Posted on October 3rd, 2021


Revised 12.10.21

Jayewardene carried out a survey of domesticated elephants in 1997. This survey revealed that there were about 214 domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka at that time. Of these, 107 were males and 107 were females. There were domesticated elephants in 15 of administrative districts in the country. The districts that had elephants were Colombo (34), Kandy (33), Galle (1), Kalutara (15), Kegalle (51), Kurunegala (12), Ratnapura (22), Matara (7), Hambantota (1), Matale (2), Nuwara Eliya (2), Gampaha (22), Badulla (8), Polonnaruwa (1) and Moneragala (3). It is in these districts with the highest numbers – Kegalle, Colombo and Kandy – that families have had elephants for a long time and that the more affluent families live. (Jayewardene, 1997).

 in 1998 he found that Even though owners face many problems they prefer to own at least one more elephant, and in  2001  he found that   a number of persons who own or have owned an elephant have indicated that they would like to own at least one more elephant.

Dangolla and Silva (2021) found that the number of domesticated elephants, in 15 of the districts in Sri Lanka, was between 180 and 190. The largest number of domestic elephants belongs to the Dalada Maligawa, followed by two private owners Millangoda (10), B.B. Jayasekera (7) and Gangaramaya temple in Colombo (4)

The long felt need of the owners for an association was accomplished in November 1999 by forming, for the first time in Sri Lanka, The Captive Elephant Owners’ Association for the welfare of the captive elephant.

Ilangakoon (1993) observed that some owners earn revenue from their elephants, while some allow the keeper to find work and earn the keep of the elephant. A few keep elephants for prestige or as pets because they like elephants or because their families have kept elephants for generations, and these elephants lead a relaxed life and are usually well cared for said Illangakoon .

Jayewardene observed that some owners keep the elephants with them and are aware, on a daily basis, what each of their elephants is doing in the form of work. Some owners do not know where their elephants work. The fate of the elephant is entirely in the hands of the mahout. In some instances the owner sees the elephants only at one of the temple processions or perahera.

 Keeping an elephant started to became difficult. . The Land Reform Act in 1972, affected many elephant owners. The large landholdings that some of the elephant owners had were greatly reduced and they had to go elsewhere in search of food for their elephants, as they could no longer find it on their estates.. Many owners sold their elephants. There was a ready market for these elephants from an increasing population of nouveaux riche that saw the ownership of an elephant as a status symbol.

Owners now find it increasingly difficult to maintain their elephants due to scarcity of food, unavailability of veterinary services in most areas, and shortage of work for an elephant due to mechanization of the timber industry, said specialists in 2021.

Modern machinery has gradually replaced the elephant at work. The machine was quicker and more efficient than a slow moving elephant. The work available for elephants is getting less and, as a result, incomes derived from this work are shrinking. This means that owners have to supplement the earnings from the elephants to maintain them.

Food is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Jak, Kitul, coconut which constitute a large part of a tame elephant’s food, is becoming scarce everywhere and owners find it difficult to obtain this food. Also it is more expensive. Due to scarcity jak, kitul and coconut   prices have gone up. It is also difficult to find the large quantity of food that the elephant requires daily.

It is now very difficult to obtain veterinary services for the treatment of elephant illnesses and diseases. In some areas such services are non-existent, observed Jayawardene. Most owners find it difficult to obtain the services of either a good veterinary surgeon, a traditional medical practitioner (Veda Mahaththaya) or native physician. However, a majority of owners and elephant keepers have enormous faith on native ayurvedic medicaments for different ailments of their elephants, said Dangolla and Silva.

The veterinary services for the domesticated animals in the country are provided by the Department of Animal Production and Health. This Department has posted veterinary surgeons in all parts of the country. Though these veterinary surgeons are capable of treating domestic pets and livestock, they have very little or no experience in the treatment of tame elephants. In some parts of the country there are no veterinary surgeons.

It s not only the lack of training and experience that prevents veterinary surgeons from treating elephants, but also the fact that they are not comfortable in the presence of such a large animal. During the course of their education and training they do not work with elephants. It is only very rarely that they get an opportunity to treat an elephant in their student days. Later when they are posted to field stations, they are called upon, occasionally, to treat a domesticated elephant. This is very difficult for them and it does not give them the experience they need.

Sri Lanka veterinarians noted that western therapy for elephants evolved later. Our experience is that the use of native medicines is beneficial in enhancing the prognosis of western therapy, said Dangolla and Silva. The herbal mixtures for removal of pyogenic membranes in abscesses, and treatment for constipation are two examples. Jaywardene however, observed that according to modern science some traditional practices are not good.

Improved veterinary services are also absolutely essential if the domesticated elephants are to be well tended and cared for. The government will have to employ and train veterinary surgeons and post them to districts where there are domesticated elephants.

Traditionally, in Sri Lanka native medicine has been used to treat elephants and it is only in a few instances that veterinary surgeons have been called on to treat tame elephants. Most elephant owners prefer native treatments. Most of the older breed of elephant owners continue with the Sinhala or traditional treatments but some owners now prefer western treatments.

However, Native practitioners, do not seem to be passing on their knowledge to their children, as was done in the past. With only a few elephants around it does not seem useful for a native physician to learn how to treat elephants.

The books that native physicians have compiled on the various treatments for elephant illnesses and diseases, are not being reproduced. These books, called the Ali Veda Potha, are hand-written by the individual physicians rather than printed., these books should be formally published  in Sinhala and also in English translation.

A number of mahouts are also adept at treating elephants. They have learned the skill from Veda Mahaththayas or from other older mahouts who have some knowledge of the treatment of elephant ailments and diseases. Some mahouts have worked out their own treatments. Dangolla and Silva reported in 2021 that mahouts preferred native herbal medicaments for their elephants.

Dangolla and Silva   did  study of the mahouts. All keepers are Sinhala  Buddhist males and half of them are over  40. Approximately 50% were regular alcohol consumers or heavy smokers. A majority (70%) earn more than an average laborer, and have studied up to Grade 8 (79%). They provide satisfactory level of education to their children, and none of them like their children to be elephant keepers.

Jayantha Jayawardene recorded that the standard of mahoutship was not as good as it was in former times. The traditional skills are no longer handed down from father to son so the mahouts nowadays do not have the detailed knowledge that mahouts had in former times.

Today there is a problem about providing tame elephants for the future. In order to provide working elephants, provision was made for capturing elephants on permit . However, permits to capture wild elephants have not been issued for at least 20 years. This is the main reason why we do not see much young elephants in our domesticated population, said Dangolla and Silva in 2021

Now there are no elephants coming in from the wild except those that are brought as orphans to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. With no replenishment from the wild the number of the domesticated elephants in this country is dwindling rapidly. There are no captive births either. Both these factors restrict the number of elephants available

Strategies have to be adopted to ensure that the domesticated elephant population in this country does not diminish and that there are sufficient elephants for our domestic purposes. Captive breeding is an important strategy for a) for elephant conservation and in trying to keep the numbers of the domesticated elephants at a high level; and b) in the event of a threat of extinction of the species ,said Jayantha Jayawardene

It is  also necessary to have adequate supplies of food easily available. Large scale planting of the domesticated elephant’s preferred foods is very essential. This cannot be done by individuals, it t has to be done by an organization.

My survey has revealed that a number of owners and mahouts have recognized the need to improve their knowledge of elephant care and management, said Jayawardene. 

 They need advice and assistance to breed their elephants and training on new methods of elephant management. They need education on foot care and on balanced diet, since different foliage and soil in some parts of Sri Lanka are deficient in minerals such as calcium and magnesium.

Mahouts today have only a very basic idea of elephant care and managementtoday. Improved training for mahouts in modern methods of elephant care and management is essential. Though the traditional techniques have been developed for hundreds of years and passed down, it is now time for scientific methods of elephant management to be adopted, said Jayantha Jayawardene.  (Continued)

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