Thrill-seekers take jumbo-size risks

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Those who give snacks to National Park animals are encouraging a dangerous practice, writes Malaka Rodrigo

Along the Thanamalwila Road, bordering the Udawalawe National Park unfolds a unique relationship between Wild Elephants and People who feeds them. Teasing and Touching these jumbos can bring dangerous repercussions, warns the experts.

Local visitors and tourists are unwittingly encouraging a potentially lethal habit when they feed wild elephants.

A few years back, a single jumbo would be seen standing by the electric fence of the Udawalawe park, looking hopefully up and down the road for travellers who might stop by and give it food or toss out tidbits from their cars. After a while, the jumbo, a familiar sight at the fence, acquired a name, Rambo, and became a great wildlife attraction. Rambo made many human friends, and was later joined by another elephant, that was named Ramba. News was spreading along the jungle grapevine that treats were available at the fence.  These days, you will see not one or two elephants but up to 20 or more male jumbos on the inside of the fence, waiting for treats from their two-legged pals.

Some 10 years ago, when the Uda Walawe fence was put up, it was seen as a “model” ecological boundary cum barrier, neatly marking out wildlife from human space. By and large, the fence has been well maintained and manned over the years.South Asian cultures see the feeding of animals, wild or tame, as meritorious. According to folklore, the first handful from your plate of rice should be put on a leaf or a rock and left out for an animal to eat. The “balu/kaputu dhaane” – food offerings for dogs and crows – are a common feature with many Sri Lankan households.

The Thanamanwila road is an important route for tourists and pilgrims heading to the South East. Not everyone who stops to feed the elephants means well. Some tease the animals by showing food and then withdrawing the treat. Such behaviour is provocative and only invites attack.

The animal and human numbers are rising daily. Photos: Malaka Rodrigo

The Udawalawe fence is electrified only when night falls. Nocturnal prowlers that come in physical contact with the fence are in for a rude shock. Last year, the park management decided to switch on the fence during the day as well in order to avoid a disaster waiting to happen.

However, the fence requires regular maintenance and repair as jumbos break the fence more frequently now, which means the electricity has to be switched off. Villagers also trip the wires in the fence so then can send cattle into the national park to graze. As a result, the electric fence is often not functional during the day. Elephants are smart, and it is only matter of time before they will sense that the fence is “powerless” much of the time during the day.

During a recent visit to Uda Walawe, the Sunday Times observed 12 elephants standing at different spots alongside the fence, waiting for food. We stopped our vehicle where there were three elephants gathered. A boy came up to us to sell sugarcane to feed the elephants. On the other side of the road were wayside stalls selling “Elephant Treats” – bananas, melons, wood-apple and sugarcane. Selling jumbo treats to travellers has become an income earner for many residents in these parts. “It is okay to feed the elephants,” said the lad, when we pointed to the “No Feeding Elephants” signs put along the road.

A kid selling sure cane to visitors

Further up the road, a woman was throwing sugarcane at an elephant. She was the owner of a fruit stall and was trying to stall the elephant to help her to do business.

The woman admitted that feeding elephants was prohibited and that she and other vendors on the road had been warned by wildlife officers. “This is now our livelihood,” she said. Another elderly woman vendor at a shop next door sells only bananas as elephant snacks.

Driving further on, we discovered a string of wayside boutiques lining the road to Thanamalwila and beyond. These were selling produce, including fruit, vegetables, grain and pots of curd, to the steady stream of pilgrims going towards the sacred precints of Kataragama. We also discovered that the vendors dealing in elephant snacks were selling the pilgrim vendors’ rejects – bruised and discarded melons and overripe bananas.

A small road-side shop selling feeding items for elephants

“In the past few months the Uda Walawe fence has been frequently breached,” wildlife biologist Manori Gunawardena told us. She said she was driving along the road one morning, around 7 am, when she saw a wild elephant walking along the main road. “Hearing my car, the elephant ambled up to the fence, kicked over a post, and walked back into the national park”

From the number of posts that have had to be replaced in recent weeks, it is clear that some elephants have learned to break through the fence, and are making a habit of doing so.

The problem of elephants coming up to the fence has led to staff of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) actively chasing the animals away. In one area, the electric fence has had to be reinforced with a double fence put up a few hundred metres inside.

Udawalawe Park Warden D. M. Weerasinghe confirmed that elephants were regularly breaking down the fence, sometimes several days in a row. “They have developed a taste for sugarcane and other food, and now they are starting to infiltrate sugarcane farms and other cultivated land around the park. Recently an Udawalawe elephant was killed when it fell into a village well after a night-time raid,” he said, adding that there were wildlife officers on night duty as well looking for fence breakers.

Mr. Weerasinghe said there were plans to put up a second fence inside the park to stop elephants from reaching the outer fence, running along the main road. This second fence will be 16 kilometres long and 20 metres distant from the main fence.

The elephant expert Dr.Prithviraj Fenando has been studying these jumbos for many years now identifies 35 jumbos that got used to the habit. But he sees the issue from a different perspective calling it as a unique relationship between the village community and wild elephants. He pointed out that in all the conservation projects, lots of money is allocated to outreach the community in Human Elephant Conflict areas to give a positive frame of mind toward the elephants. In Udawalawe the community gets direct economic benefits from these wild elephants making it a unique example of co-existance.

Dr.Prithviraj also doesn’t think those elephants wait for food breaks the fence. “Why do they have to wait for night to break the fence..?” The food stall is out there on the other side of the road, so they can go for them even day time. He also points out that those fence breakers do not rob the food stalls at night and if those who break fence are jumbos waiting for food, their first target would be the fruit stalls infront of them. However, he said that it is possible that the other jumbos too may learn the techniques of fence breaking from those who master it, so proposes Wildlife Officers should do something to identify and get some action on the ‘Fence Breakers’.

Dominent jumbo steal food thrown at other elephant

However, the elephant expert also warns that teasing and touching the jumbos is asking for trouble. To avoid this, he proposes a simple ‘barbed wire’ 3 meters from the electric fence preventing people touching or teasing jumbos.

Driving back along the Thanamalwila road, we stopped where a group of foreign tourists had parked their Jeep. “Nowhere in the world do you get a chance to hand-feed a wild jumbo,” said one visitor who was holding out bananas to an elephant.

So these Udawalawe Elephants who comes for foods is a unique Socio-Economic and Environment phenomena that needs to be reviewed from open minds. However, if one goes too close – try to tease or touch these Wild Elephants, the results could result an awful accident sooner or later..!!

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2011 www.sundaytimes.lk/111218/News/nws_24.html

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One Response to “Thrill-seekers take jumbo-size risks”

  1. Bimal Says:

    Two weeks back we travelled the length of the Udawalawe-Thanamanwila road around 12 noon and counted 22 such elephants at various points along this electric fence. I am not sure if the electricity on this fence is turned on during day time as we saw a few dogs and cattle on the other side of the fence (inside the park) during this trip.

    Feeding these elephants is not a good practice not only because it is dangerous but also because these elephants become dependent on humans after some time.

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