Archive for the ‘Elephants’ Category

Tusks sawn off carcass of Mahakanadarawa Tusker

November 24, 2012

The famous blind elephant known as the “Mahakanadarawa Tusker” is dead. Its badly decomposed carcass minus the tusks was discovered last week on the banks of a reservoir in Medawachchiya. The tusks had been sawn off. It is not clear whether the animal died from natural causes or whether it was killed. Police are investigating.

Veterinary surgeon Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe, who conducted the post-mortem, told the Sunday Times that the animal would have been dead for about 10 days and that it was hard to determine the cause of death due to animal’s advanced state of decomposition.

Once he was a majestic tusker (above); now (below) all that remains of him is a badly decomposed carcass minus the tusks. Pix by Athula Devapriya

The majestic tusker is believed to have been about 45 years old. Its tusks were about three feet in length. The animal used to roam in the vicinity of eadawachchiya, Kebitigollewa, and Hundugala, and villagers said he was not a “trouble-maker.”

The tusker had come in search of water during a period of drought and had remained in the vicinity of the Mahakandarawa tank. Villagers referred to the animal as the Mahakanadawara Tusker. The animal was blind in one eye and had vision problems in the other eye, according to Dr. Jayasinghe.

About three months ago the tusker was badly wounded in a fierce battle with a bull elephant that was dominating the Mahakanadarawa area. The tusker was in a weak state for some time, but recovered and returned to its home ground in Medawachchiya once the rainy season set in.

This is not a good time for tuskers. State veterinary surgeons are treating two other wounded tuskers, one a young tusker of about 15 years that was found in Kalawewa with gunshot wounds on its leg. Dr. Jayasinghe believes the elephant was a victim of a trap gun.

Last month another tusker died in Kochchikattuwa, Puttalam. Dr. Jayasinghe said the animal had difficulty walking because of a fractured hip joint. The injury could have been the result of a battle with another elephant or a roadside accident. The well built young elephant was about eight feet tall, said wildlife sources.

Dr. Chandana Jayaratne, who is the chief government veterinary surgeon in the area, believes that at least three tuskers have been killed so far this year. Many of the deaths were the result of human-elephant conflict.

Wildlife experts fear ivory hunters may be operating again.�Not all male Asian elephants develop tusks. An elephant census conducted last year showed that Sri Lanka accounted for only 7 to 8 per cent of the total male Asian elephant population. Some parts of Asia have much higher concentrations of tuskers.

Scientists say the distribution of tuskers depends on the elephant gene pool of each region. In Sri Lanka, tuskers are highly valued as cultural and religious icons. Elephant activists say elephant sanctuaries should be well protected and the elephants allowed to roam freely in order to maintain a healthy population of tuskers.

Many of the areas where tuskers once abounded are shrinking with deforestation and development programmes. The elephant habitat in Kalawewa, which once had a flourishing elephant population, is shrinking as illegal human encroachment continues. The Kalawewa elephant herd has produced many majestic tuskers.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation is offering a reward for any information that could lead to the recovery of the Mahakanadarawa elephant’s missing tusks. In May this year, Sri Lanka Customs seized 359 African elephant tusks that were being smuggled through Sri Lanka.

Day of the Jackal

October 7, 2012

28th.september was the World Rabies Day. News reported that the elephants of Pinnawala Orphanage has been vaccinated against Rabies as it can transmit to elephants too. Hereby I’m re-posting my article done on 2007 covering news about a rabid Jackal and an elephant died of Rabies..!! (published on SundayTimes on 23.09.2007

Day of the Jackal

55,000 deaths occur worldwide annually – a death every 10 minutes

By Malaka Rodrigo

The village of ‘Ali Oluwa’ has been in the news since the Mavil Aru battle last year. Villagers frequently experience the terrors of war in this border village in Seruwila in the Eastern Province. On several occasions, artillery fire has forced them to evacuate to safer ground. This time though they face a new threat- a lone jackal lurking around the village.

File pic of jackal at Yala by Fonny Fonseka

A farmer was attacked on September 15 as he bent down to wash his mammoty in the canal near the village. He reports that the snarling animal attacked him from behind but he managed to chase it away with his mammoty, avoiding serious injury. Washing the wound, he went to the doctor, only then getting to know of this new threat to his village. Three other villagers had been attacked by the same jackal.

The animal looks like a rabid domesticated dog, but the bushy tail and the body colour confirms it as a jackal. It has since been sighted in different places, striking fear in local families. It is believed that the animal is infected with rabies and the delay in capturing it increases the possibility of a series of rabies cases. Jackal bites to other animals, especially domesticated animals, carry that danger.

This jackal was seen roaming in broad daylight. “We realized that the animal was off-colour, but we could not do much. We are not supposed to kill the animal, as it is illegal,” commented a villager. In Sri Lanka, the jackal is protected under the Flora and Fauna Act. Scientifically known as Canis aureu, it lives in both the wet and dry zones, preferring the edges of the jungle.

Being the only wild canine in Sri Lanka, the jackal is also a carrier of rabies. “During the dry season, jackals sometime raid villages in search of food. Poultry, young goats, small cattle are their main targets. This often results in conflict with the villagers and their dogs and helps the virus cross over from domesticated dogs to jackals and back,” commented the Regional Veterinary Surgeon for Seruwila, Dr. G. G. N. P. Seneviratne.

“Attacks by jackals have been reported from different parts of the island. There were cases of jackal attacks in places like Wathupitiwala, Galigamuwa (Kegalle), Bulathsinhala and even in Kaluaggala. Often the dogs confront their wild relatives and get themselves infected,” said Dr. P. A. L. Harischandra, Director of the Public Health Veterinary Services Unit.

Wild animals like jackals, mongoose, and bats sometimes can be live carriers, where they do not get infected, but can transfer the virus to a dog or a human through their saliva. So in case of an attack, it is always necessary to get treated for rabies, even though the animal has not showed signs of rabies, he advises.

Bats can possibly be another carrier of rabies. These flying mammals are threatening European and American countries that have successfully eradicated rabies from domesticated animals. Bats have sharp teeth and a simple bite may transfer the disease.

Dr. Vipula Yapa, who is conducting bat studies in Sri Lanka says he never allows untrained students to handle bats when they get caught in mist nests while doing research. Some of these flying mammals like Horseshoe bats are very aggressive and researchers are often bitten. Revealing an interesting fact, Dr. Vipula Yapa said that he and other researchers in his team are always vaccinated against rabies.

The virus causing rabies affects the brain and the first indications of developing rabies is usually a change in personality or behaviour. Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is fatal to both animals and humans.

There are two general types of rabies known as Dumb Rabies and Furious Rabies. A dog with dumb rabies usually has a dropped jaw with tongue hanging out and saliva dripping from its lips. This is caused by paralysis of the throat muscles. This animal can bite but is usually not vicious.

Furious rabies is an entirely different story. The symptoms include change in personality and may result in a change in the sound of the bark due to partial paralysis of the vocal cords.

The animal tries to hide in dark corners, closets or under beds and becomes highly excitable and restless. It starts to roam and may wander for miles, snapping and biting at anything that gets in its way. Usually in four to eight days paralysis develops and the animal dies.

Gentle giant not spared too
Even an elephant can be infected by rabies. Recently an 84-year-old female elephant owned by a temple was diagnosed with rabies. The elephant was brought for treatment with a complaint of tiredness and lethargy.

Veterinary surgeon Dr. D.S. Kodikara had been treating the elephant for many years but although known to the animal, the elephant kicked him without obeying orders as usual. Realizing that something was drastically wrong, Dr. Kodikara instructed the mahout to chain the elephant. By the next day the elephant was unsteady on its legs. This continued and a few days later, she became aggressive and restless. Dr. Kodikara suspected that the elephant may be infected with rabies. On the ninth day, she died.

An autopsy was conducted and brain smears were sent to the MRI in Colombo. After a thorough test, Dr. Omala Wimalaratne, the Head of the Rabies Diagnosis Unit of the MRI- confirmed rabies in the elephant. Tissue samples sent to the USA for further investigations confirmed this. The virus found in the elephant was the canine strain, indicating that the elephant had got rabies through a dog bite.

Three months later, another male elephant that was part of the same elephant squad showed the same symptoms. Dr. Kodikara was called in and the initial testing proved the second case of rabies in an elephant. It was the first live elephant that was treated for rabies. But it was too late and the second elephant was also died after a few days.

Dr. Omala Wimalaratne presented the case at a high profile WHO seminar. Now the WHO has issued a directive to vaccinate all elephants in captivity against rabies.


The main culprits: Domesticated, stray dogs
Though occasionally wild animals are the culprits, like in the case of Ali Oluwa, it is mostly the domesticated and stray dogs that spread Rabies. The culprits are dogs in 97% of these cases, cats 2% and 1% by other animals. Responsible pet ownership and controlling the stray dog population are the main preventive initiatives.

The government spends over Rs. 260 million to treat humans for rabies. Not all the dogs that bite people may have rabies, so those bitten may not need to follow the complete course of medicine. This will help to save the money spent on drugs unnecessarily.

The Head of the Department of Rabies Diagnosis Research-Medical Research Institute (MRI) Dr. Omala Wimalaratne urges the public to cooperate in this effort. By examining the brains of the dead animals, MRI issues a diagnosis within 24 hours. People can bring the heads of the deceased animals to MRI’s regional labs located in Kandy and Karapitiya or MRI’s main laboratory located in Danister de Silva Mw, Borella (opposite Lady Ridgeway Hospital).

Statistics show that 55,000 deaths due to rabies occur worldwide annually- a death every 10 minutes. It is estimated that there are over 2.5 million dogs in Sri Lanka (of which a large proportion is not vaccinated)and that over 2000 dog bites occur daily. During the first 7 months of this year 26 human deaths were recorded due to rabies according to Health Department statistics. During the last 8 months, 388 animals have tested positive for the deadly disease.

Realizing that ‘prevention is the best way to fight against Rabies’, the World Health Organization, co-sponsored the first World Rabies Day on September 8 which was held in Sri Lanka as well.

Visitors with bad habits spoil Yala image

June 11, 2012

Local tourists are not helping Yala to sustain its reputation as a desirable safari destination, writes Malaka Rodrigo

Patanangala beach is a popular picnic spot for visitors to the Yala Wildlife National Park. It is also one of a few designated places in the park where visitors are permitted to get out of their vehicles. The beach is especially crowded during long weekends, festive seasons, and school vacation time.

These pictures capture the charge of the lone elephant

Most picnicking visitors take their garbage back with them for disposal outside the park, but many leave behind half-eaten rice packets and other leftovers. A wild elephant is in the habit of coming to the beach to forage for leftovers. Recently this elephant charged at a group of visitors.

On Monday, April 23, tour operator Lars Sorensen was photographing the elephant when a stream of vehicles arrived at the beach. It was about 11 am. Mr. Sorensen noticed that the animal was showing signs of restlessness. Suddenly, it charged in the direction of the spot where the Patanangala beach bungalow, which was flattened by the 2004 tsunami, once stood. There was a group of 10 tourists present. A young tracker from the Wildlife Department shouted at the charging animal and chased it away.

“I was behind a tree, about 25 metres from the elephant, taking photos,” Mr. Sorensen said. “I had to dash for cover.”

One of the photographs taken by Mr. Sorensen shows the elephant on its knees at the ruins of the wildlife bungalow. There is a depression in the ground where there was once a water tank. Visitors throw leftovers into the pit. Another photograph shows the elephant holding a polythene bag in its trunk. The Patanangala elephant is believed to be a relocated animal, and shows no fear of humans.
“Up-market nature tourists do not come all the way from Europe to see elephants eating out of plastic containers and polythene bags,” said Mr. Sorensen.

In fact, foreign tourists express growing dissatisfaction with the Yala experience, and compare the park unfavourably with other safari destinations.

Last year, a toque monkey attracted to food leftovers bit a French tourist. The incident occurred on the bank of a river, another designated spot where visitors are allowed to get off their vehicles. According to Yala jeep-driver Mr. Chandrasiri, the tusker that used to visit the Sithulpawwa Temple for food has been seen in the Patanangala beach area.

Negligent and insensitive visitors are putting Yala’s reputation and the wildlife there at risk. Visitors continue to race cars and jeeps and leave behind litter. Dirty toilets and a lack of decent toilet facilities are another frequent complaint.

Last week the BBC highlighted Yala’s deficiencies. Bad publicity will only put people off visiting Yala.
Wildlife officers are appealing to visitors to dispose of their garbage outside the national park.

Published on SundayTimes on 06.05.2012

Thrill-seekers take jumbo-size risks

January 1, 2012

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

Pilgrims play dangerous game in tempting Sithulpawwa Tusker

December 2, 2011

Pilgrims offer food for Tusker (c) Aruna Seneviratne

Not a week passes without a report of the animal community being threatened in one way or another by humans who should know better. Last week, the Sunday Times reported on the problem of over-exposure of wildlife sanctuaries to tourists, local and foreign. The increasingly intrusive presence of humans in designated wildlife reserves is a cause for serious concern among wildlife lovers and protectors.

The ancient Sithulpawwa Rock Temple found within the Yala National Park is a popular site with Buddhist pilgrims. The area is also home to a majestic tusker. Admiring a tusker from a safe distance is one thing; offering the animal food is another, and a dangerous one.

The Sithupawwa tusker has become accustomed to taking food from visitors, and even comes within touching distance to accept hand-held food. Wildlife experts say the visitors are taking a huge risk because animals behaviour in the wild is not predictable.

Wildlife photographer Aruna Seneviratne, who has taken photographs of the tusker, told the Sunday Times that the monks at the temple have been compelled to use a loud-speaker to warn people not to feed the wild elephant. However, pilgrims continue to stand near the railing surrounding the temple and throw food for the tusker.

It was an ancient religious practice to offer food to wild animals, in the belief that doing so conferred merit on the giver. Rukshan Jayawardena is a conservationist and a wildlife photographer. According to Mr. Jayawardene, elephants come to humans if they are encouraged, and not because they cannot find food on their own in the jungle. He says animals can make a habit of coming in search of food wherever humans are gathered. It has been reported that this same tusker and other wild jumbos out foraging call at bungalows within the game park.

Less than a week ago, another young tusker, nicknamed Gemunu, tried to enter a wildlife bungalow in Buttuwa, Yala. The animal has been regularly treated to snacks by safari teams, and has developed a taste for cooked food.

Wild tusker dangerously closer to pilgrims (c) Aruna Seneviratne

Some time back, the same young tusker invaded the kitchen of a Yala hotel, and got out only after a great deal of thrashing about that caused much damage to the property. The hotel has had to enforce a “strictly no feeding” policy among its guests. Sadly, while coming closer to humans through human encouragement, these wild jumbos could be digging their own grave. Several jumbos that became over-familiar with humans and were eventually tagged as “dangerous pests,” have had to be eliminated.

Elephant conservationist Lal Anthonis recalled how a wild elephant broke into his bungalow in Mahaseelawe at about two in the morning. The animal had picked up a food cabinet placed on the veranda and flung it into the garden and proceeded to smash it open.

After talking to the former chief incumbent of the Sithulpawwa Temple, Mr. Anthonis was convinced that this was another elephant that had acquired a taste for food available through human agents, and that it had probably learnt the “bad habit” at the Sithulpawwa Temple.

Not long after, the animal was shot dead when it entered an Army Camp near the reserve and tried to smash its way into a bunker. It is also rumoured that leopards too are being tempted with food at camp sites. Visitors throw food in the hope that they will get a better view of the predators.

‘Female’ tusker report to be verified before news can be trumpeted

December 2, 2011
By Malaka Rodrigo
The “hot” news in the wildlife circuit last week was that a female tusker had been spotted in the Yala National Park. Only male Asian elephants have tusks, and only a small percentage of male Asian elephants have tusks. So the reported sighting of a “female elephant with tusks” has naturally caused a stir, sparking debate among wildlife experts and even prompting search parties to go in pursuit of the unlikely creature. The idea of a young “female tusker” becomes especially intriguing among those who want to believe it exists.

Dr. Vijitha Perera, Wildlife Veterinarian Surgeon for the Southern Region, told the Sunday Times that field officers at Yala claimed to have seen what they assumed to be a “female” tusker, which showed no visible sign of male genitalia when it was passing urine.

According to Dr. Perera, it can be difficult to tell the sex of a young elephant that has not fully sexually matured. The tusker in question is believed to be about six years. In fact, this very difficulty makes it a challenge to determine the male:female ratio of the elephant population in a wildlife census.

Elephant tusks are elongated, continuously growing front teeth. Some male elephants and female elephants can have what are known as “tushes”, which is a small short tusk with no pulp inside. Tusks remain short, and are easily identified. Both sexes of the African elephants can have tusks, while only a minority of male of Asian elephants bears tusks.

Wildlife Department Director H. D. Ratnayake told the Sunday Times that a team headed by veteran elephant researcher, Professor Charles Santhiapillai, is to visit the game reserve to have a look at the elephant in question.

published on 27.11.2011 on SundayTimes

Golf course threat to prime natural habitat in Udawalawe

September 7, 2011
Villagers and conservationists vehemently reject so-called ‘eco-friendly’ recreation project in Bogahapattiya – Malaka Rodrigo reports
This happens to be the International Year of Forests, but little is being done to protect our own forests and natural habitats. Rampant, irresponsible deforestation continues around the country. The latest threat to habitat is reported from the Udawalawe area. Over 600 acres of land in Bogahapattiya have been earmarked for a proposed golf course.A private company, according to villagers living in the area, has bought 628 acres of land to construct a golf course in Bogahapattiya. This is prime forest territory, with savannah grasslands inhabited by elephant, bear, sambhur and other animals.

Precious tropical deciduous forest land in Bogahapattiya is threatened by developers.
Age-old trees have already been marked for felling in the Bogahapattiya natural forest.

Should the golf course project go through, Sri Lanka will lose considerable area of an extremely bio-diverse forest. These tropical deciduous forests, as they are called, are the most threatened forest type on earth, according to conservationists. These forests are under greater threat than rainforests: they are being lost at a faster rate and cover land areas that are very favourable to human activity.

But there is more to the threat than losing valuable forest cover. Loss of vegetation caused by deforestation leads to soil erosion and run-off. The silted water ends up in the Weli Oya reservoir, which irrigates more than 3,000 acres of paddy land and feeds 27 small tanks.

The villagers in the area are wholly on the side of the conservationists. They say the Bogahapattiya forest is of great importance to them. Apart from serving many environmental needs, the forest also feeds two streams that enter the Weli Oya, which in turn feeds into the Walawe.

The entire area is a hugely important watershed for populations downstream. The land selected for the golf course comes right up to where the two streams, including the Demata Ara, join up with the Weli Oya at a small dam. Construction work on the intended golf course will disrupt the Weli Oya irrigation system.

Speaking on behalf of the villagers of Bogahapattiya, senior Buddhist monk Nelliwala Sumedhalankara Thera said thousands of families depend on agriculture based on the waters of the Weli Oya.

The thera said the paddy farmers already face hardships because of water shortages. The Weli Oya is not always filled to capacity, and felling trees upstream would only make matters worse for the farmers.
A letter highlighting the potential ill-effects from losing hydro-catchment areas, should the golf course be approved, was sent by Wellawaya District Irrigation Engineer H. T. S. W. Wijesuriya to the higher authorities. Mr. Wijesuriya pointed out that the golf course and the accompanying hotel would consume a large volume of water, and this would drastically affect the water level in the reservoir. The Weli Oya irrigation project was built at great cost, Mr. Wijesuriya noted, and allowing the golf course would totally undermine the investment. [Welioya itself has received some criticism as some rich elephant habitats are being shrinked due to the project. Environmentalists point out that it is a double crime to commit activities that is possible to make such a project fail, pointing out that in that case the project shouldn’t be implemented on the first place]

Shermin de Silva, a conservationist who has studied the elephants of Udawalawe, says the area is a vital elephant habitat. Bogahapattiya has unique mineral deposits which serve as salt licks. These natural mineral deposits provide essential nutrients for animals living in nutrient-poor ecosystems. Elephants in the Udawalawe National Park travel to Bogahapattiya, through the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor to satisfy nutritional needs.

Dahaiyagala was in the news when attempts were made to fence off Udawalawe. Environmental Foundation and other environmental groups went to court and obtained a court order to halt the fencing.
As a result of the court action, the Dahaiyagala Elephant corridor has got legal protection from encroachment. The court also issued an order to fence the sides of the corridor to provide a safe passag for elephants while protcting villagers living on both sides of the corridor are protected from the elephants. The main purpose of creating the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor is to allow the Udawalawe elephants to move to Bogahapattiya.

Environmental Foundation Limited legal officer Wardani Karunaratne says that even if the golf course was built on privately owned land, the owners had to abide by the law and obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment. She said no such assessment has been made.

Meanwhile, Bogahapattiya residents say trees have been marked for felling. Legal experts say there are many irregularities in the way the project is being handled. Bogahapattiya has Proposed Sanctuary status, which means it does not have the full legal protection given to vital ecosystems. The area was to be declared a sanctuary, under the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Later, it was proposed that the land be declared a Conservation Forest, under the Forest Department. While the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department argue over who is responsible for what, Bogahapattiya remains seriously threatened, and for what is seen as mere “short-term gains.”

According to Sumedhalankara Thera, a company named Alpha Omega is behind the golf course project, supported by a US-based Sri Lankan businessman named Vasu Nawalingam. A carbon credit certification conducted by Alpha Omega lists 305 acres of the Bogahapattiya land as dense primary forest, and 195 acres as savannah forest.

The Sumedhalankara Thera says Alpha Omega has purchased 628 acres of Bogahapattiya land for Rs. 6 million. The monk said the timber alone on the land was worth many times more than the sum paid for the land, and hinted that the company Alpha Omega seemed to be having its own way in the deal.
The golf project has been labelled the “Beragala Eco-friendly Golf Course.” Environmentalists scoff at the concept of an “eco-friendly golf course,” pointing out that a golf course consumes vast quantities of water and tons of fertiliser.

At a recent meeting on development in Moneragala, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapakse said the golf course would be vetoed if the Irrigation Department also opposed the project.
Bogahapattiya villagers and conservationists are hoping the country’s leaders will step in and insist on Bogahapattiya’s protection, for the sake of the wildlife, the people, and the country.

Pulished on SundayTimes on 04.09.2011 

Mahout, driver fined for unsafe, illegal transport of elephant calf

August 31, 2011

Two people were fined Rs. 43,000 last week by the Colombo Magistrate, for the unsafe transport of an elephant calf belonging to the Devramwehera Raja Maha Vihara.

The mahout and the driver pleaded guilty to the charges of transporting this elephant calf without proper permits and in an unsafe manner. It was an offence to transport elephants without prior approval of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), while all domesticated elephants must be registered with the Department.

The chained baby elephant
The truck that was used to transport the calf

The calf had been chained so that one of its legs was suspended above the floorboard and wedged against a wooden pole placed across the open truck.

A headlight of the truck was also not properly working and the vehicle wasn’t in a condition to transport an elephant according to eyewitnesses. Spotting this unsafe transport of the elephant calf, an environmentalist had followed the lorry and complained to the police.

The truck had been stopped at Pitakotte junction around 6.30 pm on Tuesday and taken to the Welikada Police Station.

The driver neither possessed the registration certificate, nor permission from the DWC to transport the elephant. However, the driver and truck were released, after environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane pointed out the legal background. The truck was then stopped again at Narahenpita.

The calf was later handed over to Wildlife officers. Later that night, the owner of the elephant calf – Ven. Kolonnawe Sumangala Thera, chief incumbent of Devramvehera – had visited the DWC office and handed over the registration certificate of the elephant. DWC, Flying Squad head Upali Padmasiri said that after examining the certificate, Wildlife officers had returned the calf to the Thera, but had taken legal action on two charges of unsafe transport and without proper permits. He also praised the environmentalists for being alert to the welfare of animals.

A leading animal rights activist, Pubudu Weeraratne was also instrumental in stopping the vehicle. Later a gang had turned up in a vehicle at the Wildlife Office, threatening the environmentalists who had taken action to stop the elephant. On complaining to the police, the police had intervened to provide safe passage to the environmentalists. Ven. Kolonnawe Sumangala Thera alleges that this was an act to inconvenience the monks. The Thera claimed that the calf had proper documentation, countering an allegation made by environmentalists that it was illegally caught from the wilds.

Abducting baby elephants illegally is an ongoing racket, and the DWC has already investigated three such elephants.

However, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara, who was also present at the scene, said that, though there are documents, it is highly suspicious that the calf was born to a captive female elephant as mentioned in the registration document. The calf could only be around one-and-half-years-old, though the registration indicates it is older.

Sajeewa also says that the mother elephant known as ‘Kalu Amma’ died a long time back and it is highly doubtful that this calf was born to that elephant. He also points out that the features of the picture of the elephant in the registration are different from that of the actual elephant. Female elephants have long gestation periods and owners do not like to keep an elephant that long. Also, there are no known elephant pregnancies in Sri Lanka, say environmentalists.

They say that the Pinnawala elephant orphanage has been the only known place for successfully breeding elephants, so all other baby elephants have a suspicious record and need to be investigated. Besides an elephant pregnancy is also something that cannot be hidden from the public, as they are big animals.

On checking with Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake, he confirmed that the elephant calf was registered with the DWC in 2009. He said that a Divisional Secretary has confirmed the birth, so the calf has been registered.

Published on 28.08.2011 on SundayTimes

Villagers block junction demanding solution to Human-Elephant Conflict

August 2, 2011

Short-term elephant drives not the answer say conservationists adding that villagers must cooperate more with Wildlife Dept.By Malaka Rodrigo 

Residents of the area blocked Palagala junction last week, demanding a solution for their Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) issue. About 1,500 villagers gathered at this junction on July 20, protesting the death in the last two months of 7 villagers killed by elephants, according to media reports. Traffic from Kekirawa, Galewela and Mahawa was blocked, causing severe inconvenience to the public. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) had to assure the villagers that they would relocate the troublesome jumbos and for the protesting villagers to disperse.

Protesting villagers. Pic by Kanchana Kumara Ariyadasa 

This was not the first time villagers blocked roads in protest. It is now becoming a common occurrence to bring a victim’s body to the road or, to the Wildlife Field Office, demanding a remedy to their life-threatening issue.

Apparently, the Wildlife officers’ immediate solution is relocation of the elephant. But elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando points out that the present form of mitigating the HEC is very much from the human perspective, and it only worsens the problem.

In the long term, it is detrimental to the very people it is meant to protect. He emphasises that people and politicians need to understand that translocation or elephant drives are not long term solutions.

Experts also point out that the DWC cannot be alone held responsible for the HEC. HEC is a very complex issue with multiple causes fuelling it, resulting in the annual loss of at least 200 elephants and 50 people.

Even though scientific evidence clearly indicates that translocations or elephant drives don’t work, the DWC opts for the easy way out, when political pressure and people pressure override scientific evidence.

Manori Gunawardena, another elephant conservationist also points out that elephant management decisions such as drives are politicized, and therefore, will not mitigate the conflict in the long term.
The DWC usually engages in HECs only after development plans have been drawn up. For example, the resettlement process in the North and East are under way, but elephant conservationists haven’t noticed any plan in place to minimise potential HECs.

Manori pointed out that the resettlement plan is based on land tenure, from as long ago as the early 80’s. But most of these ‘original places’ became jungles and now a rich wildlife habitat. People have no choice but to settle there, in dense forest, along with leopards, bears, elephants etc. Nowhere in the resettlement process do they address the elephant

A victim of HEC – elephant shot dead near a hut

factor, complains Manori.

She points out that the DWC lacks the capacity to assist and implement conflict mitigation at this level with the development authorities, which will create another warfront of HEC in North. At a Stakeholder workshop on HEC, initiated by Born Free Foundation, it was pointed out that the protests were not regular and took place only if a next of kin was a victim.

It was pointed out that villagers were anything but cooperative of the DWC’s efforts at mitigation of HEC, preferring to sit it out on the sidelines, while expecting the DWC to go it alone. The villagers’ apathy towards cooperating with the DWC, even went to the extent of pilfering wires connected to the electrified fence, for its sale afterwards.

Infamous elephant drive in south resulted subsequent elephant deaths due to over population

Sri Lanka has much scientific data to manage HEC, with the drafting of the National Policy for the Conservation and Management of wild elephants in Sri Lanka, several years ago. But this is yet to be implemented. Sri Lanka’s conservationists also had high hopes that the US$ 30 million World Bank (WB) loan for Ecosystem Conservation & Management Project would facilitate new conservation oriented programmes to alleviate HEC in the long term.

However, the Ministry of Finance informed the WB that this project did not address the development priorities of the government, and suggested modifications to the project design and the inclusion of additional activities which were not conservation oriented.

This resulted in the loan’s cancellation and with that went the efforts of the scientists. HEC needs a well-planned conservation approach, and if the Government and the policymakers are not willing to address the problem in conservation terms, these kind of protests are inevitable. The DWC alone will not be able to provide a solution.

Published on SundayTimes on 31.07.2011


‘Spectacular’ coverage for The Gathering

July 17, 2011

International travel guide puts Minneriya wildlife phenomenon among the world’s top wildlife treats.Malaka Rodrigo reports. 

Sri Lanka’s image as a nature-based tourist destination has been given a boost by the internationally acclaimed travel guide Lonely Planet, which has named the “elephant gathering” of Minneriya as one of the world’s “10 greatest wildlife spectaculars.”

‘The Gathering’ is the name given to the elephants that assemble on the banks of the Minneriya Reservoir during the dry season. Every evening, between 150 and 200 elephants arrive at the reservoir, mainly to graze the grasses growing on the tank bed. During the drought, the water level drops, revealing a tank bed that allows the grass to grow. The elephants turn to these much needed fodder at a time when foliage in other areas dry up. The Minneriya reservoir also becomes a playground where the elephants can satisfy their water needs.

The Gathering peaks in August and September, at the height of the drought. According to wildlife authorities, the Minneriya gathering is the largest grouping of wild Asian elephants at any given time.
This congregation of elephants probably goes back centuries, but it was only recently that the phenomenon was considered a potential tourist attraction, thanks to Srilal Miththapala and Gehan de Silva Wijerathne, who promote wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka. Five years ago they branded the wildlife event as The Gathering, and it has been drawing a growing number of visitors since.

The sad news, however, is that The Gathering may be threatened. If a plan to retain the Minneriya waters in the dry season is carried out, the temporary grasslands on the bed of the Minneriya tank would disappear, and the number of elephant visitors would decline. This would affect the area’s elephant population, which depends on the temporary grassland as fodder in the dry season. The baby elephants would be especially seriously affected.

That The Gathering has gained international recognition as a nature “spectacular” may help in lobbying for keep the Minneriya tank for the elephants.

The popularity of the wildlife event has also created problems for itself. During the months of The Gathering, the Minneriya park is crowded with safari jeeps, which often block the elephants’ way to the tank. Wildlife activists say there is a need to monitor the safari jeep traffic and manage visitor behaviour to minimize inconvenience to the elephants.

The Gathering ranks sixth on the Lonely Planet wildlife spectaculars list. The list includes famous nature events such as the great wildebeest migration in Serengeti; brown bears feasting in Alaska; the penguin rookery in the Atlantic, the Monarch butterfly migration in Mexico; orca feeding in Argentina, starling roosting in England, and the salmon run in South Africa.

Lanka herded with world’s best nature treats

Lonely Planet’s 10 Greatest Wildlife Spectacles  

1. Látrabjarg bird cliffs, Iceland
2. Monarch butterfly roosts, Mexico
3. King Penguin rookery, South Atlantic
4. Great migration, Serengeti, Tanzania
5. Brown bears feasting, Alaska, USA
6. Elephant gathering, Sri Lanka
7. Bats of Dear Cave, Sarawak, Malaysia
8. Orca feeding, Valdés Peninsula, Argentina
9. Starlings roosting, Somerset, England
10. Sardine run, South Africa

Published on SundayTimes on 17.07.2011

Jumbo losses continue at Pinnawala orphanage

June 18, 2011

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage has suffered four losses so far this month – a two-month-old calf died by drowning, while three baby elephants were given out to private owners, according to reliable sources in the village of Pinnawala.

Losing family members to temples and other parties: Pinnawala elephants go down for a bath in the Ma Oya

The ill-fated calf, born to adult elephant Kanthi, drowned during its daily bath in the Ma Oya. Meanwhile, the orphanage has resumed its practice of giving out elephants in its care. Members of the Pinnawala community say that three elephants were presented to leading temples around the country.

Meanwhile director of the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens, Bashwara Gunaratne said, a total of 15 Pinnawala elephants will be given out with the zoo’s approval. He said the recipients will be selected on their capabilities on looking after the animals.

In 2009, a bid to give two elephant calves to the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) triggered a controversy. In 2003, a Pinnawala elephant was given to the Ragama temple. This elephant, Kapila, consequently died of malnutrition. There are allegations that elephants given out are poorly treated by their new owners, and often used for heavy-duty work. Animal welfare activists have called for a proper monitoring of elephants given away by the Pinnawala orphanage authorities.

In January this year, an elephant named Neelagiri died from wounds inflicted by mahouts. onsequently, several mahouts were suspended from their duties, and the Pinnawala orphanage assistant director was transferred.

Published on SundayTimes 12.06.2011 

Let’s meet Abhaya the little Jumbo

June 11, 2011

Hi kids, would you like to be friends with a little jumbo..? If you visit Dehiwala Zoo, you will get the chance meet a new friend, Abhaya; the little elephant – by Malaka Rodrigo

Abhaya came to Dehiwala Zoo only two weeks ago. Before that, Abhaya was at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The uncles in Pinnawala put Abhaya into a small lorry, early morning on April 23 and after
saying goodbye to his Pinnawala friends, Abhaya started his exciting journey to Colombo.

On the way to Colombo, Abhaya looked curiously at the moving vehicles on the road and was amazed at the large buildings that are higher than trees he had seen in the jungle. The little elephant was anxious to meet new friends at Dehiwala Zoo.

Meanwhile, on hearing about Abhaya’s arrival, lots of friends came to greet him. Abhaya was welcomed by a group of children with an ‘Araliya flower’ garland around his neck. Abhaya had never worn such a beautiful garland, so he was happy with the welcome and immediately became a friend of these little kids.

The director uncles at the zoo arranged a grand party to welcome Abhaya. In fact Abhaya got his name only after coming to the zoo. A little competition was conducted for the zoo visitors to suggest a name for the little elephant and 450 had proposed many names – including kids who visited zoo that day.

This was a big occasion for the zoo, so director uncles and aunties also consulted an astrologer guru to select a suitable name out of the proposed ones. Finally the name ‘Abhaya’ was selected. Kids, when you visit the zoo – remember to make friends with ‘Abhaya’ because he needs your love so much, as he lost his mother and family due to an accident. Do you want to know that story too..??

Abhaya was a baby elephant roaming freely in the jungles in Habarana with his parents. But they often had to cross the railroad to move to the other side to drink water. Abhaya was a playful elephant who sometimes didn’t listen to his mother.

On a dark night last year, Abhaya came to cross the railroad together with his mom. Abhaya was
playing with his best friend who was the same age, despite their mothers’ warnings not to play on the rail track. Abhaya and friend were in playful mood and didn’t hear the noise of approaching train.

The mothers hearing the sound, hurried to rescue their babies, but the train was so fast that it hit all four elephants. Both mothers died in the collision. Abhaya and his friend had their legs badly fractured. Though his friend didn’t survive, Abhaya fought harder and was cured thanks to the treatment of the Doctor Uncles.

However Abaya is sad that he lost his mother, best friend and auntie. Abhaya’s leg is also a little shorter, so don’t try to overly pet him. The doctor uncles say, it is also not good to feed anything to Abhaya – remember, it is not a good habit to eat outside your main meals – so never try to feed the elephant anything, as he gets breakfast, lunch and dinner in time.

The baby hippos

Abhaya is not the only new addition to the Zoo. The Pygmy Hippo family of the Dehiwala Zoo are now having a family of playful baby hippos.

All of them are females and the eldest baby of this family is named ‘Hapani’.

Born six months before, ‘Hapani’ is now a real skillful Hippo. She likes to swim together with her mom in their den.

The other two babies are named Hiyara and Sameena. ‘Hiyara’s’ birthday falls in February while the youngest sibling ‘Sameena’ was born in March.

Pygmy Hippos are smaller than the River Hippos (or Nile Hippos). They live in Western Africa and are threatened in the wild.

published on SundayTimes on 15.05.2011

Is it too much ‘Water for Elephants’..?

May 14, 2011

During the height of the drought, hundreds of elephants gather at the Minneriya tank bed in search of fresh grazing grounds. But will excessive water in the Minneriya tank be too much ‘Water for Elephants’ – question conservationists and tour operators… 

Elephant conservationists as well as Tour operators in Sri Lanka were alarmed over disturbing news last week that could threaten the Great Elephant Gathering at Minneriya. The recent heavy rains filled out most of the small tanks, which meant that water from the larger Minneriya and Kawdulla tanks would not be required for irrigation, as much as in previous years. According to reliable sources, it is intended to stock this excess water in the Minneriya and Kawdulla tanks for future use. Though this will be good for irrigation and paddy farming, excess water will also prevent the creation of grazing grounds during the dry season, that triggers the annual Gathering of Minneriya Elephants.

The ‘great elephant gathering’ is a phenomenon of the vast grassland created on the large reservoir beds, as water is drawn for irrigation during the dry months of the year in July-August. Experts say that these large tanks shrink as much as 25%, and the water receded tank beds are covered with grass, providing a rich grazing ground for elephants during the drought, when there is a shortage of food in other areas. The event has been promoted as one of the major wildlife spectacles in Asia in past few years, attracting hordes of tourists to see 200 – 300 elephants at a single location. So ‘the gathering’ also carries a great economic value and also helps to boost Sri Lanka’s image as a major tourist destination.

“Whilst it was the common belief that the large elephant gathering was due to the availability of water in the reservoirs, it is these rich grasslands created annually on the reservoir beds that attracts the elephants, on the contrary” confirms Associate Scientist- Dilmah Conservation Trust, Manori Gunawardena, who had conducted the research on the demography, social organisation and ecological needs of the Minneriya and Kaudulla elephant population.

The study funded by Dilmah Conservation Trust also pointed out that it is vital that these grasslands in the reservoir beds are maintained during the dry season, and therefore a critical period to sustain the elephant population. The young elephants are greatly affected during the dry season due to lack of food, according to the previous researches. “Should these large reservoirs be maintained as stock reservoirs, where the water levels remain full year round, the elephants will be deprived of this much needed food source, and would be forced into other areas in search of fodder, since the Minneriya and Kaudulla elephant populations move within a landscape that has a large amount of agriculture on its peripheries. So it is likely that conflict with humans and crop raiding will increase” says Manori, who studied these Kawdulla and Minneriya elephants extensively under this project.

Environmentalists also worry that the Moragahakanda Multipurpose Irrigation Project will continue to release more water for these tanks, which will stifle grazing grounds created for the Minneriya and Kawdulla elephants in future. Director General- Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja, when contacted, said that, large areas of grasslands will be lost by stocking water in Minneriya and Kawdulla, which will deprive the elephants. The DWC is also on alert and will start discussions with the Mahaweli and Irrigation departments to coordinate activities beneficial to wildlife, irrigation and tourism et al.

While the gathering has grown in repute as a major tourist attraction in Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, similar gatherings take place on emerging grasslands of many large reservoirs islandwide during the drought. Maduru Oya, Gal Oya, Parakrama Samudra, Kalawewa, Lunugamvehera all host a gatherings of elephants during these critical dry months of the year by providing much needed grazing grounds.

Water for irrigation is essential for agriculture, but if not carefully controlled, it will give rise to other problems such as human-elephant conflict while undermining tourist attractions. Hence, conservationists and the business community together request the need to asses all the governing factors carefully, at the planning process, before implementation of the outcome of their deliberations.

Published on SundayTimes web on 06.05.2011 

Handicapped baby jumbo abandoned by mother

May 4, 2011

A month-old baby elephant was found lying in a paddy field, bleeding from its mouth, after being beaten and abandoned by its mother, outside the Buddhangala Wildlife Sanctuary, in Ampara – reports Malaka Rodrigo 

Early on Thursday morning, residents of the village of Walathapitiya woke up to see a mother elephant desperately trying to push its infant into the jungle. The calf – which was later found to be deformed, with inwardly turned legs – was moving slowly, and was unable to keep up with its mother, while the impatient mother kept prodding the infant and lashing out at it with its trunk.

The villagers immediately contacted the Ampara wildlife office, and a team of wildlife officers rushed to the scene. By now, one hour later, the mother elephant seemed worn out by its efforts to push the baby into the safety of the jungle. On seeing the crowd and the approaching officers, the mother started to panic, and even kicked the baby. According to those present, the mother elephant’s kicks were so violent and powerful that the baby was thrown into the air and landed 10 feet away.

The injured jumbo was taken to the wildlife office and a medical team, led by veterinarian Dr. Pramuditha Devasurendra, immediately set to work. They put the animal on a saline drip and fed it milk. The next day the baby was showing signs of recovery. The plan was to send the animal to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage once it was well and deemed fit to travel.

But Dr. Devasurendra later noticed that the baby’s upper jaw and palate were damaged, possibly from its mother’s kicks to its face; milk being fed to the baby was passing into its lungs.

The vets say the baby’s chances of survival are low, but they are doing their best to save the animal.
Dr. Devasurendra, who specialises in treating elephants, said this was the first time that a live but deformed baby elephant has been found. She told the Sunday Times that physically handicapped baby elephants born in the wild seldom survive.

The carcasses of many deformed dead baby jumbos have been found abandoned by their herds. According to the residents of Walathapitiya, every night a herd of some 50 wild elephants cross the road from the sanctuary and invade the adjoining farmlands and paddy fields. The villagers believe the baby elephant belongs to this herd.

published on SundayTimes on

Abhaya the little jumbo was lucky but what about others?

April 30, 2011

The recent train/elephant collision in Habarana where only one calf survived and is now at the Dehiwala zoo, highlights a problem that needs to be addressed urgently By Malaka Rodrigo 

Last week, the Dehiwala Zoo welcomed a new baby elephant “Abhaya” who had lost his family to a tragic train/elephant collision.

It was just another peaceful night in October last year for two elephant families roaming the jungles of Habarana. There were two baby elephants aged only a few months in their midst and grazing peacefully, they approached the railroad. It was only when the sound of the oncoming train disturbed the silence of the night that the mothers recognizing the danger tried to protect them but the collision was deadly.

The mother jumbos were instantly killed and the two calves injured. Wildlife officers reached the accident site at Kithulothuwa along the Kantale Trincomalee railroad at dawn and the baby jumbos were sent to the Girithale wildlife facility for treatment. The one that had all its legs broken didn’t survive long but, the other, believed to be only eight months fought hard for his life. His leg was fractured in two places.

A garland of Araliya flowers for Abhaya at his new home

Later transferred to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, the elephant treated by the Pinnawela veterinary surgeons along with vets of the Peradeniya University’s Veterinary Faculty made friends with all. Seeing this friendly baby elephant at Pinnawela, the Director of the Zoological Gardens Bashwara Gunaratne thought the zoo would be a better place it.

“The baby is friendly with humans; its leg is a little shorter after the accident, so it can’t be released back to the wild. It also loves to have closer interaction with visitors,” said Mr. Gunaratne.

The baby jumbo moved to the zoo on Saturday, April 23. Brought to Dehiwala in the morning in a large truck, it was kept in a nearby temple until the auspicious time. Around 3 p.m, the jumbo was brought to its new home with villagers and other curious onlookers accompanying it and given a special hut near the Elephant Arena-I.

Those who visited the zoo on Saturday were asked to suggest names and some 450 names were reviewed by an astrologer. Considering that the elephant had got a new life thanks to the dedicated efforts of the veterinarians, the name Abhaya was selected said Education Officer of the Zoo, Nihal Senarath.

Animal rights activists believe Pinnawela would be a better place for the little elephant where it would be able to blend with other elephants and have a little social life. Sathwa Mitra’s Sagarika Rajakarunanayake pointed out that the interactions with the visitors should not be a harassment to the baby elephant. Many zoo visitors do not act responsibly feeding the animals and even throwing things at them despite warnings to refrain from such acts. But the Zoo officials said the baby will always be accompanied by a mahout who will safeguard it from undue attention.

Abhaya’s accident is not an isolated one. Since 1992, 75 elephants have died due to train accidents according to Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) records. Many have also been injured in similar accidents in the Mahaweli wildlife region and the North Western wildlife regions.

Accidents occur along a few key stretches in Polonnaruwa and Habarana. Most notable are the Habarana-Galoya, Galoya-Kantale, and Galoya-Minneriya routes. This area is elephant country with many parks famous for elephants such as Minneriya, Kaudulla, and Flood Plains.

Elephant experts also say these accidents are seasonal, the majority occurring during the dry season (May-September) and the northeast monsoon (November-January) when the elephants move between habitats in search of food. But the reasons for the collision are different from one rail stretch to another. Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja said most of the accidents tend to occur at bends. Many of these areas are thickly forested and so neither the train driver nor elephant could see the approaching danger at a distance.

Since 2005, speed limits have been imposed for the most vulnerable stretches. Dr. Pathiraja said his department is analyzing the elephant/train collision data to take action to minimize the accidents such as clearing a few metres of forests along the track so that drivers can spot elephants in a distance and vice versa.

Dr. W.A. Dharmakeerthi, veterinarian of the Mahaweli wildlife region who had to treat and do post-mortems on many of elephants victimes pointed out that accidents at one stretch near Minneriya are caused by a steep slope where the railroad had been laid by cutting a mound. So the elephants can’t get away, even when they see the approaching train. “You can reduce the steepness of these slopes, so that elephants can quickly climb them and escape,” Dr. Dharmakeerthi suggested.

Elephant experts also link the accidents to herd behaviour. “Herds or females hesitate to retreat when there are calves or juveniles hanging around the railway. Young animals get confused and may stay on the railway itself if the associating herd is scattered at both sides of the tracks,” said Dr. Deepani Jayantha, country representative of Born Free Foundation, who has analyzed the elephant collision data and its patterns. The Born Free Foundation has had discussions with the DWC about finding solutions for this issue.

Gunshot injuries are still the main reason for elephant deaths in Sri Lanka that average 200 annually. But the elephant/train collisions continue and need to be addressed to prevent more little jumbos ending up orphaned like Abhaya.

Heavy vehicles too join elephant killers

It was another dark night and the bus bound from Colombo to Galgamuwa was speeding to its destination. All of a sudden the driver had seen what looked like a moving rock on the road but it was too late. The bus crashed into the elephant. The elephant survived, but the conductor travelling on the foot board of the bus died.

“The Thekka Kele in between Galgamuwa and Ambanpola is an elephant crossing where drivers should be careful,” warns Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe who had treated the injured elephant. He recalled that a few months later a van too had collided with an elephant, which angered by the collision attacked the vehicle killing a passenger.

In another roadside accident in Medawachchiya, an elephant calf had been killed instantly by a careless tipper. The accident occurred around 1 a.m.. An elephant calf was a victim of another roadside accident at Habarana last year.

The roads in some of these areas have been recently carpeted, an invitation for some drivers to speed. So it is important to demarcate the areas of elephant crossings and impose speed limits. Ultimately, whatever the regulations are – it is the driver’s responsibility.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.05.2011

The agony of the silent victims of landmines

April 10, 2011

Two elephants that fell victim to anti-personnel mines were reported from Silwathura–the first time that two cases

Both the injured tusker and elephant are seen in these two pictures

were reported from the same location. They were spotted by Army men who alerted the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

One of them was a tusker and the sole of its left fore limb had been completely smashed by the mine explosion. The elephant’s lower left fore-limb was swollen more than twice its normal size due to the injury. Adding more agony to the gentle giant, the end of its trunk had been ripped off too.

The tip of an elephant trunk contains nerve endings making it very sensitive and the pain would have been intense. Dr.Chandana Jayasinghe – who led the team of veterinary surgeons who treated the elephants, said, the swelling on the trunk made it difficult for it to breathe or even drink water. There is a whistling sound when it inhales and the elephant has to lie in a water hole to drink water. However, the both the elephant and the tusker were not weak, indicating that the explosion probably occurred just a few days before the animals were discovered.

DWC’s veterinary team also risked their lives trying to reach the elephants as the area has still not been cleared of mines. But the team braved the risk to assist the elephants in pain. Silawathura is close to the Wilpattu border and was once a major Sea Tiger base. Armed forces captured Silawathura after a fierce battle during the last phase of the war and the retreating LTTE cadres laid hundreds of anti-personnel mines (Jonny Battas) around their camps. Although armed forces and other organisations are involved in clearing up operations, the efforts are more concentrated around populated areas in the north east. The last phase of the war was fought in the thick jungles that extend for thousands of

hectares making the clearing of mines in this area a daunting task.

When elephants step on anti personnel mines, the soles of their feet are damaged. The sole is cushioned in a manner that helps the animal to walk and doesn’t heal easily. Due to the unbearable pain and to avoid parasites, the elephant usually goes in search of a water hole and keeps pressing its injured sole in the mud, which in turn renew the wound. Hence a majority of elephant landmine victims despite attempts to treat them succumb to their injuries through Septicaemia (blood poisoning) .

During the height of the war many elephants died after suffering a slow death due to mine injuries as veterinary teams found it difficult to reach the main theatres of fighting. However there were instances when they tried to alleviate the animal’s suffering risking their own lives with gunfire within earshot.

After the end of the war those who visited these jungle areas reported seeing elephant skeletons in water holes and they believed those animals could have been victims of mine blasts. On the brighter side  Dr. Jayasinghe said the number of jumbo mine victims had reduced with the end of the war.

The case of this tusker and elephant was reported eight months after the last landmine jumbo victim was found. Ironically the latest land mine victims were discovered, just a few days prior to the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action which which falls on April 4. The Veterinary Surgeons from Peradeniya Faculty too had camped at Silwathura for three days to attend to these silent victims of land mines.

Published on SundayTimes on 10.04.2011

Symbolic Animals of Cricketing Nations

March 5, 2011

Both Puncha and Panchi are finishing their homework early these days and sit glued to their TV to watch cricket matches. They’ve enjoyed seeing the tournament’s mascot Stumpy and also are curious about the symbolic animals of the cricket teams…

Both Puncha and Panchi are a little saddened as Sri Lanka lost their game against Pakistan. At the last
stages, their interest in the match faded away. “The Lions are down, but they will meet the Kangaroos in the next match,” said their favourite commentator Tony Greig. Panchi knew that Tony had referred to the
Sri Lankans as Lions, but couldn’t remember who the Kangaroos are.

“They are dressed in yellow.. Became world cup champions several times..” Puncha teased his sister.“Hmm.. They are … are.. I KNOW.. I KNOW.. Kangaroos are AUSTRALIANS..!!” Panchi shouted. Both Puncha and Seeya nodded. “But Seeya why are Australians called Kangaroos..?” is Panchi’s question.“It is because there are lots of Kangaroos in Australia,” said Puncha.

“Yes, Kangaroos can be found only in Australia, hence they uniquely symbolize Australia,” explained Seeya. “There are some other countries too that have animals as their symbols. Can you remember..?” asked Seeya.

Hmm.. I know.. I know… Puncha shouted. “Tony calls New Zealanders, Kiwis.” “Kiwi.. – is it an
animal similar to the Kangaroo Seeya..?” asked Panchi “Well, it is infact a bird.. To be exact, one of the flightless birds that live only in New Zealand. It is their national bird too,” explained Seeya. “The Kiwi has its nose at the tip of its beak and has a good sense of smell,” Puncha told his little
sister, what he had seen on the Discovery Channel recently. He ran to his room and brought a book to show his sister what Kiwis look like.

“I’ve seen somebody dressed as a tiger. Is he an Indian, Seeya?” Puncha was not sure.
“Well, Bengal Tigers live in India too, but Bangladesh use the tiger symbol in their cricket. However the tiger is the national animal of both these countries,” revealed Seeya.

“But we do not have lions now in Sri Lanka Seeya, even though we are called Lions..?” Puncha too has a question. “Yes, there are no lions now in our forests, but it is believed that there were lions in
Sri Lanka a long time back. Besides the legends say the Sinhalese are having origins from lions.”

“Seeya.. Seeya.. There is another animal these days. You have all forgotten my friend Stumpy..!!” yelled Panchi. “Yes, Stumpy is the little chubby jumbo mascot of this Cricket World Cup 2011. But unlike the lions, we are lucky to still have Stumpy’s wild relatives in our forests.

“Stumpy is so cute, Seeya,” Panchi loves her friend. “Yes the baby elephants all are lovely to watch.
But they are also having big problems in their living areas.”“We all should protect Stumpy’s relatives.

The Stumpy Story!

The ICC Cricket World Cup mascot ‘Stumpy’, a light-blue elephant, is set to win millions of hearts with his intelligence and ageless appeal. Of all the mascots of sports events, over the last two decades, stumpy clearly is one of the most adorable.

Stumpy was unveiled at a function in Colombo on 2 April 2010 and ever since become the official symbol of the Cricket World Cup 2011. The official name of the mascot was released on Monday, 2 August 2010 after an online competition conducted by the International Cricket Council.

The Stumpy is designed and masterminded by Christoph Kaul. A light blue elephant, its colour has also been chosen keeping the men in blue in mind, yet again driving home the point that while the ICC Cricket World Cup is being hosted by three sub-continental nations, India continue to be the cynosure of all attention according to ESPN Sports. It is important to state here, though, that stumpy was initially visualized as green in colour. But soon enough stumpy turned blue, in an attempt to take a place among the men in blue.

The designer of the Mascot says, the Stumpy has evolved in five stages. He is intelligent, efficient and lovable, a combination that took considerable time to mastermind. Even his trunk is different from a traditional elephant’s trunk and is modeled on the Indian elephant God, Ganesh. Since Stumpy is an Asian Elephant this also reminds us about the adorable elephants in our jungles.

Published on FundayTimes – the Kids Section of SundayTimes on 06.03.2011

Don’t stump the ‘Stumpies’ of Hambantota

February 27, 2011
Ambitious new strategies are being planned to achieve Human Elephant co-existence in Hambantota.
Last Sunday, World Cup cricket fever officially embraced Sri Lanka with the inaugural match witnessed by a packed crowd in the new 35,000 seat Hambantota Cricket Stadium. Dressed in blue, the mascot of the tournament – Stumpy the little jumbo was seen walking in the grounds waving a bat, while the TV footage captured its real life counterpart, a wild elephant at the boundary of the stadium in the background of surrounding scrub jungle.The International Cricket Stadium is only one of the major development projects that indicates Hambantota’s transformation from an impoverished small sleepy hamlet to a national centre of Sri Lanka. An international harbour, airport, economic zones, tourism facilities etc are being developed, drastically changing the landscape.

There is already Human Elephant Conflict in Hambantota, but with the projected level of development, this conflict can escalate as witnessed in the Mahaweli regions such as the North Western Province. But the situation is not altogether bleak for the Hambantota jumbos. An ambitious plan is being carried out to take Hambantota development on a different path to co-exist with elephants. Usually the elephants are an afterthought to any development plan, but in this development plan, their traditional home ranges have been left for them.

Managed elephant reserve

It is estimated that about 300 – 400 elephants inhabit the greater Hambantota area. This is about 10% of Sri Lanka’s total elephant population. The first step of the exercise was to identify the general home ranges of elephants in the Hambantota area. The research was carried out over the past two years collaboratively by the elephant biologists of the Centre for Conservation & Research (CCR) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Under the project, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, well known elephant researcher had collared a selected number of elephants from different elephant herds in the area.

The collars were fitted with transmitters that emit signals every few hours captured through satellites. The elephants’ locations were marked on a map to shed light on their movements.

This ‘Elephant Map’ with a boundary proposed as a Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) was submitted to the team of experts designing the new Hambantota landscape for human settlements, industries and tourism infrastructure. Other members of this Strategic Environment Assessment team were consultants on Urban Planning, from the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Central Environment Authority (CEA). They then demarcated special zones for development excluding the areas heavily inhabited by elephants.

Their two-year survey was interesting, says Dr. Fernando. The team collared five elephants from different herds in Hambantota after a preliminary study. They are named Thaga, Sakunthala, Sapumali, Uma, Valli and Wanamali. With this data, Dr. Fernando’s team could clearly identify their home ranges. This area is demarcated as Managed Elephant Reserve (MER). “With the concept of MER, both human and elephant can co-exist in areas designated for them,” said Dr. Fernando.

The elephants can also be a big tourist attraction. “A region where the development vision embraces viable conservation values by using the best available information and innovative planning,” said Manori Gunawardena, wildlife biologist and conservationist who also studied the Hambantota elephants.

Failed elephant drives

Hambantota is encircled by protected areas – Udawalawe, Bundala, Lunugamwehera and Yala, so it could be asked why these elephants cannot be driven to these already existing National Parks?
Elephant Drives have been proven a failure, ironically in Hambantota itself. To facilitate agriculture in Hambantota through the Walawe Left Bank irrigation project, the Wildlife Department was asked to move elephants to the nearby Lunugamwehera National Park.

In 2006, an elephant drive was conducted to chase away a herd of an estimated 100 elephants inhabiting this 600 area selected for development. But 250 elephants came out from the jungles indicating how little is known about the elephant ranging patterns. The elephants driven and confined to the Lunugamwehera National Park faced a worse fate than when roaming near human settlements. Lunugamwehera has an adequate extent of land, but the elephants did not disperse evenly in the park, staying closer to the electric fence penning them which created a resource shortage The fate of these 250 or so elephants in Lunugamvehera National Park is uncertain.

Dr. Fernando estimates there are about 300-400 elephants still in Hambantota. If the 2006 elephant drive which cost Rs.160 million was successful, then how could there be such a large number of elephants remaining in Hambantota, questions Dr Fernando highlighting that the elephant drives are a failure.

“Only the young and some herds mainly consisting of females could be moved by the elephant drive. The large male pachyderms who are really the trouble makers remained in the area,” pointed out the elephant biologist. “Like the humans, elephants too are attached to their homes and those who have higher instincts also returned.”

The proposed MER is aimed at getting development away from the elephants’ path. It is proposed the existing villages and other development projects in the area remain, but not expand. Electric fences will be set-up around these facilities and villages. Mattala Airport will be the only mega scale project located in this MER. An area of 800 ha is demarcated for its first phase and a management plan is set up not to increase the conflict with elephants in the area.

Signs of encroachment

However, the biggest challenge facing this ambitious Human Elephant Co-existence project is the encroachment inside the newly conceived Reserve. People want land for cultivation, house plots, and some indulge in just plain outright land grabbing. Already there are farmers who pump water from the Walawe West Bank project and start irrigation work in an unplanned manner. Although the MER allows existing practices such as rainfed agriculture, it cannot sustain elephants if the habitat is splintered, fenced and diverted further for human use. But if the local politicians too support these encroachers, the whole effort will be pointless.

“This is a really good opportunity to highlight that development and conservation can go together in sustainable manner. There is lots of development on the way and if it is not done in planned manner, it will create a severe Human Elephant Conflict in southern Sri Lanka,” warns Dr. Fernando. The team leader Prof. N. Ratnayake, who is an expert on town planning stresses that lots of effort has been put into the plan.

Here lies a golden opportunity for the planners to showcase innovation in sustainable development providing a global example on Human Elephant Co-existence even amidst massive development.

Whom to conserve – DWC elephants or FD elephants?

Traditionally, electric fences were erected surrounding the National Parks managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). But on the other side, the adjoining lands too are forests that belong to the Forest Department (FD).

So there are often elephants living on both sides of the fence. But with the new proposals by elephant experts, this distinction seems to be disappearing and the electric fences are going to be moved to the Forest Department lands, giving the elephants more breathing space. This will be a big positive for elephant conservation points out Dr. Prithviraj Fernando.

Published on SundayTimes on 27.02.2011