I was about 10 or 12 years old when I was taken to have a look upon the ceremonial “perehara” which is occurring once a year in our village devoting the goddess “patthini”. It was mid-day and the sun was giving an intensive amount of heat over us. The best place to see the “perahara” in our fane was the “walakulu bamma” which faces directly towards the route which the “perahara” was about to appear. The sound diffused by the whips cheers us to have a keen aspect of it and following the whips I could see a creature which was bobbing its head with the rhythm of playing drums. Before the story which I am talking about, I would like to provide some information about this creature. I hope that you all know by now that this mentioned creature none other than an elephant. In the world, we do possess two main extant species such as the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). In Sri Lanka, we meet the latter. It is the largest animal which is living in the land so far and I think it is one of the wonderful animals that anyone could observe. Apologizing to the interruption of the story here I’m back to it. The elephants were nicely dressed and beautiful to see. The undressing of the elephants was taken place behind us in the periphery of the fane. There were about at least 10 elephant undressing and we were just watching the ongoing “perahara” on the route. I could see one of the elephants in the “perehara” is behaving very peculiarly and literally, it wasn’t noticed at all. Suddenly this one gave an intensive trumpet sound and started to stampede all over the road. It is really unfortunate to say that, that was the first day in which I’ve seen a man die in front of my eyes, it just trampled the man. The elephant behind us started to flutter and we hadn’t any idea what would happen next and the mahouts also couldn’t control the animals. On the route, it was still stampeding and we were struck. My dad took me and mom took my sister and took a jump about 10ft height from the wall to the same route. And we just ran toward a shop and then only we were in a safe position. Fortunately, anesthetics managed to control the animal and it was over.
What got me interested is on the following day the same animal was behaving very calm and acted as nothing had done. Literally, what I wanted to elaborate on by this is why does this happen. I’ve heard lots of cases like this. Here science comes in to play.
Elephants are really wonderful creatures that show different types of behaviors which anyone would love to see. They are highly socialized animals and they do like to live in association with their family, mostly the females. The domestication of the elephant, occurred about 40000 years ago and following that elephants were used in many tasks that are associated with us, humans. They are beasts which were used in battles, as ancient construction trucks, and obviously as a transporting mechanism. In Sri Lanka, we possessed about 2500 wild and 550 captive elephants by the 1990s (W.D.Ratnasooriya 1990). This was to know about some basic facts about elephants.
But, Have you ever wondered why the elephant is having such huge ears? Simply to cope with the heat. It has to bear 40 times greater heat than a man does and you know, they lack sweat glands. So the main mechanism for regulating body heat is its ears. It possesses an immense network of blood capillaries in the ear and heat is dissipated as radiation. The rest of the body couldn’t afford that much heat as they possess highly thickened skin. Earlier, I told you that they are really beautiful with their dress, right? Yeah, ears also were covered with its dress, and even though they were flapping it. Not much heat is dissipated through it. They are obviously in great stress. It would be really nice if the dresses could be made without the ear cups and use a different kind of decoration for ear decorations.
The other main fact is that they are socialized animals and they love to stay with their families as I’ve mentioned. Think about how it would affect if you were away from your family. This stressfulness is a vital condition to consider when handling captive elephants.
Next is, as you all know, the musth. This mechanism is mainly observed in male elephants and occasionally in females but not very much distinct. With the musth, the elephant shouldn’t be in the ceremony. With the musth, some animals are very aggressive and any mahouts unable to predict the next move of the animal. These are the main facts, which greatly affect for the incident that I’ve mentioned before and other than this the use of chains nowadays instead ropes and tying up those chains very tightly around its legs etc. sometimes mahouts provide some specific foliage such as “Una bada”, “Ehatu”, “Budeliya” to suppress the musth, this reduces the testosterone level of the animal and sometimes experienced mahouts use aggregated nerve sites and by pressurizing, it suppresses the occurring of musth. These techniques used are very effective to handle those captive animals.
As the facts, then why these kinds of things didn’t happen at the ancient time frequently. That is in fact due to having a good community of mahouts, these days the majority of mahouts are drinkers and they don’t know how to treat the animal well. In ancient mahouts, they had great methods to capture animals and also to control them. They knew how to treat those animals with respect and as a result, those animals obeyed them showing gratitude towards them. And also in ancient times when using the elephants in any process, all the elephants are corral in a single forest like in a way all can associate very closely so they might be happier than nowadays. The most stressful thing which occurs these days is having numerous amount of “perahara” during a very short period. Each elephant participates in almost all the “perahara”. This is really hard for them to handle those with stressfulness. Ancient times this didn’t happen. One elephant might participate in only one “perahara ”.These days it is obviously a business.
This affects the population of wild elephants too. The breeding success is very low in captive conditions as their breeding process is mostly relying upon their social behaviors. So declining the captive population tends to take more from the wild by the private authorities. And, also the tusker percentage has decreased from about 10% to 4% in the wild during the last decade. The major effect is the poaching of these beasts. But, the tendency of taking tuskers from the wild for cultural purposes could also affect this decline.
Yeah, we have to use these creatures as it is a really vital object in our culture and for sure we need to take care of them as well. Otherwise, the problem would not only for them but also for us.
- Brown, J. L. (2000). “Reproductive endocrine monitoring of elephants: An essential tool for assisting captive management.” 19(5): 347-367.
- W.D.Ratnasooriya (1990). “The Vanishing elephant.” life and earth sciences(1990): 46(42).
- Yapa, A. and G. Ratnavira (2013). The Mammals Of Sri Lanka. Department of Zoology, University of colombo,, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka, Field Ornithology Group Of Sri Lanka.