educational Services, 1994, Delhi p2, 3.

[vi]  Weerakkody D.P.M. 1997, Taprobane, Brepols.

[vii]  Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Ed. Shama-Satri Mysore, 1909.

[viii]  Ceylon. M.S An Officer, Late of the Ceylon Rifles Vol 1, 1876, London Chapman Hall. Asian Educational Services, 1994, Delhi p3. 

[ix]   D`Oyly. J. The elephant kraal of 1809. 1809. RAS Journal Vol XXVl. No.91.

[x]   Kautilya’s Artha-Sastra, Ed. Shama-Sastri, 1909. Mysore.

[xi]   Seneviratne. D.V., Elephants in Sinhala Literature. 1973. Sri Lanka Wildlife Bulletin No. 27-30.

[xii]   The Kuruve Lekham controlled the Kuruwe or elephant men. The training of the war elephants was the duty of the Kuruwe clan who came under their own Muhandiram. Op. cit.

[xiii]   Mahawamsa. Tr. Wilhelm Geiger. 1912. Oxford University Press. London.

[xiv]  A personal communication from, Prof. Merlin Peris. 2006.

[xv]  Tennent E.T.. 1867, The wild Elephant Longman, London.

[xvi]  Tennent E.T.. 1867, The wild Elephant Longman, London.

[xvii]  Op. Cit.

[xviii]  Hooker Dr. Himalayan Journal., Vol 1.  Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol Xlll.

[xix]  Fernao De Queyroz. The Temporal and Spiritual conquest of Ceylon, Tr. S.G.Perera. 1930. Five books in three Vols. Reprint 1992. Vol 11, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi. p578.

[xx]  Ernst Haeckel, A visit to Ceylon. Tr. Clara Bell, 1883. 1975 reprint, Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd. Dehiwela. p204.

[xxi]  Tennent E.T.. 1867, The wild Elephant Longman, London.

[xxii]  Op. Cit.

[xxiii]  Skinner Major T. 1890, Fifty years in Ceylon, WT Allen & Co London.

[xxiv]   Ceylon Observer, March 1865.

[xxv]  Tennent E.T.. 1867, The wild Elephant Longman, London.

[xxvi]  Op. Cit.

[xxvii]  Johann Wolffgang Heydt, Allerneuester Geographisch Und Topographischer Schau-Platz Von Africa Und Ost Indien, 1744. Wilhersdorff. R. Raven-Hart, Heydt’s Ceylon, 1952, being the relevant sections of the original pertaining to Ceylon. Ceylon Government Press, Colombo. p48.

[xxviii]   Katugaha. H.I.E. The last Kraal in Sri Lanka. Gajah 29,  2008. p5-10.

[xxix]  Johann Wolffgang Heydt, Allerneuester Geographisch Und Topographischer Schau-Platz Von Africa Und Ost Indien, 1744. Wilhersdorff. R. Raven-Hart, Heydt’s Ceylon, 1952, being the relevant sections of the original pertaining to Ceylon. Ceylon Government Press, Colombo. p48, 49.

[xxx]  Op. Cit  p51.

[xxxi]  Johann Wolffgang Heydt, Allerneuester Geographisch Und Topographischer Schau-Platz Von Africa Und Ost Indien, 1744. Wilhersdorff. R. Raven-Hart, Heydt’s Ceylon, 1952, being the relevant sections of the original pertaining to Ceylon. Ceylon Government Press, Colombo. p51.

[xxxii]   Jayawardena. J. The Elephant in Sri Lanka. 1994. The Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka. Colombo.

[xxxiii]  Johann Wolffgang Heydt, Allerneuester Geographisch Und Topographischer Schau-Platz Von Africa Und Ost Indien, 1744. Wilhersdorff. R. Raven-Hart, Heydt’s Ceylon, 1952, being the relevant sections of the original pertaining to Ceylon. Ceylon Government Press, Colombo. p52.

[xxxiv]  Op. Cit. p52.

[xxxv]  Possibly the Kelani River north of Madual or Mutuwal, the mouth of which extended to Wattala, which was also one time a port. The hour distance referred to by Heydt (1744), could be a traditional hour which was usually 24 or 28 minutes according to the copper Paethatiya, the Kelani River was indeed close and just north of Colombo.

[xxxvi]  Johann Wolffgang Heydt, Allerneuester Geographisch Und Topographischer Schau-Platz Von Africa Und Ost Indien, 1744. Wilhersdorff. R. Raven-Hart, Heydt’s Ceylon, 1952, being the relevant sections of the original pertaining to Ceylon. Ceylon Government Press, Colombo. p52.

[xxxvii]    Weerakkody D.P.M. 1997, Taprobane, Brepols. The Greek name for the island.

[xxxviii]  Pliny.P. The Natural History of Pliny. 1855. Tr. John Bostock and H.T.Riley. 6 Vols. London.

[xxxix]  Sicholfield A.F. 1959, Aelian on the characteristics of Animals, London.

[xl]   Sukumar. R. The Asian Elephant, Ecology and Management. 1989. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. UK.

[xli]    Op. Cit p5.

[xlii]   Kosambi. D.D., The culture and Civilisation of Ancient India. 1991, Famous books, Urdu Bazaar, Lahore.

[xliii]   Digby. S., War Horse and Elephants in the Delhi Sultanate. 1971. Oriental Monographs. Oxford. UK.

[xliv]   Tennent E.T., The Wild Elephant, 1867, Longman, London.

[xlv]   Wikipedia. War Elephants.

[xlvi]   Chulavamsa. Ch. LXXVl.

[xlvii]   Goonatilleke. H. Sri Lanka Cambodia Relations with special reference to the period 11- 20 C.  JRAAS New Series, Vol.XLVll. Special Number.

[xlviii]   Digby. S., War Horse and Elephants in the Delhi Sultanate. 1971. Oriental Monographs. Oxford. UK.

[xlix]   Indrapala. K. The Nainativu Tamil Inscription of Parakrama Bahu 1. 1963. University of Ceylon Review. Vol XX1 No1. P70.

[l]  Fernao De Queyroz. The Temporal and Spiritual conquest of Ceylon, Tr. S.G.Perera. 1930. Five books in three Vols. Reprint 1992. Vol 11, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi. p729.

[li]   Abeysinghe. T.  Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1966. Lake House Bookshop. Colombo. Jayawardena. J. The Elephant in Sri Lanka. 1994. The Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka. Colombo.

[lii]   Op. Cit.

[liii]  Fernao De Queyroz. The Temporal and Spiritual conquest of Ceylon, Tr. S.G.Perera. 1930. Five books in three Vols. Reprint 1992. Vol 11, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi. p 628.

[liv]  Op. Cit. p661.

[lv]  The Memoirs of Ryckloff Van Goes (1663 – 1675), Colombo 1962. P27.

[lvi]  Pybus

[lvii]  The escorting elephants, the tame elephants to which the semi tames ones were tied to were referred to as Crimps.

[lviii]  They were the Kuruwe people from Kegalla. The training of the elephants caught from the wild for both traditional purposes and war and even the mahouts were trained by the Kuruwe people. J.Jayawardena, Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust.

[lix]   The Memoirs of Ryckloff Van Goes (1663 – 1675), Colombo 1962. P27.

[lx]   S. Arasaratnam. The Vanniyar of North Ceylon : A Study of feudal power and Central Authority, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies. Vol X. No1. P103-5.

[lxi]   S. Arasaratnam. The Vanniyar of North Ceylon : A Study of feudal power and Central Authority, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies. Vol X. No1. P103-5.

[lxii]   The Memoirs of Ryckloff Van Goes (1663 – 1675), Colombo 1962. P27.

[lxiii]    Op. Cit. P71.

[lxiv]  Thomas Van Rhee, 1697 p.14. also see Roland Silva.  Architecture. Discusses forty last or the capacity of a flat-bottomed boat of 64 feet long or 18 feet wide and 3 and 1/2 feet deep is equated to 78 tons of goods or the weight of ten elephants.

[lxv]  Tennent E.T.. 1867, The wild Elephant Longman, London.

[lxvi]  Op. Cit.

[lxvii]  Op. Cit.

[lxviii]  Sections of this article appeared in the Loris, WNPS. Vol. 24, Issues 5&6, 2007.p37-40.

[lxix]   `Apaya`, a Sinhala word refers to Hell.

[lxx]   De Vos 1988, The Built Environment in 2025, Inaugural Conference, OPA, Colombo


Baker Samuel., Six years in Ceylon.

Schoff W.H. 1912, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, London.

Tennent E.T. 1860, Ceylon, An account of the island  Vols 1,2,  London

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