We arrived at the Sudu Aralyia Hotel in New Town, Polonnaruwa although the tour notes described it as Giritale.
I swam in the hotel’s infinity pool which overlooks the national park. As I swam and bobbed my head for air, I could see in the distance a lone elephant on the far side of the man-made lake or tank. Many hotel guests assembled on the edge of the property gazing over at the elephant as well. I got dressed and joined them for a better look.
The lone bull elephant is tuskless, but slowly and inexorably he grazes towards the hotel. The onlookers on the boundary of the hotel and Angammedilla National Park are suddenly disturbed. The elephant is close. Local boys from our hotel protected by a man high wire-netting fence start shouting. Similarly, from the neighbouring hotel which opens directly onto the wilderness, boys start shouting and the guests who had been watching start running back inside their hotel. A peaceful viewing turns to worry and fear. The lone elephant suddenly seems so unloved. He appears to adopt a sad mien. His ears flap less. Does his head lower?
I lose interest and join a group in the bar for idle gossip. It is dark now.
They have shot him is my first reaction. I recoil in horror. But it is only a blank, intended to frighten him.
I call for another drink.
‘There he is,’ says someone. In the darkness, I can make out a lumbering shape moving parallel to our our compound fence. Now, the rangers fire rockets at the elephant. They leave a spiralling trail of orange sparks in the blackness. It seems so unfair, such an uneven contest – a single tuskless elephant against five or six ‘rangers’ using flares and rockets.
It gets me to thinking of the parallel with our society.
In Sri Lanka no other animal has been associated for so long with the people in their traditional and religious activities as the elephant. They have become intermingled. Perhaps the ‘elephants’ are Sri Lankan people and all the ‘rangers’ are those who are who happy to profit from the people.
Those ‘rangers’ show their true colours when the demands of the ‘elephant’ become too great. They do not want to contribute to the society but only to profit from it. Could they be the British or Dutch or Portuguese or latterly the Chinese who, when they arrived in Sri Lanka, saw not a country to cherish but a land to plunder.
Before the Europeans arrived, during the time of the Sinhala kings, the elephant was afforded complete protection by royal decree. The penalty for killing an elephant was death.
When the early Portuguese captured the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka they quickly got involved in the elephant export trade. At first, they obtained their elephants as tribute from the Sinhala people through their leaders. Thereafter they captured animals on their own. The Portuguese set up a revenue-gathering unit, known as the Elephant Hunt. They made big money.
When the British captured the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch in 1796, and later the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, they continued the capture of elephants. The British, however, indulged in the shooting of elephants as a form of sport. Elephant populations that had been able to withstand the detrimental effects of capture for years now started diminishing rapidly with the wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the elephant herds.
Embedded in a wall covered with memorial tablets in St. Marks Anglican Church at Badulla is a dedication to Major Thomas William Rogers. Born 1804, he was reputed to have shot from close range 1400 elephants during an 11 year period to 1845. He was killed by a lightening bolt attracted by his military spurs. After his death in 1845, in a piece of early scientific deduction, they noticed one spur heel was discoloured!
Given the record of the Rogers, it is difficult to believe that there was ever a swifter pair of hands that held a rifle. His hunting exploits made such a deep impression on the Sinhalese villagers, it was said no elephant could ever get too close to him. The ‘elephant’ was unquestioning of the ‘rangers’.
Others killed the elephant too. Captain Galleway and Major Skinner are reputed to have shot half that number each. Many other sportsmen shot the elephants during that time.
Turned by the British away from their reverence of the elephant, local farmers, who had hitherto protected their crops from marauding elephants by other means, now had a much easier method. They shot the elephant too.
Not only did the British government encourage and condone killings as a sport but it also paid a bounty for each elephant killed, deeming the elephant an agricultural pest.
Will that be the fate of Sri Lanka? Will the country be subjected to pillage on grand scale? Will plundered trees be felled at an un-replaceable rate and mines of sapphires exhausted? Will its people, desperate for the values of the city and the foreigner like their forebears also start to kill the ‘elephant’ by deserting the fields which have sustained them for millennia. Will they be struck down by the ‘lightening’ of a global economic crash?
I snap out of my reverie and go for dinner.