Unnatural death of an Elephant every second day – future generations to identify an elephant from a carved wooden statue?
Posted on July 16th, 2015

Chanaka Bandarage

It is estimated that closer to 200 elephants are being killed by humans in Sri Lanka each year. About the same number of elephants die from natural causes. At present the elephant birth rate is lower than the mortality rate, thus, it will be of no surprise if future generations are asked to identify an elephant from a carved wooden statue.

A census conducted by the Sri Lankan government few years ago (about six) recorded that there were about 5,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka, but elephant conservationists who have grassroots level presence in Sri Lanka say that this is a vastly exaggerated number. It is stated that during the census the same elephant was sometimes recorded more than once, and that it did not happen accidently.

The advantage to the governments (central and provincial) by showing a higher elephant number is that it will then be subjected to less public critique about its treatment of the elephants. Though governments do not like to admit it, in Sri Lanka, the elephant is a threatened species. One reason for this is that they basically do not have solutions for the fast deteriorating elephant numbers (there are numerous other threatened wildlife species in the country including the bear, leopard, sāmbhar, crocodile and deer; to name just a few).

According to wildlife activists, the real number of elephants in the wild today is only a few thousands, definitely not in the 5000s that is boasted by the governments.

The elephant, especially the Sri Lanka elephant, is a unique species. They are exceptionally intelligent, generally friendly and kind to humans and playful when happy. It is believed that a mature elephant has an IQ of a five year old child. Similar to that of a human, an elephant is known to have a sharp memory. Elephants are extremely emotional; it is known that when a member of a clan dies, elephants engage in communal mourning for several days. A heartwarming thing is that when an elephant calf is born all young females in the clan start producing breast milk for the new offspring, out of love – a remarkable quality that even we humans cannot match!

In Sri Lanka elephants are getting killed indiscriminately on a regular basis. It is an exceptionally sad thing to view photos/videos of elephants that lie in pain for several days before they finally die. Being huge beasts, the sufferings that the elephants undergo as a result of the human-elephant conflict is enormous.

Elephants get shot dead by rural villagers, who fight for the same land that the elephants thrive. Some elephants are killed from ‘hakka patas’ (a ‘bomb’ like object). In Sri Lanka elephants also sustain death by human poisoning, or drowning in irrigation tanks (a phenomenon that has emerged recently). Every year elephants get killed by the Batticaloe – Colombo night train. Responsibility for these deaths squarely lay with the relevant governments – their inability to avoid such tragedies is a clear demonstration that the governments lack clear policy to safeguard this most precious, majestic animal.

Due to lack of habitation and scarcity of food, more and more elephants are compelled to leave jungles and venture into human habitation. There is no purpose in ‘blaming’ the elephants for this, though this is the position adopted by some. Newspaper photos/videos have appeared how elephants converge around human garbage piles, competing with stray cattle and dogs, to eat rubbish. For example, in Manampitiya wild elephants gather most days around a huge garbage dump to eat thrown away items from a nearby big hospital. That garbage includes used blood soaked bandages, used syringes and volumes of polythene. Many road users travelling in remote areas of the country get to see wild elephants roaming on busy national highways, most probably searching for food and water. This is also a new development, a sad eye opener that Sri Lanka’s elephants are in real trouble.

A veterinary surgeon friend of the writer stated to him that often in wild elephant post mortem examinations, they find polythene in the dead elephants’ intestines.

A new reason for the scarcity of food for the elephants is the ‘brave’ decision by milk producers (with the blessing of the politicians) to raise cattle inside national parks. These cattle eat the very same grass that the wild elephants eat.  This scenario can be seen by a visitor in certain sections of the Uda Walawe and Yala national parks.  Some of the grasses that the cattle in the wildlife parks eat are imperative for the survival of the baby elephants.

The recent phenomenon of stealing elephant calves (about 50 or more) from the wild (after killing the adult elephants that guard the offspring) has compounded the problem. This means there will be a void in healthy wild elephants to produce the future generations. The impact of this will be felt once the current fertile elephants are faded away. The fact that there had been political patronage for this illegal trade is a personification that the governments are not serious in preserving wild elephants. Making a quick income in whatever way they can, including stealing baby elephants from the wild, has become the norm of the day! Was this practice applied to other important wildlife species as well? Only the perpetrators would know.

One elephant conservationist stated this writer that there is hardly a single adult elephant in the wild that is not carrying a gunshot wound. This is something we as a nation should be ashamed of.

The human – elephant conflict took an adversely sharp turn with the advent of the accelerated Mahaveli scheme. Hundreds and thousands of virgin forests were cleared for new settlers (note Mahaveli B and H projects – Embilipiya/Uda Walave and Mahiyangana/Giranduru Kotte areas where virgin forests were cleared and thousands of new settlers were settled). The authorities in those projects did not allocate sufficient land for the elephants who lost large swathes of habitation. They built new reserves and tried to confine elephants to them. They were reckless in blocking ancient elephant corridors –routes that the elephants had used to cross from one area to another from time immemorial. It was ridiculous to expect the elephants to accustom to a brand new route made for them by the humans. The authorities should have considered that an elephant walks at least 50 – 60 miles a day, and they constantly venture into new areas for the purposes of finding water, salt, partners for mating, exercise and of course food.

The writer acknowledges that the governments have a duty to provide land for the increasing human population and also to do things to improve their living standards. But, these activities should not happen at the expense of the wild elephant. All development work has to be sustainable – so that all beings can live harmoniously in the small and beautiful Sri Lanka.

The authorities seem to believe that building electric fences will solve the human-elephant problem, and that this is the only solution available. This may be a good solution for the humans but not for the elephant. Electric fencing is another way of artificially restricting the elephants’ movements. Electric shocks have caused miscarriages in female elephants. Elephants have developed other ailments too, including psychological trauma.  Electric fencing is a way for the humans to further encroach into elephant areas.

Elephants (and other wildlife) need sufficient land to roam around in their own habitats. When Sri Lanka gained independence (in 1948) it had about 50% of land under forest cover. How much land remains as forest cover today is a big question; some say it is less than 20% of the total land mass. In such a scenario, it is not surprising that elephant numbers have dwindled to such a low level today.  When we gained independence there were in excess of  10,000 elephants in the country.

As emphasised before, due to expansion in human population, people do need new land. People clear forests to build houses and cut timber for their daily needs. It is the duty of the governments to do proper planning so that sufficient forest cover is preserved for the elephants and other wildlife.  Replanting trees for timber in forests is a must. It is stated that when the new airport was built thousands of acres of virgin forests were cleared – they were the former roaming grounds of the wild elephants. We hear reports frequently how important wildlife such as elephants, peacocks, monkeys etc are getting killed on a daily basis by various ways in this area, as those animals now have less space to roam. Elephants have died of electrocution as well.

Construction of new super highways may have contributed to the dwindling of wildlife numbers including elephants.  To the writer’s knowledge no study in this regard has yet been undertaken.

Clearly, the governments do not seem to have a solution to one of the major burning problems of Sri Lanka – stopping the human/elephant conflict; so that the lives of both humans and elephants can be saved (this article is only highlighting the adverse effects of the problem on elephants – the voiceless group).

The current problem simply cannot continue on. Elephants will continue to incur painful deaths until their numbers have dwindled irrecoverably.  Until they become extinct (quite a possibility), they, in smaller numbers may be confined to the major elephant parks such as Yala, Wilpattu, Minneriya and Uda Walawe; and the remaining jungles of the North (In China’s Yuan rainforest the elephant numbers have dwindled to a mere 250, several decades ago there were thousands of elephants there). Is this exactly the desire of the governments; if not why do they not come up with a feasible policy to curb this most important problem?

Due to the introduction of the provincial government system (in 1987), work done by governments have often become duplicated. Governments are confused as to who is responsible for certain work. There is a conflict in the powers held by the central government and provincial governments. To satisfy cronies – to give them cabinet positions, important ministries had been split into pieces. For example, today the elephant protection activities (wildlife) are managed by a number of ministries such as Land, Mahaveli, Environment, Wildlife Conservation, Forestry, Irrigation, Human Resettlement, Livestock Development etc. It does not appear that there is a close co-ordination between the ministries so that the elephants and other wildlife could be well protected. There are greater restrictions/impediments on the officials who do their normal work, under very trying conditions. For example, a wildlife department official who seeks to rescue an injured elephant may need permission from the forestry department to enter the forest. By the time the administrative red tape is removed, the injured elephant could die. Another big problem is that the government departments (central or provincial) do not have adequate budgets for the welfare and wellbeing of the elephants (they are even struggling to provide services to the public).

There is a saying that the elephants do not vote, but humans. Thus, it is very convenient for the politicians to neglect the welfare of the elephants (and other wild animals). This is a foolish and selfish way of looking at the problem, quite a contrast with how developed nations would handle a similar problem. Sri Lanka earns millions of dollars each year from tourism. Tourists want to see elephants and other wildlife in the wild; not in zoos and orphanages. If we lose our wild elephant population (and other wildlife), that will be a huge blow to the country’s lucrative tourist industry. The loss of revenue to the country will be extraordinary (in millions of dollars).

There is an enormous goodwill in the veterinary community to save the lives of the injured elephants. Though rural villagers kill and maim elephants (sometimes they have no other alternative but to deal with elephants in such a drastic way – elephants kill about 100 people every year), they still want to protect and safeguard the elephants that destroy their homes, crops and even their lives. It is part of the Buddhist culture to be a friend and a carer for the elephant.

The general goodwill that prevails among the people for the elephant is a good thing. But, the focus should be on preventing the elephants from getting injured or killed by humans. The responsibility herein well and truly lies with governments and sadly they have massively failed in this regard. Proper measures of planning must take place at central and provincial government levels to safeguard the wild elephant. It is of paramount importance to put a stop to the clear or illicit felling of forests. It may be appropriate to monitor the daily movement of wild elephants (the highly endangered ones) using GPS technology –such as being done in some African countries like Kenya and South Africa. There are international wildlife organisations that provide assistance in this sort of work. It is time for the central government to seek assistance from overseas experts as how best  to save the wild elephant, using the best available technology (satellite tracking (GPS), radio collaring (SIM chips) etc. Let’s hope that at least in the future there will be sufficient measures to protect the elephant numbers in Sri Lanka. Let’s hope that the country’s future generations will not be required identify an elephant relying on a carved, wooden elephant; but watching them in the wild.

11 Responses to “Unnatural death of an Elephant every second day – future generations to identify an elephant from a carved wooden statue?”

  1. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    What a shame it is happening to these majestic creatures?
    Wish it happens to 2-legged elephants who are destroying Sinhalese race, Buddhism and Sri Lanka.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    Chanaka has addressed a serious problem here. In the scale of Human Needs, the Elephant does not feature as very important. In the old days when it was only the Elephant that was used to haul heavy loads, they were probably more valued in those areas. In the present day, as there are machines to do hte hauling work, Elephants are not needed that much. These magnificent animals are used mainly in parades and ceremonies now. If they are to be allowed to live and multiply, we shall have to find work where they are needed, other than being a tourist attraction in addition to ceremonial uses. As the population of human beings expand, that will be a direct confrontation to the Elephant populations all over the world.

    The sheer size of an Elephant and the amount of food needed deters people from ‘helping out’ keeping the animal on their own private land.

    Sri Lanka land size is 25,000 sq miles which makes it a relatively small country for such a large animal to flourish in large numbers.

    Perhaps all the countries facing this problem ought to get together to generate new ideas how to Save the Elephant.

  3. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    HEY CHANAKA !! Your thoughts on these Beautiful, Majestic, Priceless and Voiceless Innocent Pachyderms, are very meritorious, and you would be adequately blessed. I do hope that the Animal Lovers will take your suggestions seriously, and do their best to alleviate the misery that these animals suffer at the hands of two legged brutes called Human Beings. I have absolutely no faith in the Politicians showing any interest on your suggestions, as their first thoughts are how to rob the country, period.

    My interaction with an Elephant. I will try to make it as laconic as possible. I took some Tourists to a Koggala Beach Resort. The owner had a young mischievous Elephant, named Podi Appuhamy. I used to take bananas from the Dining table and feed this young fella, always using his name to address him. On about the third day, a few of us were standing at the building entrance, when we saw Podi Appuhamy being taken on the compound road, with the Mahout on his back. The distance would have been about 50 feet away.

    I shouted, ** Podi Appuhamy, Apita kiyanneth nathuwa yanawaa nehede. The Elephant did a 45 degree left turn and came straight at me. Everybody with me ran away. I stood still at the Entrance. This Fella, put his wet trunk on my shoulders, and was apparently showing his love for me. Just a three day love. The rest who ran away is now back with me.

    The Mahout then said, (English translation) This Elephant has done something very strange, that I have never experienced in my life with him. I cannot believe it. Little did he know that I used to go and talk to him, address him by name, and feed him with Bananas. We formed a lifetime friendship.

    One more Elephant story, I will tell you when on Skype.

    I sho

  4. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    AS a young boy, I remember the Mollamures used to establish KRAALS in the jungle to catch wild Elephants. That was when the Elephant population was huge.

  5. Chanaka B Says:

    Very few want to give a voice to the voiceless!

    This (elephant) is not a major problem if we had handled it well. The blame squarely lies with the recent Governments. They simply did not have a plan as how to curb or at least minimise the problem. Anywhere in the world, people will try to encroach and grab land for themselves. This is a human weakness. That is why we have the laws. Unfortunately,in Sri Lanka ,Environment Protection Laws are inadequate, and also not sufficiently enforced. People who destroy the environment and grab state land must be severely dealt with. They should spend time in jail (at lest the repeat offenders). Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, most of the time, the law breakers are the lawmakers! Today, it is the politicians (or their agents/cronies) who are behind deforestations and land grabbing. As the politicians give orders to the Police (and influence them in many other ways), the Police are unable to carry out their duties.

    Fran, the argument that Sri Lanka is too small, thus we cannot support a generous wild elephant population is not sound . It is our duty to preserve what is given to us by nature. The most important thing is to allow the existing herds to live a free and stress free life. Use of modern technology to fix the problem is a must.

    Susantha, ‘Podi Appuhamay’ story is beautiful. There are so many beautiful elephant stories in Sri Lanka.

  6. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    CHANAKA !! an Elephant Joke.:- A tourist driver was taking some Tourists in Yala, when an Elephant came out from the Brush and started chasing the vehicle. The Driver was speeding at his best, and the Elephant was catching up. The driver was coming to a “”T”” junction, and a safety thought came his way. He put his signal to the left, and turned right. The Elephant went left.

  7. Chanaka B Says:

    Elephant jokes:

    How are elephants and computers similar?
    They both have big memories

    How do you stop an elephant from charging?
    Take away his credit card

    Teacher: “Where would you find an elephant?”
    Pupil:”You don’t have to find them, they’re too big to lose!”

  8. Fran Diaz Says:


    I personally would be happy to see really effective modern tech possibilities emerge for wild life preservation, especially in small countries like Lanka, where man vs beast happens for land use.

    Chanaka, it is good to explore the facts and possibilities to Save the Elephants, wherever they are. Thank you for bringing up the topic.

  9. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    Chanaka ! You must have heard the joke about the Lion telling the Elephant, ::: Danne naththan, danne hehe kiyanawa Oiy::::

    Also the TWO legged Elephants are running amok islandwide, attempting an Elephantine task, to eat the whole Country up. The leading one and a half Tusker, joined with a cunning FOX, and a skunk, to deplete the Food Resources available in the Central Bank. Crumbs for the Srilankans.

  10. Ananda-USA Says:


    Your story about Podi Appuhamy is one of the most endearing stories I have heard about our Elephant relatives in Sri Lanka. Thanks for sharing it.


    I am with you.

    It is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to protect and preserve the elephants in Sri Lanka, without further reducing either the land or the other natural resources available to them. As you point out, the required technologies to defend and protect them EXISTS, the required laws can be ENACTED and given the stronger teeth to give pause to the most hardened of those who violate the laws.

    Let us COMPENSATE generously those adversely affected by elephants, and relocate those who encroach on elephant lands, but PROTECT AT ALL COSTS the lives of these gentle giants who represent our inheritance, our culture, our pride, our ethics and our moral values. We would far poorer without them.

    People often demonize us Sinhalese, but we have from times immemorial loved and preserved our Elephants while our detractors destroyed their wild life in their lands in frienzied profligacy.

    The Elephants represent who we Sinhalese are as a people, as Buddhists, and reflect our morals and ethics. It is unthinkable to me to contemplate a Sri Lanka without Elephants.

    Sri Lanka, one of the world’s most densely populated countries in the world allocates about 6% of its land to wildlife, whereas the United States, endowed with vast expanses of land, allocates only 3%. In the United States, vast herds of Bison who roamed the plains are GONE, killed for their skins and for fun leaving the Native American without food. But in Sri Lanka, from ancient times, elephants were protected, and their habitat preserved.

    Let us CONTINUE that UNIQUELY Sri Lankan tradition!

  11. Chanaka B Says:

    Satellite tracking is the way to go.

    Contrary to popular belief, it is relatively cheap – much cheaper than electric fencing and more effective. There is advanced/sophisticated software available; some of the things one can do are amazing.

    With satellite tracking, wildlife officials can track the exact position of any elephant in Sri Lanka at any time of the day. For example, when an elephant herd approaches a human habitat wildlife workers can stop prevent the approach or alert villagers (through mobile phones), thus, the conflict can be avoided.

    Officials/researches will know the exact routes used by elephants in moving from one part of their range to another. This is important for mapping corridors and preventing human elephant conflict. I think poaching still happens in Sri Lanka. Due to poaching, unfortunately, we have very few tuskers left.

    Once data is at hand, researches can use the information to prepare detailed maps of elephant movements, for management purposes.

    There are fine international organisations that we can secure assistance from, sometimes at no cost. I know a group British volunteers wanted to come and help some time ago, but, we did not reciprocate well.

    Yes, we in Sri Lanka love our Elephant. It is sacred object. That is why created Pinnawala.

    But, I think if we do not have the human-elephant conflict, we do not need elephant orphanages.

    I know US had a bad record in environmental protection, but, they realised their mistakes. People in the West are now very concerned about the environment and environment protection laws. Today, I think US, Canada, Australasia, Sweden and New Zealand have a fine record in looking after their wildlife and protecting the environment.

    Susantha, I can remember hand feeding a middle aged elephant with sugarcane and bananas at a friend’s place in Ambalanthota, about 20 years ago. He was exceptionally friendly and cute. I wonder whether it was ‘Podi Appuhamy’!

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