Twilight of the tuskers | Daily News

Twilight of the tuskers

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya
Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya

Sri Lanka celebrated World Elephant Day on August 12, against a backdrop where the National Elephant Conservation Policy updating process has been at a standstill and the proposed Managed Elephant Reserve in Hambantota is yet to be gazzetted after nearly a decade. In the meantime, Sri Lanka's unique elephant community awaits a man-made tragedy.


The problems start with facts. While the first National Survey on Elephants conducted in 2011 said there are around 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka, nearly twenty elephant conservation activist groups beg to differ. According to them, there are only 2,500-3,000 elephants in Sri Lanka at present. They also say there are only about 120 tuskers among the elephant community in Sri Lanka.

Of the African elephants, 100 percent males and 80 percent females have tusks. But in Asia, only the male elephants have tusks. Of the Asian elephants in the main land, 90 percent of the elephants also have tusks, whereas in Sri Lanka, there are only 5-6 percent tuskers among its elephant community.

Sri Lanka’s elephants belong to the type subspecies Elephas maximus maximus. The other two subspecies are Elephas maximus indicus (living in mainland Asia) and Elephas maximus sumatranus(living in the island of Sumatra). The special subspecies Elephas maximus maximus aka the Sri Lankan elephant is restricted to the island nation.Environmentalist Supun Jayaweera said “This sole fact should be enough to realize that we have a unique community of elephants in Sri Lanka who should be conserved at any cost. Rarity of tuskers among the elephant community in Sri Lanka is due to the disappearance of the important tusker gene due to human activities, especially in the pre-colonial era.”

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants per square kilometer amongst countries in the Asian elephant range. It was reported that the elephant ranges in Sri Lanka have been reduced by 11 percent during the last 40 years.

The Department of Wildlife recently told the Daily News that all preparations have been made for a National Survey on elephants in Sri Lanka by the end of 2017.

A jumbo history

According to the historical records, there have been more than 20,000 elephants in the wild of Ceylon during the pre-colonial era.

“The colonial rulers took the elephant community in the island as an agricultural pest. So they passed an ordinance, encouraging people to hunt the elephants down. They rewarded the trophy hunters with much bounty. Tuskers were the top target. Bigger the tusker, the bigger the bounty was,” Jayaweera said.

Historical records say that an infamous trophy hunter Major William Rogers killed 1,500 elephants. Major Thomas Skinner had killed 600 elephants, whereas Captain Galvy killed 500 elephants. The elephants mostly killed were inhabitants of the upcountry and the wet zone.

In 1937, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance prohibited elephant hunting. The then fine of Rs. 2,000, now stands up to a Rs. 500,000. However, the damage was already done, Jayaweera said, “The hunters had killed almost all the great-tuskers in the island. The elephants no longer live in the upcountry. The great-tusker gene was removed from the line of Sri Lankan elephants. What remains is a very weak line of tuskers. We will have lesser tuskers in the future.”

Cross-tusker gene

The Cross-Tuskers, Jayaweera identifies as the rarest among the rare tuskers of Sri Lanka. Only a 5-6 percent of the Sri Lankan tuskers are cross-tuskers. “In Sinhala, we call such tuskers ‘Dala-Poottuwa.’ These cross-tuskers have one of their tusks overlapping the other. They are such magnificent creatures,” he said.

The line of cross-tuskers in Sri Lanka exists only in Yala and Kumana areas. “The cross-tusker gene is restricted to these areas. Most of the cross-tuskers were sheltered by the Yala sanctuary.” Jayaweera added.

Maha Dala-Poottuwa, Panampaththuwa-Poottuwa, Walaskema-Poottuwa and Kumana-Poottuwa, are few of the well-known cross-tuskers in Sri Lanka.

Story of Yala Podi-Poottuwa

“The most well-known is the Yala Podi-Poottuwa, who had a unique relationship with the workers and the tourists who came to Yala. He had a sedate temperament and was the iconic attraction. Unfortunately, Podi-Poottuwa was killed for tusks in 1986 and the investigations revealed that Yala Podi-Poottuwa, who loved humans, had walked up to its killer unaware that it was a hunter,” Jayaweera said.

He added, it is the same Yala Podi-Poottuwa who appears in the logo of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Jayaweera predicts a gloomy future for tuskers in Sri Lanka unless authorities expeditiously implement the national policy to conserve elephants at full force.

Legal aspect

The general legal background defending all the fauna and flora in Sri Lanka basically are three fold. The three enactments are the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), the Forest Ordinance (FO) and the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act.

FFPO was enacted in 1938, which was later amended in 2009. The Act protects the indigenous wild plants and animals and prevents their commercial exploitation. All the areas declared under this act are intended to achieve this end. Senior Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena believes that available legal provisions are more than enough to save these giants from harm. He said, “What matters most is the implementation of the available laws.” So, the law enforcement authorities, Gunawardena added, should play their part. The next unfortunate limitation to the available legal provisions for protecting these animals is the political involvement in the matter, he said. He added that respective authorities who are responsible for these animals should not be operating under any political pressures.

Ad hoc development

Upholding similar views, former Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said the National Policy on Elephant Conservation, is good, whereas the implementation (of the policy) is not.

Dr. Pilapitiya identifies ad hoc development plans implemented around the country to be the main issue that hinders proper conservation of the elephants in Sri Lanka. He said, “These unplanned development projects result in humans encroaching into elephant habitats.

"However, If we can adhere to planned development, I believe we have enough space for both humans and elephants." he added. Dr. Pilapitiya further said the land acquisition for development projects has been the most problematic when dealing with the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC).

“For example, if you take the triangular areas between the Mattala Airport, Hambantota Port and the Sooriyawewa playground, it shelters more than 400 elephants. This land belongs to both Forest Department and the Mahaweli Development Authority. This area is proposed as a Managed Elephant Range (MER) as well. But unfortunately these lands are being acquired for number of development projects at the moment,” Dr. Pilapitiya added.

“There is a narrow elephant migration corridor which connects the said area from Southern part of the country to the Northern parts. This area is called Hendilla. We hear that 5 acres of land in Hendilla have been allocated to a housing project. When the Hendilla elephant migration corridor will be blocked from this project, the HEC will increase to a very high level,” Dr. Pilapitiya further said.

Dr. Pilapitiya said, "The development can be moved to somewhere else, whereas we cannot expect the elephants to work around us."He also pointed out that of all the Asian countries where elephants are in habitat, Sri Lanka records the highest rate of Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). He said about 250 human deaths and 70 elephant deaths are annually reported in Sri Lanka because of the HEC, which he defines as ‘very much avoidable’ deaths from both parts caused by unplanned development.

Dr. Pilapitiya said environmentalists are not trying to stop development. But it is important that the development we do is a well assessed, much planned one. "Nature tourism in Sri Lanka, which brings in large foreign revenue, should not be affected by the ad hoc development system carried out in the country," he added.

Dr. Pilapitiya further said, “There is too much political interference hindering the wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. I am not talking about this government nor am I referring to the previous one. For more than twenty years or so, political interference has continuously hampered or frozen the elephant and other wildlife conservation policy implementation in Sri Lanka.”

Delayed means denied

Chairman of the committee updating the National Elephant Conservation Policy of Sri Lanka Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando said the updating process is at a halt due to internal administrative issues in the Department of Wildlife. "The National Elephant Conservation Policy was due to be updated in 2006, which never happened. The policy is supposed to be updated every five years. Thus, Professor Kotagama, advisor to the Minister of Wildlife proposed the necessary updating should be done to the conservation policy", Dr. Prithiviraj said.

"Subsequently, a committee chaired by myself was appointed in 2016 including 10 more members from the Department of Wildlife. However, it is presently at halt due some internal issues in the Wildlife Department", Dr. Prithiviraj added.

A reliable source says the aforesaid internal matter is in relation to an unfair promotion criteria followed by the department, with regards to Assistant Directors working. According to the source, there is one category of assistant directors who are graduates. They have not being given promotions for 20-odd years.Speaking of the proposed Managed Elephant Range (MER) in Hambantota, Mattala, Dr. Pritiviraj said the proposed for the MER came in 2010, following an Environmental Assesment Report conducted for the Mattala Airport.

He told that the Ministry of Wilflife has already sent all the necessary documentation for the MER to be gazzetted, and the reaons for the delay in gazzetting is unclear.


Notwithstanding the fact that GPS collars may not be the most sophisticated tech option for tracking elephants, it is an affordable option for Sri Lanka. The demand for collering the tuskers resurfaced recently, when a tusker near Kala Wewa was injured by a trap gun in July.

Dr. Pritiviraj, Chairman of the Center for Conservation and Research (CCR), pointed out tracking elephant movements is very important for mitigating the Human-Elephant Conflict. Explaining further Dr. Prithiviraj said land use planning and its development should also take into consideration existing elephant ranges, their movement patterns as well as their behavior to reduce the chances of elephant encroachments into human settlements.

"We can follow collared elephant movements and avoid human activities in the areas where they occupy the most." he said. He pointed out that all elephants need not be collared. "We only need to collar a main elephant or a tusker in a group." It is said that an elephant herd has a matriarch leader.

Dr. Pritiviraj introduced recently collared elephant Ranmali who calls the Mattala proposed MER her home. Dr. Pritiviraj pointed out that CCR tracks Ranmali's movement which mostly confined to the proposed MER. Her movements are followed and recorded by the CCR as follows.

Meanwhile, pointing out the importance of collaring tuskers, Environmentalist Supun Jayaweera said tracking tuskers is important in many ways. "Sometimes if a tusker is injured, its movement will freeze if it can't walk. At present, we have no proper procedure to find out if a tusker is harmed or not. We usually find out about an injured tusker when a wildlife officer notice the absence of a tusker and specifically attempt to locate the animal," Jayaweera added. "When we found Deegha Danthu for example, it was injured two or three days back. He was provided with care after we found him. A proper monitoring wouldn't want us to find him. We need to do away with this directionless approach when protecting these tuskers. That is why we emphasize on collaring the tuskers even though the photographers and tourists find collared elephants roaming in the wild to be rather unnatural," Jayaweera said.

On elephant-watch

Following the recent incident involving the Tusker of Kala Wewa in July 2017, the Department of Wildlife Conservation announced that it has already called for tenders to purchase GPS collars for elephants. Environmental activists and elephant lovers await the arrival of GPS collars in due course. 

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