Jayantha Jayewardene
& Sunil Rambukpotha

 1. Historical

For over two thousand five hundred years the people of Sri Lanka have had a unique relationship with elephants. The Mahawamsa, which has recorded the history of the country from 2000 years ago, contains many references to elephants. Elephants were captured by our ancient kings and used in a number of ways: for official occasions and temple ceremonies; to clear jungles; to plough fields for agriculture; in the construction of the large reservoirs and magnificent edifices most of which are in ruins today; for trade with other countries and as gifts to kings and potentates of other countries with which they had friendly relations.

The elephant has a special place in Buddhism, which is the major religion practiced in Sri Lanka. Legend has it that the Queen Mahamaya saw a white elephant in her dreams just before she conceived her son Prince Siddhartha. The Prince later attained enlightenment and became a great preacher of his own doctrine. He is venerated all over the world as Gauthama the Buddha. The Hindus in Sri Lanka and India also show a great reverence to the elephant. Their God Ganesh has the head of an elephant.

The first protected area on record is in Sri Lanka. Devanampiyatissa, a great king, was out hunting, which was his favourite pastime. He was in hot pursuit of a deer when a Buddhist monk Arahat Mahinda stopped him. Arahat Mahinda was a missionary who had arrived in Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhism in this country. He stopped the king from killing the deer and preached Buddhism to him. King Devanampiyatissa, who gave up hunting at that moment, was his first disciple. The king embraced Buddhism and declared an area surrounding the palace a protected area where the killing of any living thing was prohibited. This place was called Mahameuyana.

One of the more famous instances recorded in our history is the war between two great Kings, Dutugamunu of Lanka and the invading Indian King Elara. The both had their armies and each a special elephant. Dutugamunu’s elephant was called Kandula or Kadol Atha and Parwatha was Elara’s elephant. Both elephants were extremely faithful to their master. Ancient kings that ruled this country have maintained a number of elephants in their stables, known in Sinhala as Ath Panthiyas or Ath Galas.
The Sinhala Kings always rode on an elephant, called the Magul Atha, which was from the highest elephant caste known as Chadantha.

Some idea of the medieval Sinhala system of subdividing elephants into breeds or varieties can be ascertained from the following works on the various breeds of elephants (a) Gajayoga Satakaya (b) Hasti Lakshana Vidiyava (c) Gajatu Lakshanaya (Deraniyagala1955) Variations in physical appearance amongst elephants have been identified and they have been classified in ten different castes.

The following are the classifications (Deraniyagala, 1951):

1 .Kalavaka: colour black, eyes brownish, head rounded and set awkwardly, ears soft, limbs short, tail and nails curved.
2. Gangeiya: Black haired, head large, trunk broad at its base and elongate, ears shrivelled with tufts of hair, limbs elongate, hands and feet broad, nails large.
3. Pandara: Body grey, nails yellow, eyes blue in colour, head long and broad, base of trunk thick.
4. Tambara: Eyes, body and nails copper coloured, head medium sized, trunk weak and freckled, eyes round, ears narrow, limbs elongate and slender, copper colour.
5. Pingala: Whitish in colour, head large, trunk base broad, eyes somewhat elongate and slender, tail elongate with hairy tuft, limbs moderate, limbs large.
6. Gandha: Colour of dark rain cloud, body and skin hard like stone, very hairy, head small, trunk small, tail elongate and kinked, easily enraged.
7. Mangala: head and trunk large, eyes dark and rounded, ears large, legs and feet large, body stout, nails large and rounded, tail elongate and touches ground, disposition kindly.
8 Hema: Head and trunk spotted, head full and rather elongate, eyes light, nails reddish, eyes light, strong and rather elongate, trunk and ears medium- sized
9. Uposatha: Head medium sized, body light coloured, ears medium, eyes rounded, limbs strong and elongate, trunk, penis and tail touch the ground, nails yellowish.
  • 10. Chaddantha: Body and eyes golden in colour, stout bodied, eyes elongate, limbs of medium length, trunk, penis and tail touch the ground.

The elephant was seen as a status symbol of Royalty and treated with a lot of respect in ancient times. This respect and affection continues even today. Kings used to reward their officers for outstanding work with the gift of an elephant.

2. The capture and taming of elephants

Over the years many methods have been employed to capture elephants. Robert Knox (1681) says tame elephants were used to lure elephants from the wild. Once the wild elephants to be captured are identified, tame she-elephants are sent into the jungles amongst the wild herds. These tame elephants came from the king’s stables. The females mingle with the wild elephants and, at a given signal, come back with the wild elephants, following them. They are led into a specially constructed paddock and captured.

In two other methods, described by Knox, elephants are caught in snares and by driving them to a pound. Another method of capture practiced for sometime long ago was with the use of a pit. A pit was dug along one of the jungle paths used by elephants. This pit was covered with leaves and camouflaged. In some instances another pit was dug and left open to deceive the elephant that would be vary of the open pit and would fall into the camouflaged one. In some instances the elephants are driven along these paths making the chances of their falling in greater.

After sometime this method of capture was done away with since much injury was caused to the elephant when it fell into the pit. In fact the Dutch banned this method of capture during their reign considering it too cruel.
Another method, again using paths used by elephants, was to tie a noose with the other end of the rope tied to a strong tree. The noose was just a little bigger than the foot of an elephant. When the elephant stepped on the noose its leg would get caught. When the elephant tugged at the rope round its leg, the noose tightened and the elephant was unable to move and struggled to get free. The trappers then quickly noosed the other legs of the elephant and the other end of the ropes was tied to strong trees.

In another method of noosing wild elephants, the trapper follows the elephant chosen for capture, and after getting up to it, slips the noose round the back leg of the elephant. The antlers of a sambar (Cervus unicolour) or spotted deer (Axis axis) are tied to the other end of the rope. As soon as the noose is put round the leg of the elephant it bolts away. At some stage the antlers get entangled with strong roots or trees and the elephant has to stop running. Then the trapper and his assistants, who have been running behind the elephant, close in and tie the rope to a strong tree. Whilst the elephant is thrashing about, nooses are quickly slipped round its other legs and the animal secured.

Most of the elephant trappers were Muslims, mainly from the East Coast of the island. They were called Pannikkans or Pannikears. They were expert elephant trappers who were completely fearless. The Pannikans practiced both methods of elephant trapping as described above. Since the ban on elephant trapping, the art of noosing has died out amongst the Pannikans, who have gone back to their original vocation of cultivating paddy.
In more recent times, especially after the Portuguese and the Dutch captured the Maritime Provinces of the island, elephant capture by the stockade or kraal method became popular. The kraal method is where elephants are driven into a stockade, which is built in the jungles, and captured in numbers.

3. Taming

Monitor elephants are specially chosen to assist in the capture and training of wild elephants. The monitor elephant with its intelligence and maturity is able to understand what is required of it when capturing or training a wild elephant. The monitor elephant, with its high degree of training, plays a very important role in the taming and training of a wild elephant.

In Sri Lanka when taming a wild elephant, it was deemed necessary to break the elephant’s spirit in order to make it obey the commands of its handler or mahout. The elephant is a tractable animal and once tamed can be trained to obey a number of commands in four to six months. However, till it is tamed and trained to obey commands completely, it can be very aggressive and dangerous.

The wild elephant is first calmed down and conditioned to obey commands. To achieve this it is tied up and kept in the presence of humans and other tame elephants. Most times relays of handlers and trainers keep talking throughout the day and night, whilst touching and feeling the animal and also stroking it with their hands or with the leaves of a small branch. Sometimes a fire, which the elephant dislikes, is lit to prevent it from falling asleep. No food is given to the elephant. All these actions are designed to break the resolve and spirit of the elephant.

After a few days, with the loss of sleep coupled with hunger, the elephant looses its resistance and becomes subdued. When the elephant is relatively calm, it reconciles itself to accepting food and will soon be ready for training. It is then given food and water to drink. It is also bathed.

The objective of training is to get the elephant to lose its aggression and to carry out certain functions at the command of its mahout. Training also teaches the elephant obedience. The mahout has a goad, which is used to keep the elephant in check and to ensure that it obeys its commands. The goad (ankus or hendu in Sinhala) is essential for the training of an elephant. A mahout always has a goad with him. The goad is a metal cap fitted onto a stick, which is about four or five feet long. The end of the metal is tapered into a sharp point at the top. This type of goad is used by elephant keepers the world over. Amongst the circus trainers and zookeepers in various parts of the world, the goad is known as the bull hook. It is used to get the elephant to obey the commands that it is given. This is done by prodding certain sensitive points, especially on the trunk and the ears, of the elephant with the ankus. Later on when the elephant is tamed, the ankus is rarely used. It is only when there is grave danger to either humans or the elephant that the ankus is used.

Gradually the elephant learns to obey the commands of its keeper. It is essential that only one person gives the elephants commands, otherwise it could lead to confusion in the elephants’ mind. Its future mahout, who is with the elephant from the time it is caught and its taming starts, generally gives commands.

After capture and taming, the process of training begins. This is generally when the animal starts accepting food. The elephant is gradually trained to push logs, roll them, lift them etc. They are also trained to stack logs neatly. The forehead, base of the trunk and the forelegs are used to push the logs in to place. To haul larger loads, such as heavy logs, a rope collar is placed on the neck and two chains are attached to the log on either side of the animal and the ends are attached to the collar. Sometimes the elephant drags the log with the other end of the rope or chain in its mouth biting on the Velluwa. It is in the course of its training that the elephant establishes a close relationship with its mahout. This relationship, which grows with time, generally remains throughout their association.

4. Training

Training elephants is a specialized art. Elephant trainers of the past were experts. The older mahouts passed down the art of training elephants to younger elephant trainers and mahouts. From the early days of the Sinhala kings, elephant training was a recognized profession, which they were proud of. Mahouts some times belonged to a caste, which specialised in the profession. They learnt their elephant management from ancient ola scripts and the experience gained as an apprentice. The ola scripts such as Gajashastra and Nilashastra mention methods of training elephants.

The Gajashastra mentions the commands, medicines, and behavioral patterns of elephants. The Gajashastra shows thirty-five points of the elephant’s body, which may be subject to injuries. They needed to be treated with extra care. The Gajashastra also describes how to build a close association with elephants. This association is built on an understanding of a special language.

The Nilashastra is somewhat different. It is a complete lesson in controlling an elephant with the goad (Henduwa) or spear (Hella/Kururithale). It shows eighty-six sensitive spots that can be goaded to control an elephant. Mahouts have to be very skilled in the art of goading, mainly because there could be a completely different reaction brought about, when a wrong spot is goaded. Nila or sensitive points are categorized into three types according to the reactions. The Adangupola (controlling points), Avissema (arousing points) and Marana (death points).

The Nila points are not necessarily goading points. A well-trained mahout when mounted upon his elephant does not use verbal commands. A tap with his foot on some Nila points gets the elephants to perform what the mahout wants done.

The language used on elephants in Sri Lanka is common to all parts of the island. It differs only in some cases of a Tusker when some additions are made. Some commonly used commands are given below.
Daha - walk or rise from sleeping positions
Deri - pick up with trunk
Hath Deri - pick up with mouth
Dana Hath Deri - Kneel and pick up with tusks
Bilama - Step on log
Bilama puru - Kick with other foreleg. (This is used to break Kithul (Caryota urens) trunks the main food of elephants,)
Uth Deri - raise head
Keti Uthderi - raise trunk
Diga or Daha Diga - Stretch forelegs forward
Ida - Move to side
Hida - lie down
Dala puru - beat with tusk

A tame elephant has to be trained to carry its own food since it is physically impossible for a human to carry, on his shoulders, the quantity of food that is required by the elephant each day. The easiest method of carrying food is to use a Velluwa. A Velluwa is made of Kitul fibre, which is twisted and formed into a rope. The rope is then twisted and turned into a one and half foot long thick circle, which is called the Velluwa. The Velluwa is tied to the other end of the chain that binds the bundle of food.

Tame elephants in Sri Lanka are usually fed on Jack (Artocarpus integra) or Bo (Ficus religiosa) leaves as well as Kitul (Caryota urens) and coconut (Cocos nucifera). There are different systems to tie the ring onto the bundles of different leaves. Jak or Bo is bundled along with small branches. These bundles have to be tied in such a way that the elephants can balance it properly when carrying it with their mouths. A smaller chain than the ones used to tie elephants is passed around the bundle and the velluwa is attached and centered at the top so that the elephant can carry it with his mouth with ease. An elephant needs to be trained to do this.

The easiest way to train the elephant is to put a thick pole across the bundle of leaves, tighten the pole along with the bundle. Tie a chain at on corner of the pole; pass it over the head of the elephant before tying to the other end of the pole. The chain when pressing against the head would irritate the elephant and quietly it will start to hold the Velluwa in its mouth. In the case of Kitul or Coconut, it is much simpler since Coconut or Kitul leaves are pleated. This method avoids wastage when dragging the leaves along the road.

Training an elephant to be ridden is a very difficult task. The best possible way to do this is when the elephant is in the water. Whilst the elephant is lying on its side almost belly deep in the water an attempt is made to tie half filled sand bags and throw them on the aarsana (Sinhala for seat) on the elephant’s back. This gets the elephant used to having something on its back. Wild elephants yet to be tamed are normally very ticklish. However it is a matter of time before the elephant gets out of this ticklish feeling.

There are methods to train an elephant to lift one of its fore legs for the mahout to step on and mount its back. The best way is to bury the trunk of a coconut tree and leave about 2 feet above ground level. You get the elephant to step on the log and fasten the chain tying it to the log so that it cannot move its leg very fast. A mahout should calm the elephant and when it is at ease, quickly climb and descend along the lifted leg several times.

5. Management

After the capture of elephants, training and management methods were adopted so that the elephant could be controlled and would be of use. Some these methods remain unchanged to this day whilst some have undergone changes with time.

A skilled mahout should know how to treat the more common ailments amongst elephants in case of an emergency. Mahouts are taught Ath Beheth or Ath Dutu Beheth medicines already tested or medicines on hand. They are made of herbal plants, fruits, flowers, nuts and juices. Frequent stomach ailments urinary/bowel disorders are common with elephants. The mahout should be trained to detect/diagnose and treat them immediately. Festering wounds in places where the goad has been used is very common. The mahout should squeeze the matter out and the best time to do this is in water during the elephant’s daily bath.

Elephants are not always friendly. Like humans they are also temperamental. Sometimes they tend to loose their temper. In such cases, the elephant tries to get away from the mahout. These incidents are mostly reported from places of work. A mahout should be able to read and understand the moods of the elephant in his care.
A working elephant, like all human beings, has a limit to the work it can do. The best working time for an elephant is to start early in the morning before the sun is too hot. An elephant can go on working for 4-5 hours continuously. It is very important to make sure that an elephant has a good drink of water before commencing work. It is also good if the elephant throws some water on its back to keep itself cool.

Some mahouts who are greedy tend to over work their elephants. In such circumstances, incidents of the elephant breaking loose and even killing its mahout are reported. In the case of a ferocious animal there are several ways in which you could tether the animal and take safety precautions. The most common and easiest way is to use one or more of the several knots that are recommended for tethering. The Vilanguwa (several knots) that are recommended. The vilanguwa (Viyatha Sinhala for about 9 inches) “gaman manchuwa” a system that cuffs both hind legs with a chain leaving about 1 ½ - 2 feet between them. This is the most common of the tying systems.

There are also knots called “Bemi”, the ‘pethi bemma’ where the chain is attached from the hind leg right up to the elephant’s neck, the balance of the this long chain is carried on the elephant’s neck, so that mahout riding the elephant could throw it down in an emergency. The “haras bemma” ties the hind leg and the fore leg with a single chain on one side. The “kathira bemma” in the same way, is from the left back leg to right fore leg or vice versa.

There is also a controlling knot, which is called the “Rehena”. This is a coir rope, which is passed round the belly in a loop and then run underneath the neck and the balance under the tail and tightened with one single knot in case of an emergency. The ‘rehena’ tightens up in the case of an animal moving fast and aggressively.
A rope, which is known as a “kara kambe” is tied permanently around the elephant’s neck. This also can be very useful to slow down a runaway elephant. It can also be very useful to slow down a charging elephant by the mahout on its back. The normal practice is to have a pole of about 2 feet and two inch thickness passed through this knot on top of the elephant. This is kept as a device in case the elephant is ferocious.

The ‘kara kambe’ can also be used to hang medicinal pouches and good luck symbols like sunker, walampuri, or talismans. Some elephant owners are so careful that they have maintained horoscopes for their elephants and hang a talisman on the ‘kara kambe’ during ‘bad’ periods for the elephant.
A mahout should be very considerate in caring for elephants’ needs. A working elephant needs to sleep well. They tend to sleep in water for at least an hour of the three-hour bath, during which time they should not be disturbed. Elephants go to sleep at night as well. There are little things that you can do to allow it a good nights sleep. Tie it far away from human disturbances, especially during a Perehera season. You can lengthen the chain on the hind leg, which is normally tied at a length of about 2 ½ to -3 feet, a little further so that the elephant can lie down comfortably. It is always advisable to tie one hind leg and one fore leg with a longer chain in normal circumstances. In an emergency like going into musth.

A captive elephant, even though it works or not, has to be bathed for 3 - 4 hours a day. Some elephants are even taken to the water before they start their day’s work. Some elephants have been hired out for safari rides for tourists. These rides are in the morning and the late afternoons with a short break between noon and about 3 pm for a feed and bath. This time is insufficient for the elephant to have a proper bath.
An elephant should be in the water for about two hours. When lying, half covered in the water an elephant covers itself with sand to prevent insects bothering it whilst it is a sleep. When an elephant is asleep in the water it does not flap its ears and rests its trunk on its jaws and base of the trunk. It breathes heavily sometimes-even snores. During this time the mahout too has time to rest. Unfortunately some mahouts utilize this time to consume alcohol, so that by the time the elephant awakens the mahout is inebriated. However, a good mahout knows when the elephant awakens and gets back to bathe the elephant.

Once the elephant has awoken and is still on its side, it should be given a good bath. It has to be scrubbed thoroughly over all parts of its body. Elephants should be properly scrubbed specially in covered places, between the thighs, behind ears under the neck and the nails and tail. Generally the husk of a coconut is used to scrub the animal. The mahout should keep talking to the elephant whilst scrubbing it. This helps to build up a healthy relationship between the mahout and the elephant.

It is not possible to bathe an elephant when it is in musth, since there is a tendency for it to dislike the mahout and show aggression. However, it is very important to clean up the dung at least once a day and wash the stains of urine and faecal matter from the hind legs. It is important to see that the hind legs are rested on a platform, like a concrete slab or a large stone, so that the urine does not stagnate causing foot rot. Elephants in musth do not feed as usual nor do they sleep at night. This may well cause swelling of legs. Chains have to be changed from one leg to the other, periodically and methodically. This is best done whilst using our language in a kind manner rather than the ‘elephant’ language.

Traditionally all most all mahouts in the past have been sons of mahouts. Earlier mahouts would apprentice themselves to their fathers, who were mahouts, when they are 12-14 years old and go on with the same elephant till the death of either the elephant or the father. The young mahout would then take over the elephant on the death of his father. This does not happen now. The dwindling number of elephants may be one of the reasons why this practice is fading away and the youngsters from the traditional elephant keeping families taking up other jobs. Now the tendency is for new recruits, who consider elephant keeping just another form of employment, obtaining employment as a mahout with little or no training. This job as far as they are concerned starts in the morning when the elephant is untied from the stable or Pantiya and ends in the evening when it is tied up for the night. In those days mahouts would spend all their time with the elephant even sleeping close to it at night.

Some areas of captive elephant management have seen a decline in quality in recent times. Less attention is being paid to the health and well being of elephants. With some owners taking less and less interest in their elephants the responsibility of looking after the elephant has devolved on the mahout. In some cases, where there are no supplementary funds from the owner, the mahout and the elephant have to subsist on the earnings of the elephant. This means that the mahout tends to over work the elephant. When the elephant does more work than it should then its health declines. Longer working hours means that it has a shorter time to be in the water and the mahout cannot attend to details of the elephants bath like cleaning its toenails, ears etc thoroughly.

6. Elephant care centers

The human elephant conflicts in many parts of Sri Lanka have caused the deaths of a large number of wild elephants and human beings. When a female elephant is killed either as a result of these conflicts or due to other causes - falling into wells, canals etc., their babies are orphaned. The government of Sri Lanka has established two centers that take in orphaned baby elephants and look after them. One center called the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was started in 1975, and the other the Elephant Transit Home adjoining the Uda Walawe National Park.

a) Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

The orphanage, now managed by the Department of National Zoological Gardens, started with five babies but now there are 70 elephants.
The baby elephants are fed on milk at 7.00 am in the morning and allowed to free range all over the 25 acres of land. Each morning at 10 am and afternoon at 2 pm all the elephants are taken to the river close by for a two-hour bath. On returning they are allowed to move around freely. At about 1.15 pm the elephants are given food in pellet form and the babies are given milk. They are then taken to the river for their second bath for the day. In the evenings the animals are taken into the stalls and tethered. They are then given their evening feed, which is once again milk for the babies and leaves for the older ones.
The food of the bigger elephants is a large bundle of leaves, which weighs around 76 kilograms. The bundle consists of Kitul (Caryota urens), Coconut (Cocos nuficera) and Jak (Artocarpus integra). They are also given other species of leaves but in much smaller quantities. In addition they are given 2 kg. of a mixture consisting of maize, rice bran, powdered gingelly seed and minerals. Each elephant is given plenty of water each day. In addition they may drink water from the river when they go to bathe. The babies are fed with a formula of milk and are given 5 litres at each feed and they have five feeds per day.
At Pinnawela, an attempt was made to simulate, in a limited way, the conditions of the wild. Animals were allowed to roam freely during the day, and a herd structure allowed to form. Pinnawela has successfully bred 22 baby elephants from the females there. There is also a second generation birth. Pinnawela has great potential as an elephant management and breeding centre, which could also provide valuable assistance to owners and mahouts of domestic elephants.

b) Elephant Transit Home

The other center is called the Elephant Transit Home and is located on the boundary of the Uda Walawe National Park in southern Sri Lanka. The Department of Wildlife Conservation started it in 1995. This center too takes in baby elephants for care but has a different objective than at Pinnawela. The intention here is to release the babies when they are old enough to look after themselves in the wild. Baby elephants coming into this center are well looked after but with the least human contact till they are weaned. They are released daily to the surrounding jungle and also have access to the large Uda Walawe lake. They are brought back at night. When they can independently gather their food they are released back to the wild.
Already a total of 39 babies have been released in five batches. These details are given below. Some of the baby elephants have radio collars attached to them to enable the tracking of their movements in order to monitor their progress in the wild.

Table I

No. Released

7. Populations of tame elephants

In 1950 there was a tame elephant population of 560 in Sri Lanka (Sam Elapatha Dissawa Pers comm. with Sunil Rambukpotha). In 1970 Jayasinghe and Jainudeen conducted a census of the domestic elephant population in Sri Lanka. This census showed that there were 532 elephants among 378 owners in the island. Unfortunately there is no record of the number of males and females amongst these 532 elephants. In 1982 the Department of Wildlife Conservation carried out a census of the domestic elephants in the country. This census showed that there were a total of 344 elephants made up of 190 males, of which 29 were tuskers, and 154 females. This showed a seeming reduction of 188 elephants in 12 years. This was an annual average loss of 15 elephants. A survey in 1997 by Jayantha Jayewardene and Sunil Rambukpotha showed that there were only 214 elephants left. Of this number 107 were males and 107 females. There were 23 tuskers. Another survey conducted in 2002 by Jayantha Jayewardene, showed a further reduction in the tame elephant population. The figures now are 101 males and 88 females, totaling to 189.

The government of Sri Lanka banned the capture of elephants from the wild. This was because the wild elephant population was declining. The only source through which the tame elephant numbers were replenished was through the capture from the wild. There is no captive breeding of elephants in Sri Lanka other than at the Pinnawela Orphanage.

8. References

Deraniyagala P.E.P. (1955 )Some Extinct Elephants, their Relatives and the two Living Species, Colombo National Museum, Sri Lanka
Deraniyagala P.E.P. (1951) Elephas Maximus, the Elephant of Ceylon , National Museums of Ceylon
Jayewardene, Jayantha (1994) The Elephant in Sri Lanka. Wildlife Heritage Trust
Knox Robert (1681) An historical relation of the island of Ceylon. Reprinted by Thisara Prakashakayo