Archive for the ‘Elephants’ Category

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 


Wildlife: A silent flood victim

January 15, 2011

Temporary camps have been setup , medicine and dry rations are being supplied continuously for hundreds and thousands of people affected by the floods and heavy rains have wreaked havoc in many parts of the country. But wildlife remains a silent victim in the face of this. The image of a dead elephant calf stuck on top of a tree epitomises that sad ordeal of wild animals in these flooded regions.

The image caught the attention even of the international media to illustrate the severity of the recent floods. The carcass was found on Thursday stuck on a tree about 18 ft high on the bank of the Gal Oya River. This height indicated the level to which water levels had risen ravaging the area. “Elephants are usually good swimmers, but the force of the current would have been too strong for this calf,” said Dr.W.A.Darmakeerthi a veterinary surgeon of the Wildlife Department. The body had later fallen to the river and was washed further downstream according to the veterinarian who expects to conduct a post mortem after the waters recede.

Sad sight: Baby elephant dead on top of a tree
A carcass being swept away by the raging waters Pic by Kanchana Kumara Ariyadasa

Dr. Pramuditha Devasurendra – another wildlife vet who looks after the Eastern wildlife region highlighted the death of another elephant that may have succumbed to the prevailing wet and cold weather. This elephant in Aranthalawa was already weak as it was suffering from a fractured fore limb. Although the animal had been treated for the fracture it had died a few days later possibly unable to withstand the cold and wet conditions as it was already weak.

However the veterinarian said it was the only reported case from the region regarding elephants. Unlike humans, all animals can swim at least a little distance to reach higher ground. Therefore Wildlife Department officials believe most animals would have survived although the situation regarding wildlife in areas adversely affected by the floods is yet to be assessed. However, ground reports have indicated that a large number of domestic animals like cattle and poultry had died due to the raging waters.

The Flood Plains National Park and Somawathie National Park are among the worst affected. Most of the areas are still submerged and wildlife officers cannot access the parks to assess the situation, Dr.Chandrawansa Pathiraja – the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) said. He said there were initial reports that some electrified fences were damaged. However he hopes to get a full report from his officers on the ground situation next week. As the name indicates, parts of the Flood Plains National Park go underwater when the Mahaweli Ganga swells. This process helps to maintain its unique ecosystem, but the damage caused by the torrential rains and flooding are yet unknown.

The roads network in national parks including Yala East (Kumana) too have been badly damaged. This could hamper the administrative work of wildlife officers.

Environmental experts also say that the damaged tanks in these areas could have an adverse affect on wildlife when the next drought grips these areas. Many of the smaller tanks have been damaged by the heavy rainfall and these will not be able to retain sufficient water to support animals in the next severe drought. This may force elephants to move into villages further intensifying the Human Elephant Conflict, they point out.

Meanwhile a Health Ministry spokesperson said the hospitals in flooded areas have been alerted about possible increase of snake bite victims. Snakes like humans will try to move to higher ground to save their lives and may encounter humans. According to the spokesperson, no snake bite victims have been recorded so far, but the ministry has issued instructions to its medical teams to be cautious of snakes and other animals when they travel from camp to camp providing relief to affected people.

There is also a belief venomous sea snakes come inland during a flood, but Dr.Anslem de Silva,a leading herpetologist, who is conducting a research on Sea Snakes says the movement occurs in reverse, only when more land snakes get washed to sea. In December the media also reported thousands of sea snakes in Batticaloa beaches raising fear among residents that it was a sign of an impending disaster, as scenes were witnessed a few months before the 2004 tsunami. Some still say the recent Sea Snake sighting off Batticaloa was a bad omen indicative of the the present devastating floods. But Dr.Anslem who investigated samples of these purported Sea Snakes from Batticaloa says it was only a reproductive gathering of a marine Eel species.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.11.2011

Hakka Patas – Another Elephant Killer

December 7, 2010

‘Hakka Patas’ is a small locally-made explosive device usually hidden in animal fodder. Poachers mix the explosives with small stones and coat it with dried fish particles to lure animals – especially wild boar, but Elephants too are often becoming unfortunate victims. The DailyMirror newspaper today (07.12.2010) reported during last month along 3 young male elephants and a young female elephant had died chewing Hakka Patas only in the North Western Zone.

The Elephants fallen victim of Hakka Patas suffers a painful death unable to eat or drink. Read the following for more about CRUEL JAWS OF DEATH..!!

Cruel jaws of death

Elephants are falling victim to an improvised explosive, Hakka Patas, used by poachers in wildlife parks

By Malaka Rodrigo, Pic by Sanath Gamage

Elephants are generally animals on the move, but this bull elephant frequenting Suriyawewa stood lethargically in one place. A team from the Hambantota Wildlife Conservation Unit called in by villagers to check it out, found it showing signs of uneasiness. Soon it collapsed. The wildlife ranger of Hambantota H.M. Abeykoon and veterinary surgeon for the region Dr. Suhada Jayawardena tried giving water to the animal. Only then did they see the reason for its distress. The elephant’s jaws were pierced and its tongue badly damaged. Something had exploded inside its mouth seriously injuring the animal. The veterinary surgeon immediately started giving it saline.

Despite their efforts to save its life, the young bull elephant died a few hours later. The cause of death was a ‘Hakka Patas’; an explosive that had blown up inside the elephant’s mouth. The jumbo had suffered for nearly one and half months after being injured, according to the Veterinary Surgeon.

‘Hakka Patas’ is a small locally-made explosive device usually hidden in animal fodder. Poachers mix the explosives with small stones and coat it with dried fish particles to lure animals, especially wild boar. When the explosive gets crushed in the mouth while it bites the bait, ‘Hakka Patas’ explodes causing immense damage to the mouth.

The victim suffers a painful death unable to eat or drink. Though it may not directly target jumbos, cases of elephant deaths due to Hakka Patas are on the increase. The most recent elephant victim was the 20-year-old bull elephant that died at Walsapugala in Suriyawewa in the first week of February. In 2007 at least two elephant deaths were confirmed as caused by ‘Hakka Patas’ by the postmortem reports, one from Dimbulagala and the other near Somawathie. But it is believed at least six elephants have been killed due to Hakka Patas in these regions alone. Once the jaw bones get fractured, it is virtually impossible to treat the animal. Antibiotics may cure the wounds, but the victim will suffer a slow death, unable to eat.

In the past, hunters considered it unethical to kill animals when feeding or drinking. They would distract it before pulling the trigger. But ‘Hakka Patas’ aims at foraging animals usually driven by hunger.

Uda Walawe is one of the first places where Hakka Patas was used by poachers. The veterinary surgeon revealed the sad story of a young wild boar that had its mouth parts ripped off due to Hakka Patas. Unable to even swallow the water that was poured into its mouth, it was in great pain.

Death was inevitable and the only way to help the animal was to put it down. On a few occasions, wildlife officials have managed to nab poachers entering Uda Walawe to fix Hakka Patas.

Wildlife ranger H.M. Abeykoon

The devices were hidden inside fish and placed on the banks of the reservoirs where wild boar forage. Rangers of the park have managed to detect and remove the Hakka Patas fixed at the bank of Mav Ara reservoir on several occasions.

This is not a problem confined only to Sri Lanka. Similar traps are being used to kill animals even in India. In Sri Lanka, still there are no signs that Hakka Patas are directly targeting elephants, but the danger remains a possibility.

The list of threats faced by wild animals of Sri Lanka is long. Other than Hakka Patas, poachers are now using other inhuman methods to kill wild animals such as placing poisoned water in earthen pots or bags. This is mainly done during the height of the drought when an animal would drink anything to quench its thirst. Elephants are also in danger from poachers’ and farmers’ guns, from death by electrocution, pesticides, falling into pits, getting hit by trains etc.

Electrocution is another brutal method used to kill elephants with plantation owners using high-tension electric wires. It is reported that at least three elephants have been killed during the past few weeks in Ampara alone.

With all these dangers to contend with, and now Hakka Patas, what hope is there for the elephant?

The conflict continues

Sri Lanka’s human-elephant conflict continues to worsen. According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, 189 elephants died in 2007. Humans were responsible for 116 of those deaths. Some of the elephants were killed as a result of electrocution, poisoning or stepping on battas or anti-personnel mines.

Death by shooting continues to be the main cause with 83 elephants falling victim. Conservationists are alarmed over the issue of guns to villagers in conflict zones.

“Cruel Jaws of Death” has been published on SundayTimes on 16.03.2010: 

DailyMirror article :

Ravana – tusker killed after failed relocation

December 2, 2010

It is barely a week Galgamuwa Tusker (also known as Siyabalangamuwa Tusker) died under unfortunated circumstances. The incident again highlighted elephant translocations are not a viable solution for the Human Elephant Conflict. In 2008, another Tusker – known as Ravana – that has been relocated in Lunugamwehera National Park has been killed. This is the story of the the FALLEN RAVANA..!!  

The collared tusker

Ravana died on August 25 in a muddy water hole inside Lunugamvehera National Park, from infected gunshot wounds. The post-mortem revealed that the jumbo– named after the powerful king of ancient Sri Lanka – was starving at the time of death – the wound on its cheek preventing it from taking food in its last days.

The Lunugamvehera park was supposed to have been a sanctuary for the animal which was translocated there last December. It had initially been moved to Uda Walawe National Park in September 2007 after crop-raiding in its home grounds of Anuradhapura and was radio-collared by elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando before release in the park. But soon, it tried to make its way back leaving a trail of destruction in the villages of Aluthwewa, Handapanagala and Buttala. One man was killed and an elderly villager was saved only after a constable shot the elephant in its foot.

Realising that Ravana was in trouble, Dr. Fernando informed the DWLC officials who treated the injured jumbo and then decided to translocate it to Lunugamvehera. But though it never crossed outside the electric fence of the Lunugamvehera park boundary, its crime was again crop raiding. How is this possible within a national park? Only because lands that should be part of the Lunugamvehera National Park right inside the electric fence boundary are under cultivation. The leased land is part of the Protected Area and Ravana was shot on several occasions when attempting to raid crops.

Ravana dead in a muddy water hole

Ravana was fatally wounded by a gunshot wound that penetrated its jaws. After suffering for a few days, the majestic tusker died a pitiful death.

The 500-acre plot of land in question, leased to Sarvodaya. Lunugamvehera park has little water and the lush green crop in the cultivated area is inevitably a magnet for elephants.

The land was given to Sarvodaya in 1972 on a 30-year lease for use as a farm. There are 19 families living there, but the major threat is from the trespassers. Between 2002-2004, Sarvodaya authorities with the support of Police chased away the illegal encroachers, but with the blessing of some of the local politicos in the area, the encroachment has started again.

Ravana is not the first casualty of this mini-battlefield. This year alone, at least three elephants have been found dead near this stretch of land and the total death toll in the last two years has been as high as 10 elephants.

“No shooting was done by Sarvodaya as we do not have weapons. The threat to elephants is mainly from the illegal encroachers who do not tolerate the raiding jumbos,” said Nandana Jayasinghe, Director of Sarvodaya who looks after the facility at Thanamalwila.
One solution would be to have a separate electric fence surrounding the 500 acre land. Sarvodaya is promoting the facility as a Model for Eco Village concept. But since their lease expired on July 2002 and its renewal is still under discussion, they do not want to invest in electric fencing until the lease is extended.

“If people continue cultivating in an elephant territory, these kinds of unfortunate incidents are inevitable. It will be a hassle both for farmers and elephants. So if farmland cannot be removed, at least an electric fence surrounding the 500 acres should be immediately done,” said Dr. Fernando.

Meanwhile, Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Ananda Wijesooriya commenting on the incident said it was sad that people who encroached into this land for cultivation were shooting the elephants. “We are analysing the deeds etc, before taking any action,” he said, adding that the current electric fence was done according to the boundaries allotted at the time of setting up Lunugamvehera Park. The department is currently evaluating the strategy to fence off this land, located inside the fence.
Unless action is taken speedily, more elephants could suffer the same sad fate as Ravana.

Published on SundayTimes on 05.10.2008

Tragic End of Galgamuwa Tusker

November 24, 2010

The Galgamuwa Tusker – a truly majestic elephant that owned the largest tusks for a living wild elephant in Sri Lanka has died on 21.Nov tragically.  

True – every living being will meets its inevitable death sooner or later. I’ve seen many that had been died and elephants being killed as a result of Human elephant conflict are now common. But nothing has shaken me as the footage of tragic death of Galgamuwa Tusker.

The floor boards of the lorry used for transporting the captured Elephant has been broken making the elephant fallen awkward. Tusker died of suffocation as its respiratory system got blocked.

A majestic animal like Galgamuwa Tusker never destined to die like this. Cover your nose – and then the mouth…!! How long can you hold on..? How much will you suffer..?? Think of the suffering of an animal that has body size as 20 times more when he can not breathe. Galgamuwa Tusker would had such a painful last moment.

The tusker was on unrest and attacked few in the Mahagalgamuwa, Koneweva and Ganedivelwewa areas during the last few days also causing one fatality. After this, the Wild Life officials took measures to relocate the elephant.

The tragic end of a majestic tusker (c) DailyMirror

Some more media reports about the tragic end of the jumbo