Elephants continue to be killed in Sri Lanka to service the illegal ivory trade. A killing late last year prompted particular debate within the country. Stuart Cosgrove details the crime and its context, illuminating a sad irony: Sri Lanka’s elephants are killed to meet demand from the very nations the Sri Lankan government regards as key markets for its eco-tourism. 


On 29 November 2017 a dead body was discovered, bludgeoned to death, on the fringes of a lush Sri Lankan forest. The death was reported with all the page-turning tension of a crime thriller. Some villagers had found the corpse of a famous local personality. To complicate the plot, the victim – a 49-year-old male – was blind and thus unable to see or identify his attackers. In any case, he was dead. Cops rushed to the scene, quizzed the villagers, and quickly concluded that the motive was robbery.

Then the experts arrived, cordoning off the area, poring over the corpse, padding around in white-clothing, taking photographs, scanning the scene for clues, and scraping evidence from the murder scene to try to find anything: a loose hair, an infinitesimal piece of dust, a stray fabric, all to be rushed back to the labs for an autopsy. The doctor who led the post-mortem said that the victim was eventually identified by a growth on the back of his left leg and had probably died less than an hour after the attack. All that was left for the local cops was the less glamorous task of door-to-door enquires. They tramped from village to village, from grand manor to lowly farming huts, hoping for a clue, a whispered accusation, or even hard evidence of where the killers lived.

The victim was Galgamuwa Dala Puttuwa, one of Sri Lanka’s most famous tuskers, the giant elephants that play such a crucial role in the country’s history and culture. Solving the crime was neither easy nor routine. From the outset, the police came under intense political pressure to find the perpetrators: this was a crime that had so many meanings, one that stabbed at the heart of the nation.


The blind victim had died in horrific agony as its precious ivory tusks were hacked from its long, doleful trunk. Worse still, the crime had been committed in Kahalla-Pallekele, one of the country’s major elephant sanctuaries and supposedly a place of protection.

The blind victim had died in horrific agony as its precious ivory tusks were hacked from its long doleful trunk. Worse still, the crime had been committed in Kahalla-Pallekele, one of the country’s major elephant sanctuaries and supposedly a place of protection, and so several government departments became implicated in the case. The Department of Wildlife Conservation was the responsible authority but such is the importance of the endangered elephant herds to Sri Lanka’s economy, it became a matter for the Department of Tourism and for all the economic development ministers charged with overseeing Sri Lanka’s fragile economy as it emerges from a long civil war.

The killing was not an isolated brutality but one in a spate of elephant deaths. Not so much the work of a serial killer, or even the same rogue unit of killers, but rather a form of social dystopia that pits poverty against cultural tradition, greed against ecology, and old village habits against new global values. Neither is the brutality all one-way: at least 70 humans are killed each year by wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Outwith the national parks, fear of elephant attacks is widespread and government departments have resorted to issuing some remote villages with ‘elephant thunder’, an explosive designed to scare away intruders.


The contradictions are endless. The ivory trade is run by criminal syndicates to feed the demand for high-value ivory products in Asia, Europe and the USA, the very countries that Sri Lanka targets for tourism.

At the heart of the killing of Galgamuwa was a national dilemma. Sri Lanka aspires to be a leader in preservation, wildlife and eco-tourism, and has ring-fenced a network of protected national parks not only to support endangered species, rare fauna and flora, but also to cultivate world interest in the astonishing bird-life of the island. The murder of this elephant was a huge setback in a national campaign to market the country globally as a tourist destination: even one brutal killing carries a stigma that can ruin a nation’s reputation and chase high-value visitors away.

In 2017, there were 91 elephant deaths in Sri Lanka, and three of them came within the same week as the blind victim. Two trends had emerged: one was elephants dying as a consequence of electrical fences erected by villagers to protect their crops; the other was premeditated acts of murder aimed at robbing elephant of their tusks and selling them on the illegal ivory market. The contradictions are endless. The ivory trade is run by criminal syndicates to feed the demand for high-value ivory products in Asia, Europe and the USA, the very countries that Sri Lanka targets for tourism.

Far from being a haven of good practice, Britain is one of the leading exporters of ivory products – 36,000 items were exported from the UK between 2010 and 2015, more than three times that of the next biggest exporter, the USA. New legislation is aimed at tightening the current laws but it’s an area of art and antiquities where loopholes already exist, and where trade between museums and art exporters can be cleverly exploited.


Sri Lanka is heavily reliant upon farming. But rural poverty can create challenges for the country’s conservation efforts. Image: Shehal Joseph [CC BY 2.0]

The wave of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka has been complicated by a lengthy civil war, where jungle foliage and natural habitats have been torched in the pursuit of military advantage. Now that a semblance of peace has been established, the challenging job of educating a poor rural population about the value of elephants has begun in earnest. That will not be an easy endeavour. The killer electric fences – often illegally erected to protect a villager’s livelihood – are spread widely across remote communities.

A painful truth is that selling tusks torn from the carcasses of dead or dying elephants – despite being painful and cruel in the extreme – can transform the lives of poor families. Until the money derived from tourism filters down to the most deprived communities in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to see how the message of preservation can win out. Preservation sometimes seems like a luxury that the most impoverished cannot afford.


Until the money derived from tourism filters down to the most deprived communities in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to see how the message of preservation can win out. Preservation sometimes seems like a luxury that the most impoverished cannot afford.

Below the surface of these debates lies another uniquely Sri Lankan factor. Animals are important to the complex symbolism of the Island where they carry profound and often disputed meanings. The national flag of Sri Lanka is adorned with the famous lion of Sinhala. The majority Sinhalese population – which numbers over 15 million – are named after the Sanskrit term for ‘lions.’ The country’s most famous export after tea, the national cricket team, are nicknamed The Lions and they play with a ceremonial sword and lion on their chests. The insurrectionist Tamil rebels who fought a bloody war for an independent state chose the imagery of the tiger and became known globally as The Tamil Tigers. The war of lion and tiger has defined modern Sri Lankan history, sometimes in brutal and unforgiving ways.

Curiously, in a land where symbolism matters, only the elephant has the power to unite. Even in the divisive terrain of religion, the elephant speaks to many communities. It is central to Hinduism, enshrined in the figurehead of the god Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity who is lord of intellect and the overseer of arts and culture.


The Kandy Esala Perahera – The Festival of the Tooth – is celebrated with elegant costumes in July and August in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Image: Ashan96 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

And at the core of Sri Lanka’s dominant religion, Buddhism, elephants have historically taken central stage at the Kandy Esala Perahera – the Festival of the Tooth – a colourful parade in which enrobed elephants mingle with fire-eaters, the peacock dancers, and the Kandyan drummers. Tourists flock to the festival – for the town of Kandy, it is the event that dominates the calendar year.

Recently the Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirasena, tasked a new committee with resolving the seemingly impossible task of protecting the elephant and enriching the Perahera. A bit like the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland, this is a challenge that is steeped in history and an underlying sectarianism. It will be almost impossible to secure a total ban on using elephants in parades; nor do the cash-rich tourists who flock to the Perahera want a spectacle without the much-loved central character.

Like all good crime thrillers, there was an eventual breakthrough in this dark murder case. Two suspects were taken into custody whilst trying to sell a pair of tusks to an interested buyer. The transaction was, in part, staged by the country’s Anti-Corruption Police Unit. And like all great morality tales, there was a final sting: the chief suspect turned out to be a local government official whilst the other was a driver for the local Buddhist temple – church and state entwined. The case continues.


Stuart Cosgrove is a writer and broadcaster. His wife is Sri Lankan. Stuart is the author of Detroit 67 and Memphis 68, the first two parts of a soul trilogy that he will complete later this year when the final instalment – Harlem 69 – is published. The second book of the trilogy – Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul – recently won the 2018 Penderyn Music Book Prize. Stuart presents Off the Ball on BBC Radio Scotland.


Feature image: Sri Lankan elephants. Image: World Wildlife Fund.