Pearls in elephants? | Sunday Observer

Pearls in elephants?

7 January, 2018

Centuries ago, at a time lost in history, tuskers were the kings of the jungle. They roamed majestically, in the dense forests that were their own. Today, tuskers are hunted for ivory and for their pearls, which are sold at high prices by illicit traders.

Along with the seizure of the tusks belonging to Galgamuwa Dala Poottuva, the Walana anti-Corruption Unit also seized six elephant pearls ( Gaja Muthu). This gave rise to a hue and cry on how tuskers in the country are being poached for ivory and for elephant pearls.

Since then, the Dala Poottuwa effect has taken place, with activists, environmentalists and other interested parties raising concerns related to the human- elephant conflict, poaching, legal instruments addressing these issues and so on.

In an interesting turn of events, at a recent press conference, the very existence of elephant pearls were questioned.

Dr. Nandana Atapattu

President, Lanka Nature Conservationists’, Samantha Gunasekara said that elephant pearls is a myth and they are not formed naturally within elephant tusks. “ These are manmade, produced from either ivory or the bones of the bulls. Some of the skilled lapidarists in the country, are also involved in the trade of shaping ivory or other types of bones into elephant pearls,” he said.

However, Sri Lanka representative of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group and Former Deputy Director, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Dr. Nandana Atapattu refuted the claim that elephant pearls are a myth. “Elephant pearls are formed naturally within the tusks of elephants. However, their formation is very rare and not all tuskers contain elephant pearls in their tusks. The process of formation of an elephant pearl only begins once the tusker is around 60 years in age,” he said.

What is an elephant pearl?

Dr. Atapattu explains that within the top one third of the elephant tusk, there is a cavity filled with nerves, blood vessels and tissue, which appear to be a fleshy substance, similar to a gel. This gel remains in a conical shaped area, at the base of the tusk, which is covered with dentine. According to Dr. Atapattu, this gel diminishes with age and when the elephant is around 60 years, the cavity becomes hollow.

“Sometimes, a small piece from the wall of the cavity can chip off into the cavity. Since, the elephant has a habit of shaking its head vigourously on both sides, this chipped off dentine rotates within the cavity and becomes polished. This is what we refer to as an elephant pearl,” Dr. Atapattu said. He added that there can be up to three or more chipped off pieces of dentine within the cavity of a tusker aged above 60.

Dr. Atapattu explained, there is one other instance an elephant pearl can be formed within a tusk. “While experimenting on the captured tusks, I have noticed a knob within the top most part of the cone shaped cavity. This is a tiny piece of dentine, shaped like a ball, attached to the wall of the cavity by the gel, when the elephant is young,” he said.

When the gel dries out with age, the piece of dentine loses its support and it becomes detached from the wall of the hollow cone, falls into the cavity and forms into an elephant pearl.

Dr. Atapattu said, tuskers carrying elephant pearls let out the sound of them rolling withing the cavity. “This is like music, but out in the jungle, this is the call of death that attracts poachers,” he said.

Size of a natural elephant pearl

Dr. Atapattu adds that an elephant pearl is not bigger than the size of a rice seed or a bean. “ A natural elephant pearl certainly cannot be bigger than the small toe nail of a human. In the recent past, media carried images of elephant pearls the size of potatoes or eggs, seized alongside the tusks of Dala Poottuwa. These are bogus, created artificially from tusks or from some other bone,” he said.

Dr. Atapattu further said, a cross section of an elephant pearl, either manmade or natural, will have diamond shaped spaces created by lines cutting each other, as long as they are made of ivory. These diamond shaped spaces are a common characteristic found in ivory. Speaking on his earlier statement on natural elephant pearls being a myth, Gunasekara said, he has not encountered anyone who has found elephant pearls by opening a tusk. “For the cavity to form within a tusk, the tusk has to be old. In Sri Lanka, very few tuskers grow to this age,” he said. He added that polished elephant pearls with a shiny surface do not exist.

Avarice for elephant pearls

The excessive demand for elephant pearls roots back to the many myths surrounding it. In different regions of the world, it is believed to be a talisman, carrying magical and divine healing powers. It is believed to be able to cure cancer and other chronic ailments, bring wealth and prosperity.


 In her book named ‘ Pearls’, Elisabeth Strack has noted that elephant pearls are mentioned in early Arab writings and in Sanskrit texts. According to her, Sanskrit texts speak of elephant pearls with devotion and Indian temples are said to hold them.

However, Dr Atapattu said, there has been no mention of Sinhalese queens wearing elephant pearls as jewellery and he has not come across the term in early texts written in the country, prior to colonial times.

President, Species Conservation Center, Pubudu Weerarathna said, the recent increase in demand for illicit elephant pearls can be blamed on astrologers, who tend to spread myths attached to ivory and elephant pearls. “They say the possession of ivory and elephant pearls bring prosperity, which is not true,” Weerarathna said.

As part of elephant tusks, the possession of elephant pearls is illegal in Sri Lanka. According to Environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law, Jagath Gunawardana,in terms of the provisions in section 22A of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, it is an offence to keep tusks of elephants or parts of tusks illegally. This is also considered an offence under the Public Property Act.

All in all, there appears to be rampant trade in phony elephant pearls in the country, feeding on the superstitions of society. At the same time, a certain segment, ignorant that the formation of an elephant pearl is a rare feat, hunt these innocent animals with the hope of harvesting pearls from their tusks.