Traditional Elephant Management in Sri Lanka


Multiple conservation strategies are needed to preserve the endangered elephant species Elephas maximus maximus throughout its range. Traditional cultures have profound and detailed knowledge of animal species in their environment and traditional practices for animal management that can be useful in conservation and appropriate to the values of local cultures.

In 522 BC the Buddhist missionary Mahinda counseled King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka:

O great king, the birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the people and thou art only the guardian of it.

Today, the ancient ethic of Mahinda is often quoted by Sri Lankan leaders to demonstrate the endurance and continuing significance of wildlife conservation in their culture. Yet, contrary to Mahinda's counsel, the Mahaweli Development Program has displaced much of the wildlife of the island by developing its habitat into farmland. Large mammals, particularly elephants, no longer have "an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land."

However, wildlife conservation and economic development in Sri Lanka need not be incompatible. In earlier periods, Sri Lankans developed cultural traditions to both conserve and exploit Asian elephants - their most valued wildlife resource. They discovered that they could increase their chances for survival by harnessing the strength of elephants as a source of labor. The traditional technology of elephant management in Sri Lanka has been used for millennia and could be of continued use today to capture, tame and train wild elephants that are pocketed in agricultural development areas, providing the foundation for grassroots economic development.

History of Elephant Domestication

According to the Mahavamsa, a religious-historic account of Sri Lankan history that dates back to events in the sixth century BC, domesticated elephants were the exclusive property of kings and elephant capture without permission was a grave offense. Buddhism, the predominant religion of the Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka today, holds elephants as quasi-sacred animals. Elephants are used to carry the relics of the Buddha in religious ceremonies and rituals, and both elephant keepers and owners gain religious merit by participating in these functions.

During the colonial period of Sri Lanka (1505-1948), royal and religious cultural institutions that supported elephant conservation were repressed, and between 1796 and 1948, shooting elephant for sport became a fad of British gentry. Nicholas reports "...between 1831 and the end of the century the wild elephant population was depleted by 10,000 or more animals."

After independence in 1948, the government of Sri Lanka, fearing extinction of the species within 25 years, banned elephant capture. Only the capture of orphaned or injured wild elephants was permitted to maintain the domesticated elephant population essential to conduct Buddhist ceremonies and rituals.

Pannikans and the Traditional Technology of Elephant Management

Those who use traditional methods to capture elephants are distinguished as Pannikans, a "title conferred on anyone of outstanding courage and prowess in a form of physical activity such as noosing of elephants". Most Pannikans are rice cultivators and elephant capture serves as seasonal work to supplement their agricultural income. At present, the practice is nearly extinct due to strict government bans on elephant capture.

Traditionally, during the dry season, Pannikans track elephants along known paths to water holes. Elephants are captured by noosing, chasing or trapping, depending on the vegetative density of the capture area. Either way, Pannikans locate wild herds by following elephant spoor. Since elephants have an acute sense of smell, Pannikans remain downwind of herds. To determine wind direction, Pannikans scatter dust, ash, lime and dry leaves, or use inflated balloons hanging from a thread on a stick. The size and number of the herd can be assessed by elephant footprints: Pannikans reckon the height of an elephant at the shoulder to equal twice the circumference of one of its front footprints.

After capture, the elephant must be tamed from the fear of its human captors. The trunk of the elephant is tied to its foreleg so it cannot be used as a weapon. Front and back legs are tied to each other with enough slack for a two-foot stride. Several elephant keepers man other long ropes tied to each leg. Two keepers tease the elephant in the direction of camp by shouting and waving a cloth in front of it. The elephant chases the men into camp where the elephant's front and back legs are tied to strong trees.

The captive is denied food, sleep and water for two to three days as shifts of keepers continually circle and sing to the elephant to accustom it to the presence of humans. The exhausted, hungry and thirsty animal is then fed and watered by keepers using cautious physical contact and soothing worlds. The elephant usually gratefully submits to the alien human presence in return for nourishment and sleep.

Keepers utilize the natural aptitude of the species to form social relationships. Taming involves submission of the captive elephant to humans. Training necessitates building a complex relationship between human and animal for a solid working relationship based on mutual trust. Training time is usually a minimum of two years, depending on the size and disposition of the elephant and the skill of the keeper.

First, the keeper must establish his position as the alpha, or dominant member of the pair, in which an elephant can weight 100 times more than its keeper. Fear of pain is used to establish the keeper's dominance, and to teach the elephant the consequences of undesirable behavior. The elephant soon trusts its keeper by learning that the keeper has the power to punish, but that punishment will be used only for disobedience, and obedience will be rewarded.

During the days of the first three months in captivity, the wild elephant is yoked to the neck of a monitor elephant that has been trained to acclimate the captive to its new life. A monitor is a special elephant that must have a large frame, neck and shoulders, and be intelligent, mature and easily controlled. Control by a monitor is essential in the first of four stages to train a wild elephant.

Two tools - voice and ankus - transform wild elephants into working elephants. An ankus, or henduwa, is a wooden pole two feet longer than the height of the keeper. It is mounted with an eight-inch metal piece topped by a hook and a point. In Sri Lankan Buddhism, the ankus holds status as one of the eight auspicious symbols of the religion: to elephants, the ankus represents the dominance of the keeper. To train older, more truculent elephants, the ankus is used to prod nerve centers within the body of the elephant. This is the painful, often brutal, way to establish dominance over the elephant by its keeper during the first days of their relationship, and after proper training, the ankus is never used on a domesticated elephant unless it endangers its own or human lives.

The elephant keeper establishes a close personal relationship through voice and touch to gain the confidence of his captive, and gradually accustoms the elephant to the unnatural presence of a human riding on its neck. This is done in a river in case the keeper gets thrown from the back of the frightened elephant. Once trained, the elephant is ready to learn its "trade." The keeper trains his future working companion to hold its head high, how to carry by mouth and trunk, push with head and feet and haul in harness. Since working elephants frequently travel city streets and are the major attraction in religious ceremonies viewed by thousands of people, the animal is slowly accustomed to the presence of large crowds.

Sri Lanka maintains the cultural specialization of elephant management based on intense personal contact between elephant and keeper. Elephants work from 7 to 8 a.m. until midday, when heat from the tropical sun halts all labor. After work, the elephant lies in a stream and soaks for half an hour. The daily soak keeps the skin of the elephant sensitive, a necessity in management since the keeper often silently directs the work of the elephant with his feet and legs while seated on the elephant's neck. The keeper then cuts a coconut husk (pol-lella) and scrubs each part of his elephant's body six times. There is a specific procedure to bathing an elephant that enables the keeper to thoroughly inspect his elephant for any injuries or signs of disease. Early in training, the bathing ritual initiates the keeper-elephant relationship by identifying for the elephant who its caretaker is. Later labor is compensated for by the daily bath. Soon the elephant expects it in return for the morning's work.

In the evening, keepers often sing to their elephants, accompanied by bamboo flutes. Songs are passed from father to son through generations of elephant keepers along with other management skills. Words of one song demonstrate the fear and respect of the keeper for his elephant:

How did you get your silver tusks,/Flowery spots and long, fan-like ears?/You are the tusker that killed my brother.

Human-Elephant Conflict in the Mahaweli Development Program

Economic development has top priority in Sri Lanka today. The Mahweli Development Program is a three billion dollar development project to irrigate the dry zone of Sri Lanka for agriculture. The plan is to store water from the Mahaweli River in four large dams, then deliver it to the dry zone by irrigation canals. As a result, almost one million acres of dry zone will be converted into productive farmland. One hundred fifty thousands families will be resettled on two-and-a-half-acre plots and given water to grow rice.The newly developed farmland for Mahaweli settlers is also the traditional home range of wild elephants, a situation leading to human-elephant conflict over the land in the dry zone. Over 50 wild elephants were shot by farmers in the Mahaweli development area in 1985. This is an unusual situation since conservation, particularly of the quasi-sacred elephant, is a religious and social value esteemed by all Sri Lankans. Since elephant meat and hides are never used, and only five percent of the elephants in Sri Lanka have tusks, the cause of the elephant killings seems not to be poaching, but defense of property. Small elephant herds get pocketed in agricultural development areas and invade farms for food, forcing farmers to defend their crops, homes and often, their lives from the destructive power of a four-ton invader.

The wild elephant population in Sri Lanka now numbers approximately 3,000. Most herds live in parks, but about 800 wild elephants are pocketed in the dry zone now being developed into farmland. Relocation of these herds to national parks and the creation of sanctuaries, buffer zones and migratory corridors for elephants have been unsuccessful due to resource depletion and the tendency of elephants to return to their original location. The problem can only increase as agricultural development continues to encroach into elephant habitat. What is needed is an opportunity for part of the existing wild elephant population to be reaccommodated within the contemporary Sri Lankan economy. Traditional techniques of elephant management offer solutions to this present conflict.

Elephant Management Technology and Grassroots Development

Elephant domestication can be applied to wild elephants in areas where their habitat is being developed into farmland. Permits to capture pocketed elephants can be issued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation under existing statutes of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. The sex and height of the elephant, capture area and time limit for capture must be stipulated in the permit. It would be useful to include a plan for capture with logistical input from villagers, procedures from those performing the capture and supervisory support from Department of Wildlife Conservation staff.

Mahaweli villagers in development areas farm near to elephant habitat and suffer most from elephant depredation. Because they live close to elephants, villagers can assess elephant herd composition, location and migration; identify paths and sources elephants use for water; and identify trespassers and elephant damage to human property. If elephant captures keep new captives or auction them to the public, rupees from the permit or auction profits should be returned to villagers in compensation for crop damage, and as wages for their participation in monitor and capture operations. Profits should be disbursed locally using Buddhist temples and village association to insure fair distribution. Profits from elephant capture means villagers will have an investment in elephant conservation as well as a method to rid their fields of pest elephants.

Economics and Uses for Domesticated Elephants

In 1985 it was found that over 56 percent of elephant owners in Sri Lanka made profit from owning domesticated elephants. Twenty-sex percent of elephant owners made neither a profit nor a loss from their elephants, as their elephants worked only enough to pay for their maintenance. These owners keep elephants because of the status and religious merit they gain as Buddhists when their elephants participate in religious ceremonies such as processionals, weddings and higher ordination ceremonies for Buddhists priests. Seventeen percent of elephant owners lost rupees by owning elephants. Owners in this category can afford the loss, and own elephants solely for status and merit. Domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka are paid for a variety of work that can be categorized into labor, recreation and ceremony. Forty percent are used for labor, which includes timbering, agriculture, roadwork, construction, transport and training other work elephants. More elephants could be absorbed into the Sri Lankan economy as most owners seek and pay high prices for the few elephants that are sold. The last elephant auction in 1985 fetched over $12,000 for a wild female elephant.

The unique work potential of domesticated elephants is underdeveloped in Sri Lanka. Elephant labor can substitute for small lift and traction machinery and accomplish equivalent tasks for comparative costs. Elephants can haul one- to two-ton loads about a mile each day at costs competitive with the mechanized equipment that Sri Lanka now imports. Elephant use could cut the incalculable costs to Sri Lanka of increased dependency on foreign governments for imported machinery, fuel and parts, which also results in increased trade deficits for the island's economy.

Not only are elephants an underutilized resource for traction in terrain that is too soft or steep for wheeled vehicles, but no roads need be built to use elephants and they do not degrade the environment with their tracks. "Fuel" for elephants is abundant in the local environment. More importantly, this naturally renewable resource can duplicate itself.

Domesticated elephants can also be exported; trade and export is an ancient tradition that could make a profit as well as lower the current trade deficit. Markets abroad could be developed easily since Asian elephants are highly valued in zoos and circuses in the West.

Eventually, a captive breeding program could be developed since Asian elephants have an endangered conservation status. A breeding program could offer Sri Lanka a field center for basic and applied research, training and education in veterinary medicine, elephant husbandry, population genetics, zoology, anthropology and a comparison of in situ and ex situ conservation methodology.

Most importantly, elephant domestication offers Sri Lankan access to, benefits from, and participation in utilization of their most valued national natural resource, the Asian elephant. Employment of traditional elephant management technology for capture, training and maintenance generates pride in ancient Sri Lankan traditions and offers the means for economic development to the people. Ensuring elephants "a right to live and move about in any part of this land" integrates the goals of development and conservation of the species. It nurtures the values that are a motivating force in Sri Lanka, proven by the very survival of elephants in both wild and captive states on this small island for over 25 centuries.


Funding for this six-month study was contributed by Gayfryd and Saul Steinberg of Reliance Group, Inc., in New York. Michael Robinson at the National Zoo provided institutional support in the form of a Smithsonian Research Collaborator position. I gratefully acknowledge the support of Rudy Rudran, Bob Hoage, Wolf Dittus, John Seidensticker and Ben beck at National Zoo; William Leap and Geoff Brukhart at The American University; and Martha Ward, anthropologist at the University of New Orleans. Most importantly, special thanks to my many new friends in Sri Lanka who gave me the opportunity to learn about them and their fine elephants.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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