Posted on September 30th, 2021


revised 12.10.21

In the Udarata kingdom, the forests in the central highland were a protected reserve where elephants lived undisturbed. British and European writers have given us information on these habitats. The districts, in which the elephants most abound, are all hilly and mountainous, they said. There was not a mountain or a lofty piece of land which the elephant had not traversed.

 The elephants generally keep along the backbone of a chain of hills, avoiding steep gradients, they added. But there is no range so elevated as to be inaccessible to them.  In 1840, Skinner had found the spore of an elephant on the summit of Sri Pada.  In 1847   elephants were found on the Ramboda pass on the road to Nuwara Eliya”.

The agility of the elephants to negotiate the steepest hill was highlighted in the Ceylon Observer (1865), regarding an attempt to capture elephants in Avissawella.   The kraal was constructed close to a wall of rock so precipitous and high that they did not think an additional barrier was necessary. The elephants climbed up the rocks and escaped. ”

European writers spoke of the Elephant paths” created by the elephants in the hill country. When 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, said  Ernst Haeckel  (1883)speaking of an elephant path in the Nilu  forest at Horton Plains.

These paths were well known to the Sinhalese. The Portuguese, when approaching Balana fort, had tried to enter from the rear, using the Ali mankada, two leagues from Balane. But   they found it   well fortified. This showed that the elephant corridors were known to the public.

Elephants had some sort of steering instinct. When crossing valleys from ridge to ridge, through forests so dense as to   prevent a view   of   what is ahead, the elephants invariably select the route which was the safest path between the two points. ‘The elephant’s path is an excellent specimen of engineering. It winds judiciously’, said Hooker, writing in the Himalayan Journal . The British used these elephant paths, alimankada, when they created the upcountry road network for the estates and estate towns.

The British were not interested in the elephant trade. They continued the capture of elephants for some time but it was low-priority. The number of kraals were reduced. The British abolished the Elephant Hunt in 1832  and the export of elephants came to an end.

British rule was not a happy time for the elephants. The elephant lost its royal status and its protected position. Instead, the British engaged in shooting elephants as a form of sport. Large numbers of elephants were killed in this way, as sport. The present Ruhuna National Park was the Resident Sportsmen’s Shooting Reserve, an area reserved for the sporting pleasure of British residents in the country.

the magnificent elephant was declared a pest and hunted for sport. It is recorded that at the beginning of the nineteenth century there were at least 19 500 elephants and at the turn of the twentieth century there were only an estimated 2 000. This drastic reduction was brought about by indiscriminate capture and wanton killing (Jayewardene, 1994).

 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. Tennent records the official killing from 1845 – 1856 as being 5500 elephants in the Northern and Southern Province. 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.

Major Thomas Rogers had killed 1500 elephants. Captain Galloway and Major Skinner are each reputed to have killed over 750 elephants. Many others had killed 250-300 elephants each. Such willful decimation of elephants was never seen before, observed Ashley de Vos. 

Elephants were also shot by the planters. British planters, who were opening up coffee and tea plantations shot trespassing elephants without hesitation. Not only did the British government encourage and condone killings but it also paid a bounty for each elephant killed, saying the elephant was an agricultural pest.

The British administration   also provided guns freely to villagers to keep away elephants from their cultivations. Farmers, who had hitherto protected their crops from marauding elephants by other means, now had a much easier method. They shot at them and either maimed or killed them.

Elephant populations that had been able to withstand the detrimental effects of capture all these years now started diminishing. There was wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the elephant herds.

The British administration did not kill all the elephants. They kept some to be used for their purposes.  Trained elephants were used to start the tea plantations. The elephants were first used to destroy the forests which had been their home. They were used to clear the virginal montane forests to plant tea, cinchona and coffee.  Elephants uprooted the trees in these forests and cleared the area

They were next used for drawing logs for the construction of buildings, and stones and rocks for constructing bridges, culverts, and walls in the plantations.

Thirdly, they were used to transport machinery and other heavy items needed for the tea factory on the plantation. Most plantations employed elephants on a rate determined daily on the type of work they performed said Ranjith Bandara and Clem Tisdell.  Picture of Elephants taking a boiler From Marshall, Sons & Co., Gainsboro England to a tea factory, Ceylon can be seen at

Elephants were used for other types of haulage too. Elephants were used to bring in the fifty four granite pillars used in the Trinity College Chapel, in the building period, 1923 to 1935. Elephants were used to transport the granite stone blocks quarried in Aruppola. They were 18 feet long and 3 feet square each weighing about 3 metric tons. These   were loaded on trolleys specially made for transporting one pillar at a time. One elephant pulled the trolley and another pushed from behind.

The blocks were hauled by two elephants, one pulling and one pushing, for a distance of three miles to the school premises; and then another three hundred feet up the slope of the hill to the Chapel site”. They were brought to Kandy at the rate of 2 per month.

Photographs of elephants hauling in pillars to the chapel site   can be seen at

Elephants were also used to bring stone pillars to the new building at Dalada Maligawa, Kandy. Carved granite pillars seventy to hundred feet high had to be erected for the new building at the back of the Dalada Maligawa. British engineers said such haulage was not possible. Tikiri Banda Panabokke, Minister of Health in State Council (1931) had said it could be done using elephants. And so it proved , recalled Panabokke’s grandson, Derrick Nugawela.

Wealthy individuals   owned elephant drawn carts during the British occupation. Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike had owned a huge cart, about ten feet high, for transporting coconut and paddy from his estates. Sirimavo Bandaranaike had gifted this to the Martin Wickremasinghe Museum and it is on exhibit there.

The British rulers do not seem to have interfered with elephants in temples, elephants in peraheras, elephants bathing or private ownership of elephants. The Kandyan chiefs were allowed to hold kraals, and from 1800 to 1900, fifty two kraals were held. The last Kraal was held in 1952, said Jayantha Jayewardene. (Continued)

One Response to “THE ELEPHANT IN SRI LANKA Part 4”

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Excellent article covering a very sad subject. though it is good to know. Thanks Mr. Pieris. Without the Elephant South Asia’s economies would not have sustained such a high level of growth. For close to 2000 thousand years, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire in 444 AD and ending in the 18th century, South Asia’s combined economies were 25% of the world’s economy with China claiming another 25%. During this time Europe’s combined economies hovered around 17% to 18%.

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