Zoo Tales traces the use of elephants by human beings

Chennai: The Zoo Tales series, featuring Arignar Anna Zoological Park, famously known as Vandalur Zoo, this week focuses on the history of elephants and humans on account of World Elephant Day being observed tomorrow.

Have you ever wondered when these wild animals became captive animals and for what purpose they were moved out from their natural habitat?

Zoo veterinarian  K Sridhar said the relationship between elephants and people is, and has been, an extraordinary one. His colleague Pa Kalaignan interjected that elephants should not be called domestic animals, but referred to as captive or tamed animals.

“They have an important place in history, religion and culture. Elephants play an important role in Hindu and Buddhist religions. Ganesha, the Hindu elephant God, is revered as the remover of obstacles,” he pointed out.

He added when it comes to talking about the national heritage animal’s history, its role in wars cannot be ignored.

It is said in olden days a king’s wealth was measured by the number of elephants he owned. According to Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya’s army had 21,000 elephants, added another veterinarian, Boon Allwin.


It is not clear when elephant warfare began. The Rig Veda refers to the use of elephants for transport – especially Indra and his divine white elephant, Airavatam – but makes no reference to animals in war.

However, Mahabharatam and the Ramayanam from around the 4th century BC mention elephant warfare, suggesting its introduction during the intervening period.


From India, the use of elephants in war spread to the Persian empire. The first confrontation between Europeans and the Persian war elephants took place in Alexander’s Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC). By the time Alexander reached the borders of India five years later, he had a substantial number of elephants under his command.

When it came to defeating Porus, who ruled in what is now Punjab, Pakistan, Alexander found himself facing a considerable force of between 85 and 100 war elephants at the Battle of the Hydaspes.

Though he ultimately defeated Porus’ forces, Alexander could see that the kings of the Nanda Empire and Gangaridai could deploy between 3,000 and 6,000 war elephants. Such a force was many times larger than the number of elephants employed by the Persians and Greeks, which probably discouraged Alexander’s army and effectively halted their advance into India. On his return, Alexander established a force of elephants to guard his palace at Babylon, and created the post of elephantarch to lead his elephant units.


An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h. At such speed the elephant will crash into an enemy line, trampling, and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed would at least be knocked aside. Moreover, elephants could induce terror in an enemy unused to fighting them.

In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants and they were trained to use them. Tusk swords were sometimes employed. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah.


War elephants had tactical weaknesses which the enemy forces often exploited. Elephants had a tendency to panic after sustaining painful wounds or when their mahout was killed. They would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side.


In the late 15th century, with the advancement of gunpowder warfare, the balance began to shift. While muskets had limited impact on elephants, cannon fire was a different matter entirely.


The bullhook (angkus) is traditionally used by the mahouts to keep the animal under control and to heed their command. It is often used on sensitive areas of the body such as behind the ears where the skin is paper thin, around the eyes  where the skin is also very thin, and on the feet, trunk and around the mouth which are highly enervated. These areas are all extremely sensitive to the touch.

Elephants are keen social learners and  learn things from watching or listening to others. Consequently, when an elephant is jabbed or poked with a bullhook this action has negative psychological consequences not only for the individual elephant receiving the prod, but also for those around it.


If you have watched the movie ‘Saraswathy Sabatham’ you would have seen the princess ordering Sivaji Ganesan to be executed using an elephant. Well, this actually used by kings. Execution by elephant was a common method of capital punishment. Elephants were used to crush, dismember or torture captives in public executions. The animals were trained and versatile, able to kill victims immediately or to torture them slowly over a prolonged period. Most commonly employed by royalty, the elephants were used to signify both the ruler’s absolute power and his ability to control wild animals.


Though it has become common these days to read about elephants breaching into agricultural fields, it is said back in those days these animals were actually used for dehusking of crops.


Elephants are also keystone species, playing an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they live, so it is important to preserve them.


Now that our elephant tale has come to an end, we will now shift our focus to a carnivores, specifically a cat, the biggest of them all – The Tiger. Watch this space on 18 August to know the role of a tiger in the ecosystem.


The largest Indian elephant was 3.43 metres (11.3 ft) high at the shoulder. Named Raja Gaj, the bull went missing from his habitat in southwestern Nepal in December 2007 and was never seen again. He was estimated to be 70 years old at the time of his disappearance.

* India was the first and last nation to use elephant in battle. Third battle of Panipat in 1761 is the last recorded battled  to use elephant warfare.
* South Indian elephants and those from Sri Lanka were the most prized in battles as they were the most fierce.
*  In India, the Chola dynasty and Western Chalukya Empire maintained a large number of war elephants in the 11th and 12th century.
* The chief architect of Thanjavur Periyakoil (1002 CE), Rajaraja  Perunthatchan, was given the title Kunjaramallan, meaning elephant wrangler. He was a master elephant trainer and used them in the massive construction project of Big Temple.