The pride of nature – Elephants in Sri Lanka

Mother nature has bestowed uncountable gifts to the pearl of the Indian ocean and the elephants are one of the greatest presents among them. Elephants can be considered as a remarkable creature in the culture of Ceylon, since the Anuradhapura era. According to the history of Sri Lanka, every king who ruled our country had the army, composed of four units called Chathranga Senawa, including tuskers and elephants, equestrian, artillery (including vehicles), and infantry. During the war, the king was entering the battlefield, with his greatest elephant; “Magul Atha” or the royal elephant. Most of these royal tuskers were growing in the palace since its birth and there was a strong mental and physical bond between the king and this genius gigantic herbivorous mammal.

The famous royal elephant of Ceylon – “Kandula”

Last battle between invading King Elara and King Dutugamunu

Painting by Prasanna Weerakkody
Last battle between invading King Elara and King Dutugamunu

As an example, the great chronic of Sri Lanka, “Mahawanshaya” has reflected how the royal elephant of King Dutugamunu, “Kandula/Kadol” had helped his owner to achieve his victory. During the battle of King Dutugamunu and invading King Elara, this royal elephant had injured severely while breaking the strong wall of the enemies’ fortress, Vijithapura. But King Dutugamunu treated him with the help of royal doctors and after recovering, it showed the gratitude by breaking-down that wall with its’ strong tuskers. At their final battle, “Kadol” deadly attacked the royal elephant of King Elara, and by taking advantage of that, King Dutugamunu defeated this invading king.   

The most respectable animal in the culture of Ceylon 

Carrying the sacred casket and this responsible task is done by a tusker

A tusker is worshipping the Lord Buddha at Dalada Maligawa

If you hear the word “Kandy”, the next moment you will remember the magnificent sacred cultural and religious procession, “Kandy Esala Perehara” which is held in July to August annually. This is one of the greatest tribute that can be pay by the devotes to the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha. The extraordinary segment of this eye-catching “Perehara” is carrying the sacred casket and this responsible task is done by a tusker. Though many elephants and tuskers are participating in this mind-blowing event, every tusker can not be the main casket bearer as it should belong to a specific pedigree with special features. However, to participate in the Perahera, the domesticated elephant should be eight and a half to nine feet in height and should be more than 30 years of age with tusks of at least three feet long. These noble brilliant tamed tuskers pay their highly respect towards Lord Buddha; therefore, these giants are returning their residences from this holy place with teary eyes. 

The noble tuskers of Ceylon

The sacred casket bearers

Dazzling tuskers at Kandy Esala Perahera

If you find a 1000 rupee-note of Sri Lanka which was released in 2006, you will see a figure of the “Raja” tusker who was bearing the sacred casket for half a century. After its demise, Heiyantuduwa Raja and Millangoda Raja (the longest tusked Asian elephant, when it was living) had taken that responsibility. Today, Nadunguwe Raja (who is considered as the tallest elephant in the country),  The Dalada Maligawa tusker Indi Raja, Chief tusker Wasana of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya, the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya tusker, and Millangoda Podi Raja are the tuskers who chosen as the sacred casket bearers. If you have seen the Kandy Perahera, you will remember how these giants have decorated with dazzling costumes. 

A note of 1000 Rupees of Ceylon
Nadungamuwe Raja
Millangoda Raja

Peeking into the wildlife

Only mammals having a muscular proboscis called trunk

If you can remember the African elephant, you will easily differentiate them from the Asian elephants, as African elephants are very larger and they have rough skin with huge ear lobes than Asian ones. African elephants can be divided into two species; the African bush elephant (Loxodonta Africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). In Ceylon, you will see the subspecies of Elephas maximus, called Elephas maximus maximusElephas maximus indicus is another subspecies that can be found in Asia and the members of Elephas maximus sumatranus live in the islands of Sumatra. However, all the elephants are categorized under the Elephantidae family and Proboscidae order. The interesting clue is elephants are the only mammals having a muscular proboscis called trunk. That means the trunk is an elongation of the nose and upper lips and nostrils are placed at the tip of the trunk. 

Eating rituals of Elephants

Consumes up to about 300 pounds of vegetation

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Elephants are the strongest mammalians in the natural eco-system, though they are having a herbivorous dietary pattern. An adult gigantic creature consumes up to about 300 pounds of vegetation including leaves, herbs, grasses, fruits, flowers, pods, etc. If you are a keen observer of nature, you will notice that they are wagging their trunk to get rid of the soil particles of the pile of grass which they have pickoff. It is important to prevent the decaying of their teeth. 

The elephant pearls

Known as “Gaja Muthu”

Dentures are the most important part of the elephants as they determine the lifespan (55 – 70 years) of the creature in two ways; surviving in their habitat and by saving themselves from cruel hunters. There are 12 deciduous premolars, 12 molars, and 2 incisors presented in the elephant and the elongated incisors teeth are known as the tusks. The chewing teeth of an adult elephant are replaced several times withing its lifetime, thus they can be considered as polyphyodonts. The cavity of one-third of the tusk is filled with fleshy gel including nerves, blood vessels, and tissues and the conical-shaped terminal end of the tusk is covered with dentine. Around 60 years of the elephant, due to the diminishing of the gel, the dentine wall of the cavity chipped off, and the movement of the head polishes these chips. These calcium chips are known as “Gaja Muthu” or the pearls of elephants. Most of the tuskers in all around the world inherit tragic deaths due to the attack of brutal hunters who smuggling the pearls of the elephants. 

“Gajaga” Wannama – the posture of the elephant

Implies how the elephants are ruling in their habitats

If you are interested in the traditional dancing of Sri Lanka, you will find there are 18 styles which reflecting the locomotions and postures of various animals called “Wannam”. “Gajaga” or elephant Wannama implies how the elephants are ruling in their habitats. According to naturalists, pillar-like large four legs are useful to bear their 2-5.5 tons of body weight and 2.5 – 3.5 m tall adult body, rather than running speedily after prays as predators in the wild. The walking pattern of elephants is an example of digitigrade locomotion which means walking on toes without touching the ground with its heels. The herd of the elephants is migrating one place to another in the same pathway and their crossings are known as “Alimankada” or elephant corridors. The leading male elephant (Most probably a tusker) is taking care of his herd which consists of 8 – 12 female elephants and their offsprings while moving around the forest. But normally most of the male elephants are living alone in the forest. 

Dimorphism of the giants

Categorized into mainly two groups

The elephants can be categorized into mainly two groups by considering their sexual dimorphism; bull and cow. The height, body shape, body weight, mating seasons differ from each other groups. As examples, bull elephants are having large trunk bases and curves into its hindquarters while cow elephants are composed of narrowed trunk bases and boxier with verticle hindquarters.

Love is in the air

Female elephants become sexually mature around 9-12 years

During mating seasons, male elephants who lived alone in the jungle, try to attach into a herd for reproduction. Generally, female elephants have become sexually mature around 9-12 years while males have matured around 14-15 years. At their coupling period, the testosterone hormone secretes as a fluid from the temporal glands of the male elephants and it is known as “Musth”. However, within this period, most of the peaceful male elephants become aggressive fighters to build up a heroic figure. However, male elephants are showing four kinds of behaviors, when they have met each other. 

  • Some male elephants show friendly behavior like shaking their heads and wriggling their trunks.
  • The weak elephant indicates his weakness by allowing him to check his gonads and after the examination, the stronger elephant leaves him alone without doing any harm.
  • Some elephants are fleeing away while they have met a stronger one than him.
  • Rarely, same grade elephants (especially tuskers), are dreadfully fighting to fulfill their desire with their loving lady elephant. According to the low of nature, some of these dangerous fights have ended up by giving a tragic death to one of the fighters.

To show their strength, tuskers are digging the earth and this rare phenomenon can be only seen when the are secreting musth (mostly September-October).

“A baby is a little bit of heaven”.

Great animals show allomothering behavior

Giant babies in nature

This is relevant to all the kids in this universe, including animals. If you have visited the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, you will realize the utter truth of the above quote. The female elephant bears its single calf (rarely twins) for 22 months and it is the longest gestation period of the mammal. A healthy calf is about 75-115 kg weighted and 2.5-3.5 feet heightened when it is coming to this world. Generally, these babies are consuming about 12 liters of milk per day for 2 – 4 years. These great animals show allomothering behavior (breastfeeding for the offsprings of another mother), thus all of the females are taking responsibility for the calves in their herd.

“Thunpath Rene” – Elephant trio

Mother, Baby, and sister of the baby.

The elephant trio

 Sri Lanka is a well-known Asian country for Safari. If you have visited any of the National Parks including Udawalawe, Kaudulla, Yala, Minneriya, Wilpattu, Wasgamuwa, Gal-Oya, Lahugala-Kithulana, you will observe some elephant groups of three members which called “Thunpath Rene” or the elephant trio. Most of the nature lovers are misunderstanding this group as a father, mother, and their baby. But actually, they are a mother, sister of the baby, or any other female elephant and the baby elephant. This group is considered as the second most dangerous elephants after the male elephant who lives alone.

Two peas in a pod – Twin elephants

A rare phenomenon in nature

Twin babies

The birth of twin elephants is a rare phenomenon in nature. However, if you visit Minneriya National Park, you will probably see the heart-touching scenario of twin elephant babies. Naturalists are naming a herd by a letter of the English alphabet and all the members of that group are named followed by that letter. The mother of these babies belongs to the B group and her name is “Bernardin”. Hence, the names of this female and male kids are “Bhagya” and “Bhathiya” respectively. It is not easy to recognize whether these are twins or not without doing DNA testings. But considering their behaviors (especially feeding on the same mother), naturalists have predicted them as two peas in the same pod. 

The ID of an elephant

Important to recognize the elephant

Every citizen in every country has an identity card including a photograph of the face of the owner. But to identify an elephant, there should be at least five photographs; left ear, right ear, front appearance, spine, and the tail. The pattern of depigmentation patches placed on ears, face, trunk, and belly and wounds also can be important to recognize the elephant who lives in its habitat. 

Wonderful behaviors of elephants

The leader of a group should be more powerful and wise as it has to protect his herd

Elephants are peaceful, intelligent animal species and they are having a good memory. The author of Mahawansa had given the best example of the memory of the royal elephant, Kadol. One of the warrior giants of King Dutugamunu, Nandimithra defeated this royal elephant by pulling its tusks with his bare hands. To take the revenge of that, Kadol had kept a coconut inside its mouth during this incident. However, when the Kadol had struck its’ tusk while breaking the Vijithapura fortress, this warrior pulled it away to save the elephant. To show gratitude for that help, this royal elephant had removed the coconut from its mouth.

Elephants loathe carnivorous animals as well as impure water since they always drink pure water. If an elephant is in a peaceful mood, always prefers to stay around a water resource and having a bath. When they are going to attack someone or something, speedily shaking their large earlobes to cool down their worm blood circulation. Elephants have strong tactile and visual communication. While the herd is attacking, elephants are holding each others trunks inside of their mouths. Also, mothers of the herd are teaching their kids about the jungle and this primary education is very useful to survive in the jungle. Elephants have their own grading system. Therefore, sometimes you may see their training campaigns while traveling the  National Parks of Ceylon. The leader of a group should be more powerful and wise as it has to protect his herd. “Panamure Elephant King” is an ideal example of the great elephant leader who lived in the recent history of Ceylon.

The tragic death of a great heroic elephant, Panamure Elephant King,
in 1950 at the last elephant  kraal in Sri Lanka

From the ancient eras, Ceylon has exported and gifted elephants to other countries. But our ancestors did not kill them to take their tusks. Unfortunately, Elephants have become a critically endangered species, due to anthropogenic activities. 

The elephant symbolizes the pride of the Ceylon. Therefore, every Sri Lankan has a great responsibility to save these magnificent gigantic living heritages!

References:

https://www.sundayobserver.lk/

https://ceylontoday.lk/

http://www.dailymirror.lk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

ACKNOWLEDGMENT.

I would like to offer my sincere gratitude to Prof. K. Sarath D. Perera (Dept. Of Chem., OUSL), for motivating me to write this article and providing me many valuable references. Also, I would like to thank Mr. Lalith Herath for supplying many useful pieces of information about the elephants.

Theeshya Dulmini

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