Thursday, December 22, 2011

Elephant Lore

lephants in Sri Lankan History and Culture

lephants in Sri Lankan History and Culture

Jayantha Jayewardene
Managing Trustee
Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust

Illustrations from: "An Elephant Hunt in Ceylon" The Graphic of December 3, 1887
Elephants fighting for the entertainment of nobility, 1875.
Kottiar canoes passing "Round Island"
The village of Kottiar
Native bridge over a river
The first shot
The second shot
The Death
The return-crossing the river by raft
A Veddah offers his serviceKanda Kandu, the ferryman
11.jpg (19507 bytes)
Sinnacooty, Mr. J. M., Allah Pitchei

In Sri Lanka no other animal has been associated for so long with the people in their traditional and religious activities as the elephant. This association dates back to the pre-Christian era, more than 5,000 years. Ancient Sinhalese kings captured and tamed elephants which used to abound in the country.
Various methods of capture were employed, some indigenous, others introduced by neighbouring kings and countries that conquered and ruled Sri Lanka. Gradually the number of elephants captured increased. All elephants were kept by the king in his stables. The methods of capture were refined and modified as time went on.
Elephants, suitably caparisoned, have and still take part in ceremonial, cultural and religious pageants and processions. Elephants have been used by man in his wars in Europe and Asia. They have assisted him in his logging operations and construction works. In this country too elephants have fought in wars and featured in various sports and combat during Sinhala celebrations. In India they have provided transportation for sportsmen indulging in shikars.
During the time of the Sinhala kings the elephant was afforded complete protection by royal decree. The penalty for killing an elephant was death. With the advent of the British this protection was withdrawn. Large numbers of elephants were killed by the British under the guise of sport. Not only did the British government encourage and condone killings as a sport but it also paid a bounty for each elephant killed, deeming the elephant an agricultural pest.
In Sri Lanka the variations in physical appearance amongst elephants were noticed and recorded in ancient Sinhala manuscripts. There are ten such groups or ‘castes’. These differences do not seem important now.
The first record of the association between man and elephant in Sri Lanka was recorded in the 1st Century BC on an inscription at Navalar Kulam in Panama Pattu in the Eastern Province, of a religious benefaction by a prince who was designated “Ath Arcaria” or Master of the Elephant Establishment. The Elephant Establishment was called the “Ath panthiya”. The ruins of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka abound with carvings of elephants in many forms, attesting to the close association between man and elephant.
Sinhala literature of the 3rd Century BC indicates that the state elephant or Mangalahatti was the elephant on which the king rode. This elephant was always a tusker and had a special stable called the hatthisala. The post to which it was tethered was called the alheka.
A 12th Century inscription on a stone seat at Polonnaruwa records that King Nissanka Malla sat upon it while watching elephant fights. These fights were staged for the entertainment of nobles.
A rock sculpture of an elephant on the banks of the Mahaweli River was described thus by archaeologist H.C.P. Bell: “This piece of animal sculpture is probably unique in Ceylon. Cut in full round from a rock, life-size, are the head and shoulders of an elephant whose feet the river washed when low. The elephant stands in the water, looking slightly upstream, as though hesitating to cross. At present the river in semi-flood reaches its eyes. There are signs of ‘sets’ for some building’s foundations on a boulder adjoining, but no ruins or inscriptions are known likely to afford a clue to the object of this solitary tour de force of a skilful sculptor,” (Bell & Bell, 1893). Unfortunately this rock sculpture no longer exists having been blasted probably by fishermen dynamiting fish.
The first description of the capture of elephants in 40 AD is by Pliny. Here, the information that he gathered was from the Sinhalese ambassador to the court of the Emperor Claudius.
Elephants were used on all important ceremonial occasions especially where pomp and pageantry were required. The annual Perahera in Kandy, which dates back nearly 220 years, brings together well over a hundred elephants that parade the streets during the nights on certain pre-determined days in July-August each year. New Year festivities in Sri Lanka feature elephants in various sports and competitive combat. Elephant fights were a popular form of Sinhala sport in early times and was called “Gaja Keliya”. Being built like a tank, elephants were used in war not only as a means of transport but also as an instrument of defence and offence. They were used to ram barricades and, as Ives points out “in time of war, they now and then fix a heavy iron chain to the end of their trunks, which they whirl around with such agility, as to make it impossible for an enemy to approach them at that time”.
From the earliest of times there had been a significant demand for Sri Lankan elephants from other countries. Aelian, quoted by Emmerson Tennent in1859, says that the export of elephants from Ceylon to India had been going on without interruption from the period of the First Punic War. India wanted them for use as war elephants, Myanmar as a tribute from ancient kings and Egypt probably for both war and ceremonial occasions.
The elephants from Sri Lanka were found to easily adapt for war and were considered better than those from the mainland. Their excellent qualities were well known to the Greeks even as far back as the 3rd Century BC, in the time of Alexander the Great. Onescritus, who was an Admiral of the Fleet of Alexander the Great and probably the first European to describe the trained elephants of Ceylon, has stated that the elephants from Taprobane (later Ceylon and then Sri Lanka) “are bigger, more fierce and furious for war service than those of India,”. Greek writers like Megasthenes (circa 300 BC) and Aelian (44AD) corroborate this. Sixth Century writer Cosmos Indicopleustes says that the elephant from Sri Lanka was highly priced in India for its excellence in war.
Elephants from Sri Lanka were exported to Kalinga by special boats from about 200 BC. From the port of Mantai the present day Mannar. Such exports are also recorded by Ptolemy in 175 AD.
By this time Sri Lanka had also earned a reputation for skilled elephant management. The Sinhala kings had special elephant trainers. They were the Kuruwe people from Kegalle. Training elephants caught from the wild, for both traditional purposes and war, was the responsibility of these people. Even persons (mahouts) who looked after the elephants after their training were trained by the Kuruwe people. A brass model of an elephant with a number of movable joints was used in the training of the mahouts.
Records show that even though Sri Lanka was exporting a large number of elephants in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, a number of elephants were also imported into the country after the 4th Century BC. This is apart from the gifts that the ruling monarchs of India and Myanmar, (then Burma) sent from time to time.
The Culavamsa (Ch. LXXVI) records that during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu (1153-1186 AD), King Ramana of Myanmar decreed that the practice of selling elephants from his kingdom for export should henceforth be stopped. “Moreover with evil intent, the king also set a high price on the beasts, commanding that the elephants which were sold in former times for a hundred nikkhalas of silver, or a thousand, should now be sold for two thousand or three thousand and he likewise put an end to the ancient custom of giving an elephant to every ship that bore presents to the king [of Sri Lanka].” The chronicle goes on to say that Prakrama Bahu made war on the King of Burma and subdued him. Later, the Burmese relented and said “Take henceforth from us as yearly tribute, as many elephants as are necessary.”
Records of the 12th Century AD again show that elephants continued to be imported from Burma. The export of elephants too continued and this is confirmed from time to time by writers on Ceylon - Sinhala Chronicles (15th Century), Athanasius Nikitin the Russian traveller (1470). Add-er-Razzak (1442) refers to the trade in elephants between Calicut and Ceylon. Andrea Corsall and Durate Barbosa (1514) refer to the Royal monopoly of elephants - a good elephant fetched 1,500 ducats on the Malabar Coast at that time. Ribeiro (1836) states that “As the Ceylon elephant was superior, traders were prepared to pay twice or even up to four times for them compared to elephants from other countries.”
There are a number of references in early writings to man’s association with and his use of elephants. The Mahawamsa (Sri Lanka’s chronicle of history) details many such instances, especially that of Kandula the elephant on which King Dutugamunu (200 BC), rode to war. Dutch, Portuguese and British reports and books record several instances of elepant capture, their use by the Sinhala Kings in their armies, elephant fights and the execution of criminals by elephants. In certain instances the strength of a King or Potentate was judged by the number of elephants he used in war.
The King of Kandy maintained a special unit that dealt with all matters concerning elephants including their capture, training, conservation and export. This unit was under the chief officer known as the Gajanayake Nilame. The Gajanayake Nilame, was of a high caste and received many favours, including land, from the king. The elephant catchers and keepers were from the lower castes.
During the times of the Sinhala kings, even though there were tens of thousands of elephants in all parts of the country, this animal was afforded complete protection by royal decree. Accordingly, no elephant could be captured, killed or maimed without the king’s authority. All offenders were punished by death. Unlike today the cultivators of that time could not plead that the elephants were harmed in the protection of their crops. Any depredation or damage to crops by wild elephants had to be prevented by stout fencing together with organized and effective watching by the farmers. It is interesting to note that though there were many more elephants then than now, Sri Lanka was considered to be the granary of the East.
When the Portuguese captured the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka they found a flourishing export trade in elephants. They too, quickly got involved in the elephant export trade, and at first obtained their elephants as tribute from the Sinhala people through their leaders. Thereafter they captured animals on their own. The Portuguese also set up a revenue-gathering unit, similar to the king’s organization, known as the Elephant Hunt. Abeysinghe (1966) wrote that the Portuguese maintained an annual demand of 37 elephants for export from two kraals. These were valued at 9,250 rix dollars which was equal to 15% of the total revenue of the state.
In 1507 the Viceroy of India sent a gift of a small elephant, imported from Ceylon, to King Manuel of Portugal. After seven years in Lisbon this elephant, named Annone, was presented to Pope Leo X and moved to Rome. Annone lived in Rome for three years but died after developing stomach trouble due to the variety of food given to it by visitors and admirers. There is a memorial in Rome to Annone the first elephant in the Vatican (Hulugalle, 1969).
The King’s Elephant Unit continued to operate within the Kandyan kingdom even after the Portuguese occupation of the Maritime Provinces. Latterly however, the function of the King’s Elephant Unit was only to supply the king’s army with elephants. This was because with the development of cannons and musketry, the elephant was both frightened and vulnerable, and its export demand as an instrument of war was greatly reduced. During the reign of the Portuguese the person in charge of the Elephant Hunt was called the Gajanayake. The Gajanayake was in charge of stables at Matara. This was a large establishment. In 1697 there were 97 elephants in the stables at Matara. Baldeus wrote, in 1704, of a place in Matara where captured wild elephants were tamed before they were sold to buyers who came from the Coramandel Coast and Bengal. A very large stable had been built to house these animals. These stables at Matara are the site of the present Kachcheri. The animals apparently were bathed twice a day in a nearby river, very likely the Nilwala. Tame elephants were used as monitors and trainers.
Those people who were sent into the jungles to look for suitable herds of elephants to be captured in kraals were called Baddenas. When the herds were sighted, the Dissawa of the area was informed and he in turn gave instructions for arrangements to be made to hold the kraal.
The men, numbering over a thousand, were divided into four groups under a leader called a Hattrebethmarale. The Aratchies were those in charge of the trappers who noosed the elephants once there were inside the Kraal and also trained the captured elephants.
In 1586 the king of Kandy, Rajasingha I, led an army which included a strong force of 2,200 highly trained elephants for fighting and for other services, and laid siege on the Portuguese fort in Colombo. The siege however, was not successful.
It is recorded that, in 1706, the king of Kandy had in his stables over 300 tuskers. The elephant was used less and less for war and subsequently only for ceremonial occasions.
In 1656 the Dutch laid siege on the Fort of Colombo held by the Portuguese. Ribeiro, the Portuguese soldier and historian, records that all the elephants in the Fort excepting one, were eaten by the defenders as they ran short of food after a time. Only one elephant was spared because it was needed to carry timber to repair the defences that were being damaged by the attackers.
Robert Knox, a Scotsman, who was a prisoner in the Kandyan kingdom for nearly 20 years, writing in the 17th Century, stated “that the King makes use of them (elephants) as executioners: they will run their teeth [tusks] through the body, and then tear it in pieces, and throw it limb for limb. They have a sharp iron with a socket with three edges, which they put on their teeth at such times; for the elephants that are kept have all the ends of their teeth cut to make them grow better, and they do grow out again.
Sirr (1850) also says that elephants were used as executioners of criminals, by training them to crush the victim’s limbs and placing one of its legs on the man’s body, tear off the limbs. Fortunately, the use of the mild tempered elephants for such gruesome executions has long been stopped.
Pybus states that the Dutch had to obtain permission from the king of Kandy to capture elephants which were within his domain. The king generally agreed to the Dutch capturing 20 to 30 animals each year, but the Dutch constantly exceeded this figure, capturing around 150 each year and 200 in one year. They continued to use the elephant stables at Matara referred to earlier.
Elephants were also exported by the Dutch from Karativu island. The elephants were driven into the Jaffna peninsula by a shallow ford that separated it from the mainland. This ford has now been bridged and given the name Elephant Pass. The Dutch held an annual sale of elephants in Jaffna. Elephants caught in Kraals and those received as tribute were sold there. Buyers from the Coramandel and the Bengal coasts continued to attend these sales regularly.

Sri Lankan elephants
Sri Lankan elephant

The traditional methods of capture by noosing etc., were practised for a much longer period. However, in 1761 the Dutch Governor Becker made a decree prohibiting the use of pits and nooses for the capture of elephants. This was in a bid to keep the mortality rate among the captive elephants low. The form of noosing practised in northern Ceylon was different to the noosing methods of the Eastern Province and other parts of the country. A large noose was suspended from a strong tree with a man or several men on the tree to manipulate the noose. Elephants were then driven towards the tree with the noose. With this ban, kraaling became the only method of capture that could be employed.
When the British captured the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch in 1796, and later the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, they continued the capture of elephants for some time but on a low-priority basis. The British however, indulged in the shooting of elephants as a form of sport. Elephant populations that had been able to withstand the detrimental effects of capture all these years now started diminishing rapidly with the wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the elephant herds.
Major Thomas Rogers is credited with having shot over 1,500 elephants. This works out to an average of one elephant being killed by him every day for four years. Two others, Captain Galleway and Major Skinner are reputed to have shot half that number each. Many other ‘sportsmen’ have shot in the region of 250-300 animals during this time.
As the elephant was a threat to the agricultural activities of the rural population, the British provided guns freely to villagers to keep away the marauding elephants from their cultivations. This action, which seemed necessary at that time, added to the destruction of the elephant. 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.
The British were also interested in developing plantation crops in addition to subsistence crops. British planters, who were opening up the railways and roads along with coffee and later tea plantations, also shot trespassing elephants at will. Here again the purported protection of their crops seemed to justify their actions. The planters combined their sport and the protection of their plantations and shot elephants at will, so much so that the once large elephant population in the hills dwindled rapidly.
The British did away with the Elephant Department started by the Sinhalese and the Elephant Hunt maintained for the occupied areas by the Portuguese and the Dutch. They also greatly reduced the number of kraals that were held. In fact in 1828 the British passed a law prohibiting the capture of elephants except for the government. This law was rescinded in 1831. The Kandyan chiefs, however, continued holding kraals and it is recorded that from 1800 to 1900, fifty two kraals were held. The last Kraal was held in 1952.
Elephants at Pinnawela elephant orphanage

Each morning and afternoon 14.00 the animals are walked 400 meters to the river Maha Oya for a two-hour bath. Photo © Guillaume Rebis
Collection Kept totally 110, 72 present (23,43,6), 51 births, 26 relocated, 12 deaths
Location Rambukkana Road, Kegalle, Sri Lanka
Type: orphanage, founded 1975, firs

t elephant arrived 1975

Pinnawela orphanage is situated northwest of the town Kegalla, halfways between the present capitol Colombo and the ancient royal residence Kandy in the hills of central Sri Lanka. It was established 1975 by the Sri Lanka Wildlife department. This 24 acres large elephant orphanage is a also breeding pace for elephants, twenty elephants were born since 1984, and it has the greatest herd of elephants in captivity in the world.

View Ooty in a larger map

The difference between the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala and Ath Athuru Sevena Transit Home at Uda Walawe is that at the Transit Home these baby elephants once cared for are released to the wilds when they reach a certain age.

1975: 5 baby elephants

1978: 12 elephants, of those 5 babies.

1997: 56 elephants, and in

1998: 63 elephants

2000 70 elephants,

2003 65 elephants,


The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was started in 1975 by the Department of Wildlife on a twenty five acre coconut property on the Maha Oya river at Rambukkana. The orphanage was primarily designed to afford care and protection to the many baby elephants found in the jungle without their mothers. In most of these cases the mother had either died or been killed. In some instances the baby had fallen into a pit and in others the mother had fallen in and died. Initially this orphanage was at the Wilpattu National Park, then shifted to the tourist complex at Bentota and then to the Dehiwala Zoo.

From the Dehiwala Zoo it was shifted 1975 to Pinnawela. At the time it was shifted the orphanage had five baby elephants which formed its nucleus.It was hoped that this facility would attract both local and foreign visitors, the income from which would help to maintain the orphanage.

There are only a few elephant orphanages in the world. Pinnawela has now become one of the bigger orphanages
and is quite well known world wide.

In 1978 the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was taken over by the National Zoological Gardens from the Department of Wildlife and a captive breeding program launched in 1982. When the zoo took over there were twelve animals five of whom were babies. In time more baby elephants were added to the original herd of five. It was observed that though older females could be added it was not possible to add older males to the herd.

1997 there were 52 animals of which there 10 were babies under 3 years of age. There were five mahouts for the twelve elephants when the orphanage was taken over 1978 and now there are twenty mahouts. This number is inadequate to manage the increasing and growing number of elephants.
Daily actiivities

At Pinnawela an attempt was made to simulate, in a limited way, the conditions in the wild.
Animals are allowed to roam freely during the day and a herd structure allowed to form.

08.00 The babies are fed on milk in the mornings and allowed to range freely on the 12 acres large grassland.

10.00 Each morning and afternoon 14.00 the animals are walked 400 meters to the river Maha Oya for a two-hour bath.

Beteween 16.30 and 1800 in the evening the animals are taken to their stalls and tethered for the night.

They are then given their evening feed which is milk again for the babies and leaves for the older ones. Plenty of food and water is available.

The leaves are mainy Cocunut leaves (Cocos nucifera), but also branches from Jackfruit
(Artocarpus integra), leaves, branches and logs of Kitul palm tree (Caryoty urens),
from There is no stress or threat to the animals.

The elephants are stall fed. There is very little food material that they can gather from the premises of the orphanage except grass. Large quantities of food are brought in daily. Jackfruit, coconut, kitul, tamarind and grass form the bulk of the food given to the elephants at Pinnawela.

Each animal gets approximately 75 kg of green matter a day and in addition each gets 2kg of a food mixture containing maize, rice bran, powdered gingelly seed and minerals. They have access to water twice a day from the river Maha Oya that runs by the Orphanage.

There is one female named Sama which was brought in from the northern part of the country, where there is an ethnic conflict, with the lower part off ts front foot blown off by a land mine. This animal is growing up and is coping with that leg about six inches shorter than the other.
Breeding history

The conditions at Pinnawela are conducive to breeding.
Initially the breeding animals consisted of males Vijaya and Neela and females Kumari, Anusha, Mathalie and Komali. Upto the middle of 1998 there have been fourteen births, eight males and six females at Pinnawela, with one(1) second generation birth early 1998.

The father of the first three calves born at Pinnawela was Vijaya. It was not possible to determine the father of the next calves since many males used to mate with the females in oestrus. Now through DNA fingerprinting the fathers of three have definitely been identified.
Vijaya and Kumari have produced three calves at intervals of five and four years.

The first birth at Pinnawela was in 1984, a female, to Vijaya and Kumari who were aged 21 and 20 years respectively at the time of the birth. In 1993 Vijaya and Kumari were 30 and 29 years respectively.

There are other records of the birth of elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka but most of these are off females that had been captured after they had conceived in the wild. There are also records of tamed elephants having mated with other tamed elephants and giving birth. These are however few and far between.

The other elephant deaths in recent times are as follows with the relevant date and cause of death: Vijaya - September 11, 1999, brain cancer, Honda Kota - February 20, 1999, severe injuries to the trunk and body at the time it was handed over by the Wildlife Department, Binari - January 3, 2003, head injury and paralysis, baby elephant born to Lasanda - March 20, 2004 dashed on the ground by the mother and baby elephant of Nikini - April 22, 2004, born dead.


In 1997 and 1998 research was conducted in Pinnawela through a joint venture by Institute of Wildbiology at Vienna University in Austria and the Zoological Institutes of Colombo and Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, under the supervision of Dr. Fred Kurt. Veterinary students from the Universities collected datas about body messurements and growth, food assimilation, social interactions, sleeping behaviour, tool-using, and sterotypical behaviours, later publicated in different scientific medias.


(Asst. Curator)
Elephant Orphanage
Sri Lanka

Mahout´s Names

S.D. Jayaratna
H.A. Somaratna
R.W.A. Gunaratne
I.S. Mitreepala
K.G. Sumanabanda (fourth generation mahout)

Information provided by Jayantha Jayewardene, Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, 615/32 Rajagiriya Gardens, Nawala Road, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka, Dr. Fred Kurt, Institute of Wildbiology at Vienna Veterinary University, and Wayne Jackson, Canada.

Here in Pinnawela is also the three-legged elephant Sama, who by two years of age stepped on a landmine which blew her right frotfoot away. Since then she is walking on three legs. She is now twelve and will suffer from considerable discomfort in the future due to changes in her spina, because of her annatral body position, trying to balance the body weight on three legs.

There is ambitions to train her for a specially made Prostestis, see for more information.


Fred Kurt, (1974) Remarks on the social structure and the ecology of the Ceylon elephant in Yala national Park.
IUCN Publications new series 24 (1) 618-634.

Fred Kurt and J. Kumarasinghe, (1998) Remarks on body growth and phenotypes in Asian elephant.
Ecological genetics in Mammals III, Acta Theriologica, Suppl. 5: 135-153.

Sources, among others

Wayne Jackson, Canada**Jayantha Jayewardene, Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka
Geburt und Jugendendwicklung von Asiatischen Elefanten -Beoabachtungen aus der Pinnawela Elephant Sanctuary von Sri Lanka, Zeitschrift des K├Âlner Zoos, nr 2 1999, by Fred Kurt, Birgit Dastig, Sandra Petzhold, Julia Rastelli, Judith Schmelz, Verena Tragauer, Claudia Sacha.

More about Kegalle

Pinnawela elephant orphanage has 72 living Asian elephants (23,43).
Name - stud nr.
Species - Sex Status Origin - birth Age Parents Arrival date
unknown -
EM - FC wild 2010
1 x 2010-12-00 from
unknown location
Thilamalai -
EM - FC wild
? x from
Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH)
notnamed -
EM - FC captive-born 2011-02-17
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 0 x 2011-02-17
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Kira -
EM - wild
? x from
Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH)
notnamed -
EM - FC captive-born 2011-03-17
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 0 x Menika 2011-03-17
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Suranimala -
EM - FC unknown
Unknown ? x
Kiriya -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x
unknown -
EM - F FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Thilaka
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Ninja -
EM - F FC wild 1985
Unknown Sri Lanka 26 x
Thammenna -
EM - F FC wild
Sri Lanka ? x from
unknown location
Mathali (Mathalee) -
EM - F FC wild 1970
Unknown Sri Lanka 41 x
Noni -
EM - F FC unknown
Sri Lanka ? x from
unknown location
Soma -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x
Khema -
EM - F captive-born 2001
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 10 x Sukumali 2001-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Anusha -
EM - F FC wild 1949
Unknown Sri Lanka 62 x 1986-00-00 from
Sri Lanka National Zoological Gardens (Dehiwela Zoo)
Sama I -
EM - F FC captive-born 1987
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 24 Vijaya x Mathali (Mathalee) 1987-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Kamani -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x
Janitha -
EM - F FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Mahaweli (Mahavali)
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Mahaweli (Mahavali) -
EM - F FC wild 1981
Unknown Sri Lanka 30 x
Lasanda -
EM - F FC unknown
? x from
unknown location
Anjali -
EM - F FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage Sri Lanka ? x Mayuri
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Anuradhika -
EM - F FC captive-born 1993
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 18 Vijaya x Anuradha 1993-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Thilaka -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x
Bharathi -
EM - F FC captive-born 2007
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 4 x Amali 2007-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Anuradha -
EM - F FC wild 1982
Unknown Sri Lanka 29 x
Nikini -
EM - F FC unknown
? x from
unknown location
Sandalee (Sandali) -
EM - F FC unknown
? x from
unknown location
Kumari -
EM - F FC wild 1965
Unknown 46 x
Amali -
EM - F FC captive-born 1994
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 17 Vijaya x Mathali (Mathalee) 1994-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Shanthi -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x
Komali (Komalee) -
EM - F FC wild 1971
Unknown Sri Lanka 40 x
Shermi -
EM - F FC wild
? x from
unknown location
Rejina (Rajina) -
EM - F FC wild 1982
Unknown Sri Lanka 29 x
Dinuda -
EM - F FC captive-born 2009-05-24
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 2 x Sandalee (Sandali) 2009-05-24
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Sapumali -
EM - F FC unknown 1997
Unknown 14 x
Mihiri -
EM - F FC captive-born 2005
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 6 x Menika 2005-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Sukumali -
EM - F FC captive-born 1984-07-05
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 27 Vijaya x Kumari 1984-07-05
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Punchi -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x
Thamara -
EM - F FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Thammenna
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Menika -
EM - F FC captive-born 1989
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 22 Vijaya x Komali (Komalee) 1989-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Sugala -
EM - F FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Shermi
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Ranmali (Ranmalee) -
EM - F FC wild 1982
Unknown Sri Lanka 29 x
Uthpala -
EM - F FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Rejina (Rajina)
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Sama -
EM - F FC wild
Unknown ? x 1995-00-00
Pali -
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x Ranmali (Ranmalee)
Madhavi -
EM - F FC captive-born 2005
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 6 x Mathali (Mathalee) 2005-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Binari -
EM - F captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Shermi
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Mayuri -
EM - F FC wild 1983
Unknown Sri Lanka 28 x
Suranganee -
EM - F FC unknown
Sri Lanka ? x 1997-00-00 from
unknown location
Pandu -
EM - M FC wild 2005-08-00
Unknown Sri Lanka 6 x 2005-09-00
Senarath -
EM - M FC captive-born 2002
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 9 x Sukumali 2002-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Raja -
EM - M FC wild
Unknown ? x
Jayathu -
EM - M FC unknown
Sri Lanka ? x from
unknown location
Atlas -
EM - M FC wild
Unknown Sri Lanka ? x 2009-01-11 from
Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH)
Wasamba -
EM - M captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Anuradha
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Wishwa -
EM - M FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Kiriya
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Kanaka -
EM - M FC captive-born 2009-06-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 2 Jayathu x Suranganee 2009-06-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Charaka -
EM - M FC captive-born 2006-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 5 x Anuradhika 2006-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Vikum -
EM - M FC captive-born 1988
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 23 x Kumari 1988-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Rangiri -
EM - M FC captive-born 1989
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 22 Vijaya x Anusha 1989-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Buwaneka -
EM - M FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Mahaweli (Mahavali)
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Gajaba -
EM - M FC captive-born 2005
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 6 x Kumari 2005-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Tharindu -
EM - M FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Sama I
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Arjuna (Kandula VI) -
EM - M FC captive-born 1997
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 14 Vijaya x Sukumali 2009-06-00 from
Panagoda army camp
Pinnawala -
EM - M FC captive-born 2000
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 11 x Mathali (Mathalee) 2000-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Udara -
EM - M FC captive-born 2009-04-04
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 2 x Uthpala 2009-04-04
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Vidula -
EM - M FC captive-born 2007-08-25
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 4 x Sapumali 2007-08-25 from
Aruna -
EM - M FC captive-born 1994
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 17 Vijaya x Komali (Komalee) 1994-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Mahasen -
EM - M FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Kamani
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Sanka I -
EM - M FC wild 1989
Unknown Sri Lanka 22 x
Asela -
EM - M FC captive-born
Pinnawela elephant orphanage ? x Anuradha
Pinnawela elephant orphanage
Nandimithra -
EM - M FC captive-born 1995
Pinnawela elephant orphanage 16 Vijaya x Rejina (Rajina) 1995-00-00
Pinnawela elephant orphanage


Elephants in Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is a small island of 65,000 square miles. It has a population of 20 million people. It is also home to a wild elephant (Elephas maximus) population of approximately 4,500 to 5,000. The man-elephant ratio is 5000:1. About 5 square km of land is needed to support an elephant in its forest habitat.

This wild population is declining. The increasing human population, with its demand for jungle land for development from the elephants habitat, is causing problems to the wild elephant population. Reducing habitats and the resultant Human-Elephant Conflicts, which records the deaths of both the humans and elephants, is the greatest threat to Sri Lanka’s wild elephants population.

The Sri Lankan people have had a long association with the elephants. During the reign of the Sri Lankan kings over 2000 years ago, elephants were caught, tamed and used in large numbers for the large scale and massive construction works that they initiated. Large palaces, temples and vast reservoirs have been built with the aid of elephants.

Initially there were elephants all over the country except in a few coastal areas and the Jaffna peninsula. During the reign of the Kandyan Kings, who ruled in the central hills, elephants were caught and tamed for many uses. The Kings used them for war against invaders, ceremonial occasions and religious occasions. They even exported them to India, Burma and Egypt. The king was the only person who could capture wild elephants.

With the Portuguese capturing maritime provinces of the country, they introduced the Kraal or Keddah method of capture practiced in India. The Dutch and the British, who conquered and ruled the country subsequently also continued the capture of elephants mainly by kraaling. Though some of these elephants were used by the rulers for domestic purposes, they were mainly exported since there was a big demand abroad for Sri Lankan elephants.

With the advent of the British, who subsequently ruled the whole country, the elephant population was greatly reduced. The British indulged in shooting elephants as a sport and as a result a large number of elephants were destroyed. They declared the elephant as an agricultural pest and armed the villagers with guns to enable them to protect their crops from elephants. They even paid a bounty for each elephant killed. British planters, opening out jungles lands in the hill country to plant tea and coffee, also shot elephants in the montane forests thereby driving the remnant herds down to the lowlands. There are no elephants in the hill country now except for a small herd that migrates occasionally.

Elephant population and distribution

Prior to the large scale destruction of forests, elephants enjoyed a high population and a wide distribution throughout the island. Today, except for a small remnant population in the Peak Wilderness area, elephants are restricted to the lowlands, especially in the Dry Zone. Over the past 200 years, human land-use has forced the elephants from the wet and fertile regions of the south-west of the island to much drier regions.

With the exception of Wilpattu and Ruhuna National Parks, all other protected areas are less than 1,000 km2 in extent. Ten areas are less than 50 km2 and hence may not be large enough to accommodate the annual home ranges of the elephant populations. This problem was overcome to a certain extent in the Mahaweli Development area, by linking protected areas such as the Wasgomuwa National Park, Flood Plains NP, Somawathiya NP, and Trikonamadu resulting in an overall area of 117,194 ha (or 1,172 km2) of contiguous habitat for elephants. However elephants in this country are not wont to use corridors designed by man. About 70% of the elephants' range extends outside the protected areas, into human settlements and agricultural areas.

The number of elephants in Sri Lanka today is but a fraction of what existed about a hundred years ago. From a population well over 10,000 elephants in 1796 the figure came crashing down to less than 2000 in the mid 20th century. Different figures were given by different people on the number of wild elephants.

During the first half of this century, Sri Lanka had some of the best, and probably the most wildlife conservation areas in Asia. Most of them were located in the low country Dry Zone, where human pressure was not serious enough to prevent the recovery of elephant numbers. The recovery was slow at first, but under the management of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the number of elephants seems to have picked up somewhat in the sixties. McKay, in 1973, estimated a minimum population size of between 1,600 and 2,200 animals, while Thilo Hoffmann, in 1977, suggested a much higher total of 4,000.

Estimates of elephant numbers in the wild in Sri Lanka vary and this underlines the difficulty of counting even such large animals in the dense and tangled vegetation of its habitat. The DWC carried out a survey of elephants in much of the safe areas of the island in June 1993, and arrived at a minimum of 2,000 elephants in the wild in the five regions: North-western, Mahaweli, Central, Eastern and Southern.

Today the elephant population estimate is between 4,000 and 5,000 of which between 2,000 and 2,870 occur largely in the protected areas. All these estimates may turn out to be underestimates, given the difficulty in counting elephants in the scrub forest.

The number of elephants in captivity too has declined from about 670 in 1955 to anything between 140 and 150 today. The distribution of tamed elephants is quite distinctive and does not overlap with that of the wild elephants. They appear to be confined to 14 smaller districts out of a total of 22, in the south-west quarter of the island.

Elephant and mahout: the age old relationship

Human-Elephant Conflict

With the reduction of their habitats elephant populations have broken up and some herds have got pocketed in small patches of jungle. With their movement restricted, especially when food and water resources are depleted, elephants wander into new cultivated areas, which were their former habitat, in search of food. Elephants find ready source of food in these cultivated areas, but wild elephants are unwelcome neighbours in agricultural areas.

With their large size and equally large appetites, elephants can easily destroy the entire cultivation of a peasant farmer in a single night. Therefore the farmers look upon the elephant as a dangerous pest and would rarely regret its disappearance from their area. Elephants are incompatible with agriculture unless the damage they cause is compensated the anger and frustrations of the farmers will increase. Thus the conflict between man and elephant has become the most serious conservation problems facing the DWC in Sri Lanka, where a combination of deforestation, agricultural expansion, and human population growth has substantially reduced the habitat that was once available to the elephant.

The ecological and social costs of clearing forests to resettle villagers have proved to be very high. Wild elephants have lost so much of their range in Sri Lanka that they are now forced to prey on the communities that have displaced them.

This has often been viewed as the crux of the human-elephant conflict. Since 1950, a minimum of 4,200 elephants have perished in the wild as a direct result of the conflict between man and elephant in Sri Lanka. The conflict has escalated in the recent past. During the last twelve years alone, a total of 1,464 elephants were killed, with 672 humans being killed by elephants.

An elephant killed in Tissamaharama

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has identified several areas where the elephant-human conflict has become serious. The DWC has adopted certain conservation measures to mitigate the human-elephant conflicts. They included the use of thunder flashes, crackers, noise, etc but the elephants soon learn to ignore these as bluffs.

When these initial efforts failed, the DWC adopted other measures. They were;

a) the establishment of elephant corridors
b) increasing the extent of protected areas
c) translocation of troublesome elephants
d) driving elephants to new locations
e) erection of electric fencing
f) ex-situ conservation
g) the integration of elephant conservation with economic development

Another important action was the government formulating and adopting National Policy for Elephant Management and Conservation.

A herd of elephants in Udawalawe National Park