An official from the wildlife conservation department said on Thursday that elephants who rampage through villages, destroying crops and sometimes killing people, are to be caught and tamed so they can be put to work.

Wildlife conservation chief Dayananda Kariyawasam said his department had identified 20 to 30 of the worst elephant offenders for the programme, designed to keep angry villagers from killing them.

Wild elephants are increasingly entering villages in search of food as deforestation destroys their natural habitats.

According to government figures, at least 84 people in Sri Lanka have been killed since early 2005, with 156 pachyderms suffering the same fate at the hands of villagers by shooting or electrocution.

Good use

Elephants put into the programme will not get any free rides. In fact, they'll be giving them.

"We will be using them for (wildlife) protection work," said Kariyawasam. "Officials can ride on them, where vehicles can't go, to prevent poaching."

The animals will also be used to promote the island's tourism industry, giving rides in elephant safaris, Kariyawasam said.

"Sometimes, we have to adjust the dates of processions in order to bring more elephants together"

Sunil Rambukpotha,
Millennium Elephant Foundation

Capturing wild elephants was officially banned in 1937, though the government has allowed some to be captured for domestication.

Most of those have been given to temples, to be paraded in traditional Buddhist processions.

More are needed, and many Buddhists hope the government decision will help alleviate the shortage.

Fresh blood

Starting the programme is "a timely decision," according to Sunil Rambukpotha of the Millennium Elephant Foundation, an elephant welfare project.

Rambukpotha said there are only 153 tame elephants in Sri Lanka, 63 of which are over 60 years old.

"As a result, we face immense hardships in carrying our religious processions, which is part of our culture," he said.

"Sometimes, we have to adjust the dates of processions in order to bring more elephants together."

For centuries, aristocratic families in Sri Lanka have kept elephants as status symbols with the consent of kings and later the British Empire, which ruled the country for more than 100 years until 1948.

It costs at least $15 per day to care for an elephant in Sri Lanka, and adults cost as much as $30,000.