16th January 2000
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One by one they came

By now the light was fast fading and I knew that my private moments with these wonderful animals would soon have to end. As if on cue, all the individuals started moving towards the shore, the younger ones straggling behind.
By Srilal Miththapala
The visit had been planned months ago. It had been meant specially for my friends visiting from New Zealand who were doing a film on wildlife. The Seenuggala bungalow had been booked, dates meticulously planned, provisions ordered and four-wheel drives reserved. 

Alas as the day approached, it appeared there would be no takers for the trip. My friends couldn't make it and with the school exams in full force there was no chance of the wife and children or other friends joining me.

So, I thought to myself, why not go alone? Rather crazy no doubt, but why not? So I packed my bags, loaded the abundant provisions (originally meant for six people) and set off to the Uda Walawe national park. Over the years the Uda Walawe national park had become 'home base' to me and my family, so I was not unduly bothered about my solo visit.

At the park entrance there was surprise that I had arrived all alone. Notwithstanding this cynosure, I picked up my tracker and entered the park. There had been no rains for quite a while and the park was bone-dry. The normally tall, lush green pohon grass was a drooping golden brown, and there were signs of recent forest fires. All it takes is a careless cigarette-butt and acres of tinder-dry shrub would be devastated. 

We finally made it to the Seenuggala bungalow around 12 noon.The Seenuggala wewa still had some water but was drying up, with the levels having receded considerably. 

We set off for the evening drive by 4 p.m. back to the Hulang-kapolla area where the tracker felt the elephants would be. We did see a few scattered here and there, but nothing of the numbers he was talking about of having seen a few days before in the Wewpitiya area. 

Not being disappointed, I told the tracker that we would drive back to check the water holes of Buruthagolla-wewa and Kuda-wewa. Both were dry and caked with mud, with not even a painted stork or egret to be sighted. But at Dangaha-wewa, with its seemingly perennial source of water, we saw a big bull elephant on the farther edge, drinking water. We then decided to drive to the northern end of the park along the old Pinnagas-mankada road. 

As the jeep chugged along, passing the area where there was a thick growth of lantana on either side of the road, suddenly, without any warning an elephant trumpeted and charged out of the thicket virtually straight at me. Almost in reflex action (and partly in fright!), I stood up straight, grabbed the guard rails of the jeep and shouted at the top of my voice, something which (in retrospect) must have sounded like "ohhii"! To my astonishment the elephant, in full-blooded charge stopped dead in his tracks, just a metre away from me. He (or she as it subsequently turned out to be) glared at me short-sightedly, and I could feel the wind of the elephant's ears, as they rapidly slapped against her side. The strong 'elephant smell' engulfed me. She then slowly backed away into the lantana thicket as the tracker quickly recovered from his surprise and clambered into the open rear of the jeep and stood by my side. We peered through the thicket and there seemed to be at least two or three elephants. Realizing that this could perhaps be a small herd, I instructed the apprehensive driver, with his foot on the clutch and jeep in gear, awaiting the signal to speed off, to switch off his engine, much to his consternation. The tracker did not agree with me and he felt that there were two or three young lone males. But the sound of breaking twigs and rustling from the lantana thicket soon proved me right, as we could make out the dark gray shapes of two juveniles huddling behind one of the larger elephants. Seeing the well worn mankada on either side of the road, almost like archways cut into the thicket, right behind us, I told the tracker that they may cross the road. 

We started our vigil. After about 15 minutes our patience was rewarded. Like a ghost, one female slowly emerged from the lantana thicket, and as on numerous occasions before, I marvelled at how quiet these giants could be, when they really wanted. She stood tall, right across the road looking straight at me, just two metres behind the jeep. She must have been about 25 years from the extent of rollover of her ears, and was about 7-8 feet tall.

She then slowly moved on to the other side of the road and turned to face the jeep. Being perhaps the aunt or sister, without offspring, she would take the role as the main guardian, who would first confront the 'enemy'. I knew that she would take up a position as the guard to watch over, while the others crossed with the juveniles. As I predicted she stood silently watching us, and then the second female broke cover. She was stockier than the other, but appeared older, and as she walked slowly across, behind her, we could see the small legs of two juveniles. They seemed to be almost of the same height. As the female reached the opposite side of the road, the juveniles scampered into the thicket ahead of her, giving me a better view of them. I saw clearly that one was taller than the other, the older being about 3 years and the smaller one about 1 1/2 years. But still it was rather unusual to see two juveniles with such a seemingly small age-gap between them, since elephants usually calve only once in about 4 years.

A few seconds later we heard the sound of another elephant emerging from the thicket. I was thrilled, and also once again quite surprised to see, that this female also had two juveniles with her. They were slightly larger than the first two, and seemed more confident walking ahead of their mother, to join their cousins on the other side. As the cow and the calves reached the other side, our 'friend' who had charged at us, and who had been watching all the proceedings, slowly turned around and ambled back to join the rest of this rather unusually constituted herd. 

Later back in the bungalow, savouring the cool evening, I walked out, bare-bodied along the bund in front of the bungalow. I saw some deer on the farther edge nervously drinking sips of water, and also the resident pair of common kingfishers on the lookout for their dinner. 

Then from across the water, about 20 metres away, I spotted the gray shadow of an elephant emerging. It was a mature, full-grown female, with two more elephants following. I could not believe my eyes as one after another, out of the mankada in the jungle there emerged 11 more of the family. There were two very small juveniles, not more than a few months old , five other adolescents, and four adults. They all walked one behind the other, following the matriarch in single file, along the edge of the water, like in some well choreographed sequence. 

The matriarch then suddenly veered towards the water and stopped, as the herd drew up behind her and bunched up. They then turned their backs to the water and stared intently into the thick jungle. In a while there loomed two large shadows and as they stepped out into the fading light I saw that they were two big males. The larger of the two walked up to the matriarch and touched her mouth with his trunk, a typical elephant greeting. He then walked past the herd stopping briefly to reach out and touch the small juvenile's out-stretched trunk. It was a tender moment, to see the massive towering male reach out far below, to the juvenile. I was tempted to imagine that this perhaps was the male's own offspring that he was meeting after its birth (male elephants do not take any part in the rearing of young, and in fact their only contact with the female is during mating, after which they may never be seen again). In the meantime, the second male, slightly smaller than the first, walked right into the herd, sniffing at all the adult females' genital areas, very methodically, one at a time, and then moved off, following his partner into the jungle. I was sure that these two males were 'Rudy' and 'Randy', the two mature males who usually frequent the main road.

The matriarch then gave the all-clear signal and the herd moved towards the water. The larger females were more dignified in their entry, but not so the impatient juveniles. They rushed headlong into the water flopping down and rolling all over, splashing and pushing against each other. The exuberance of the youngsters was infectious, and very soon some of the adults were also rolling on their sides and squirting water all over. The smallest juvenile tried very hard to use his trunk to drink some water, but after awhile in frustration he dunked his head right into the water and drank lustily with his mouth!

By now the light was fast fading and I knew that my private moments with these wonderful animals would soon have to end. As if on cue, all the individuals got up, and started moving towards the shore, the younger ones straggling behind. Obviously the matriarch had given the signal to move. As the adults reached the edge of the jungle they dusted themselves with soil, creating a veritable sand storm around themselves.

With this encore, the herd slowly melted into the shadows. I painfully extended my creaking joints and hobbled back to the bungalow, which beckoned me with the heady aroma of a spicy rice and curry, the end of an absolutely wonderful day.

Three thousand men to capture a herd

Dr. Jayantha Jayewardene describes the elephant kraals of bygone days

Elephants have been captured by the kraal method in Sri Lanka for a long time. Kraaling, brought to this country by the Portuguese, was preferred to the earlier methods of capture such as trapping, noosing and the use of pits. Kraals enabled the capture of many elephants at once compared to one at a time by the other methods.

The word "kraal" is derived from the Portuguese word "curral" which means cattle pen. In Sri Lanka the word is used specifically in the context of the capture of elephants. This method of capture was continued by the Dutch and also during the reign of the British.

Capturing elephants in a kraal, entailed fencing in a very large area in the jungle where the elephants, marked for capture, were located. A good supply of water within the enclosure was also necessary. Logs from big trees were used to construct the kraal. A-shaped kraals were the most common, the cross bar of the 'A' forming the opening (called the 'kan gula' or ear hole), closed by a strong gate made of large logs. The opening was generally closed by cutting the ropes that kept the gate suspended, soon after the elephants had passed through. A fence on either side of the gate, extending outwards for quite a distance like a funnel, helped to guide the elephants into the stockade.

Strong trees of eight to ten inches in diameter were buried four feet into the ground and sixteen inches apart, to form the fence. They stood from sixteen to twenty feet above the ground. 

Four rows of powerful beams were tied across these uprights to add strength to the fence, supporting logs being angled against the fence from the outside.

Hordes of people with guns, tom-toms, fire-crackers, sticks, etc., formed a ring around the wild elephants, leaving an exit route only in the direction in which they wanted the elephants to go. At a given signal all the people would start making a tremendous noise and a forward movement was maintained until the elephants were driven into the stockade. 

Latterly, since the kraals had become a 'social event', elephants were brought to a point near the entrance of the kraal and kept until the 'official' time to drive them in came. 

This was when everyone on the grandstand had arrived and was ready. The elephants were kept at bay by the ring of people who made noises by day and lit a ring of fires by night and kept vigil in case the elephants broke away and went back. A number of elephants would turn and run in directions other than that in which they were supposed to go. In many instances lives were lost as a result of the beaters being trampled by elephants.

Codriner, describing a kraal, says that three thousand men were employed for two months to form the chain that drove the elephants from thirty miles away. 

These men had with them four-foot high moveable stands. They were made of four perpendicular sticks with wattle and daub on the top, on which the fuel for the fire was placed.

These stands had a thatched roof of coconut leaves. This enabled the men to move the fires as they advanced.

Initially the men were placed about one hundred paces apart but as the line advanced the distance between the men lessened.

For the final push of the elephants into the stockade, the chain of men was supplemented by more men, some with muskets and others with fireworks and rockets. This was to ensure that the elephants, who were by then quite familiar with fire, did not attempt to break away.

M. Wintergerst, writing in 1712 says that the "men spread out around the region, and they slowly close in towards the KRAAL (krall) driving in not only the elephants but also other animals, especially deer, wild pigs and tigers (leopards), which, however, are trodden underfoot by the elephants as the space is lessened."

The elephants, once inside the stockade, run all over looking for an escape route and dash themselves against the stockade.

They keep on charging the sides of the stockade in their efforts to break free. On finding it impossible to break away, the whole herd huddles in a corner of the stockade. 

Once the elephants are driven into the stockade and the gate secured, tame elephants called monitors assist in capturing and tying up the elephants to the large trees which were within the stockade. Once all the elephants were secured, the taming process began.

Deraniyagala, in his book written in 1955, gives the following figures of some of the elephants captured in kraals during the Dutch occupation of the country. The Dutch had to obtain permission from the King of Kandy to capture elephants. The King gave the Dutch permission to capture only 20 animals each year but the records below show that much larger numbers were in fact captured.

1666 - 96 in one kraal. 
1681 - Three kraals with 13,104 and 270 captured in each.
1690 - 160 in one kraal. 
1697 - 97 in one kraal. 
1705 - over 160 elephants caught in a single kraal. 
1779 - 176 in one kraal and 400 in another 
1805 - 300 elephants 
1849 - 6 elephants 
1863 - 43 elephants in the Western Province 
1871 - 28 elephants

Kraals were held in British times in Veyangoda, Negombo and Labugama. Records maintained up to 1892 show that a number of Kraals have been held in Kottowa which is near the Port of Galle. 

The Uda Walawe area was also a popular kraal site. In 1801 at a kraal witnessed by Governor Frederick North, 170 elephants were caught.

Figures compiled by F.H. Modder (1898) show that 51 kraals were held from 1800 to 1896 in various parts of the country, mainly in the Kurunegala and Ratnapura districts.

Visiting royalty including some German Princes (1860), the Duke of Edinburgh (1870), the Prince of Wales (1875) and the Dukes of Clarence and York (1882) witnessed some of the kraals during that period.

Sir Emmerson Tennent records that though large numbers of elephants were caught in most kraals, only some were taken for use in the public service and the rest shot. 

This was to ensure that the crops cultivated were protected by reducing the elephant population. In later kraals, however, the British caught only the number of elephants they required for their work.

A kraal held in Panamure in the Ratnapura district in August 1944 under a stream of protests from all quarters, yielded only one elephant, a tusker, which died soon after capture. 

It was argued that taking away much needed (labour) from the current war-time food production drive would prove detrimental to this special effort.

Another reason was the cruelty that the driven elephants would be subjected to. As this kraal was a failure another kraal was held in October the same year. 

Eleven elephants were kraaled that time in heavy rain and no post capture training was possible till the rain abated much later.

The last kraal to be held in Sri Lanka was also at Panamure in 1950 where seventeen elephants, of which fifteen were females, were captured.

Unfortunately when the (patriarchal) leader of the herd was noosed and tethered, a healthy adult bull, which up to that time had mated with some of the females, became uncontrollable and had to be shot. 

Due to the trauma that the elephants experience before and after capture, the incidence of deaths in the kraals of earlier times was high. 

However, in earlier times, due to the large number of elephants inhabiting the country, this was not considered an important factor. 

In the latter kraals the number of deaths reduced greatly. Panamure was a popular kraal site, seventeen kraals having been held there in the eighty years ending 1950.

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