Elephants a national treasure

Picture depicting King Dutugemunu and King Elara in battle

The Sri Lankan elephant is the largest among the Asian elephants. It is also the darkest and has patches of depigmentation (an area without colour) on their ears, face, trunk and belly. The African Savannah elephant is the largest living land animal. It is Africa’s true king of beasts.

Asian elephants live in fragmented forests in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo.

In Sri Lanka the elephant population is fast depleting.

Although there is no accurate census available it is estimated that about 2500-3000 elephants still live in the wild and a further 500 odd in captivity. However authorities have recently claimed that there are about 7000 elephants at present. At the turn of the century more than 10,000 elephants were found all over the island.

The main threat for the elephants in Sri Lanka is the dwindling of their natural habitat due to the clearing of the forest for other purposes. This restricts areas in which they can roam about.

It also deprives them of their food forcing them to encroach on farmlands. These elephants meet with their sad end at the hands of farmers who shoot them to protect their crops, homes and their very lives. Elephants are also killed by poachers because of their valuable tusks.They also meet with their deaths being knocked down by trains when trying to migrate in search of greener pastures. Although electric fences have been successful in controlling elephant movements thus saving them from danger there are instances when they heap logs beside such fences to climb over the fences unscathed.

The steps taken by the authorities to minimise the man-elephant conflict have not so far proved adequate thus causing the death of 4-5 elephants a week.

In Sri Lanka elephants are used for many purposes such as was done in the past. Our kings used them in their armies. The Chaturangani Sena consisted of elephants, horses in chariots and infantry throughout our history elephants have been tamed and made use of as work animals. In other Asian countries too they are used to log forests, transport heavy loads and carry tourists.

In India election officials transport ballot boxes to polling booths, inaccessible to vehicles on their backs. About 15,000 Asian elephants are held in captivity as work animals.

Elephants are also important in Asian folklore and religion.

In Sri Lanka elephants, particularly tuskers, have been accorded a prominent place in Buddhist religious processions. The Esala Perahera of the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in the month of August, with the majestic tusker carrying the relic casket is world famous. It is by far the most beautiful spectacle held in Sri Lanka. It is in this cultural pageant that the largest number of tuskers and other elephants could be scene.

The Sinhala kings caused them to be caught from the jungle and kept them in a pound (gala) to be tamed. In Gampola and in Negombo there are villages still known by the name Athgala. In his war of liberation against Elara, Dutugemunu with his forces crossed the Mahaweli Ganga after having captured all the Tamil forts on the Ruhuna side of the river, but before progressing further it was necessary to reduce the Tamil stronghold at Vijithapura. The Vijithapura fortress is said to have been of exceptional strength. The king’s elephant Kandula is said to have taken a conspicuous part in breaching the walls of Vijithapura. Dutugemunu mounted on his own elephant challenged Elara to single combat and the latter accepted his challenge. "Elara hurtled his dart, Gamini evaded it, Gamini made his own elephant pierce Elara’s elephant with his tusks and he hurled his dart at Elara and at this (Elara) fell there with his elephant". With these dramatic words the ancient chronicler has given us a vivid picture of this memorable combat between two valourous foes - a combat which decided the island’s history for many centuries to come. The Dutugemunu-Elara single combat was the most famous encounter to take place in our history involving elephants.

In more recent times King Rajasinghe I of Sitawaka used elephants in his battles against the Portuguese. In his attack on the Colombo Fort from 1579 to 1588 he used as many as 300 well trained elephants. It is said that the armies met at Weragoda and for four hour the fight was stubbornly fought, the elephants taking a prominent part in the struggle and tossing two of the Portuguese in the air with the tusks and trunks. At Sao Miguel the elephants laid hold of the cannon with the trunks.

During British times there was merciless killing of wild elephants by shooting by white men. This is a black mark in the history of our country. However wild elephants were also captured during that time by the government and sold to those with means to be tamed and used as work animals.

There is the dramatic tale of the leader tusker kraaled at Panamure trying to save its kin by breaking open the kraal, being shot by the authorities. The whole episode is immortalised in the heart rending song "Panamur, Panamure, Panamure Ath Raja".

Elephants whose life span is around 70 years are well known for their sagacity and tremendous memory. It is man’s duty to look after and protect without going against the laws of nature. It is said that when a baby elephant is born another she elephant in the group also begins to lactate as its own mothers milk is insufficient to sustain it. This group of three known as the thunpath rena is dangerous to man. The two females can go any length to protect the baby. It was also reported recently of an elephant father sacrificing its life for the mother and the baby knocked down by a railway train.

Elephants also have superlative qualities. The writer knows of a she elephant that guarded its mahout fallen by the wayside having got drunk until he got up recovering from his drunken stupor. Elephants can be cute. Dwarf elephants of North Borneo roll on Durian fruits in mud until the thorny rind gets smoothened before swallowing them whole. g

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