Archive for the ‘post 2009’ Category

Abductions go to the wilds

January 29, 2013

Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT) alleges that 22 baby elephants have been abducted from wild during past few years. Sajeewa Chamikara of ECT shares the following list.

List of Abducted elephants as provided by Environmental Conservation Trust











…I’m reproducing my 2008 article to refresh the memories that this issue has been continued now for a long time. The original article can be found at

Abductions go to the wilds

jumbo baby-smuggling racket, centred around the wilds in Habarana, has wildlife officials concerned, Malaka Rodrigo reports on 24.08.2008
“Please find my baby. If someone has kidnapped him, please return my baby.” Remember the plea of the mother of baby Gavish who was kidnapped from Kalubowila Hospital last year? Fortunately that story had a happy ending but the mother of the baby elephant discovered recently in captivity may still be lamenting in the wilds of Habarana.

The baby abduction from Kalubowila led to the discovery of a baby smuggling racket that shocked the nation. At present, Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Department officers are investigating trails of baby elephants allegedly being abducted from the wild. The recovery of a baby elephant illegally held without a proper permit in an estate close to Colombo is probably only the tip of this iceberg, they feel. The elephant is now in the Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home.

The baby elephant that was recently discovered in captivity

Reports of a possible baby elephant abduction racket had been in the air for quite some time. It is believed that baby elephants are isolated from their herds and then stealthily transferred to different locations. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC)’s Flying Squad had been investigating this for a long time when they received a tip about the elephant held on a private estate.

The owner of the baby elephant claims that it was born to one of their captive female elephants. But the veterinary report proves that the baby elephant had pellets in its body. “How can a baby elephant born in captivity have pellets in its body?” questions Upali Padmasiri, head of the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Flying Squad. Pellets are the result of gunshots and most Sri Lankan wild elephants unfortunately live with them. This raises fears of mothers being shot to separate the baby from the herd.

Habarana is believed to be the centre of this alleged racket. The area has a high elephant density being in the centre of three national parks namely Minneriya, Kawdulla and Hurulu. Transporting elephants used for elephant safaris in and out from Habarana is also common, so it is an ideal ground to execute abductions. But smuggling out an elephant is different from taking out a butterfly cocoon or a spider from the wild. It is a big animal and the herd furiously defends its calf making capture difficult and dangerous. That is why environmentalists believe this is an organized racket.

It is believed some of the baby jumbos have been issued false birth certificates upon recommendation by some veterinary surgeons.

This is not the first case of a baby elephant being allegedly taken from the wild. In 2001 wildlife officers led by M. Faize, former head of the Flying Squad- found another baby elephant, which the owners claimed had been born to one of their captive elephants. The court case dragged over a long period and an order was received to perform a DNA test to verify the truth of the owner’s claim. But the DNA test could not be performed due to failure to take blood samples. The reasons the DNA test could not be done using elephant dung is unclear. Later, a veterinary surgeon claimed that he treated the baby elephant confirming the pregnancy of the captive mother elephant. So the case was dismissed, without completing the DNA verifications.

These claims raise another question. Have any of the elephants in captivity given birth? And if they did, why has it not been publicized in the newspapers? Veterinary surgeon Dr. Ashoka Dangolla who treats domesticated elephants says owners prefer to keep the elephant calves from the public eye during their younger days. Several births to captive elephants have taken place, but they are not publicized, he says.
“We have only 135 captive elephants in the country and the latest lost (?) is ‘Hurathalie’ who participated in the Kandy Perahera a few days ago,” Dr. Dangolla said.

Of this number there can be only about 20 female domesticated elephants who can be bred, but owners usually do not like their female elephants being pregnant due to the long gestation period during which the elephant cannot be used for any other purpose. The elephant calf depends on its mother’s milk for the first three years of its life.

Pinnawala has now become the main source for providing new blood to the captive elephant population in Sri Lanka with a few donations from India and Thailand.

Capturing elephants from the wild was stopped in 1875 with the infamous Panamure Kraal. The Elephant Owners’ Association claims that most of the domesticated elephants are over 50 years of age and stresses the need for young blood. There was a plan for rogue elephants that become a threat to humans and property to be captured from the wild and then auctioned instead of relocating them in protected areas. The idea was put forward considering that our national parks are already overcrowded with elephants and as a strategy to strengthen the captive elephant populations. But many elephant activists are critical of this idea, considering the conduct of the mahouts and some of the owners of the domesticated elephants.

Conservationists believe that there could be 10-12 elephants so far abducted this way. “We will continue the investigations and do our best to bring the culprits to book,” said the Director General of the DWLC, Ananda Wijesuriya. All elephants have to be registered under the DWLC and the Environmental Ministry warns all the owners to register their elephants immediately, if they haven’t done so far.

A recent Reuters report indicated that about 70-80 elephants are abducted (yearly?0 in the Indian province of Assam alone. Thailand has also faced a similar problem where baby elephants are smuggled from neighbouring countries – Vietnam, Laos. It is important therefore that the loop holes in the law are closed without leaving room for the culprits to squeeze through.

There is also a need to protect the officers who stand up to influential people who are purported to be behind the rackets. They have received the fullest support from the Minister of Environment Champika Ranawaka so far and the country does not want this case to end up at another dead-end with high profile interferences. The appeal is to the public: If you see a baby elephant that is less than five years old being kept under suspicious circumstances, inform the Wildlife Flying Squad on 1991.

Should Pinnawala release elephants to private owners?

‘Sinha Raja’ was probably the most unlucky elephant released by Pinnawala. This handpicked healthy calf met a tragic death, when it was hit by lightning when chained to an iron bar in an open area.

A few days after Sinha Raja’s death, another elephant was released from Pinnawala on a political request. During 2002- 2003, 11 elephants were donated to temples. Pinnawala remains the main source from where elephants are given out for captive.

Most of the requests for elephants are through temples on the basis that elephants are needed to continue cultural events like peraheras. Pinnawala came up with a unique solution for this demand under the guidance of former director Brigadier H.A.N.T. Perera. The suggestion included training a squad of Pinnawala elephants for cultural events with the formation of a committee comprising some key elephant owners and temples.

The administrators planned to keep this squad at Wagolla and had made an arena to train elephants for peraheras to get them used to torches at night etc. Having this squad at one place would have enabled better treatment with better standards. If this concept materialized, it would also have ensured a supply of well trained elephants available for a reasonable price for cultural events, together with a group of trained veterinary surgeons. This year there were more incidents at cultural events; one woman in Ragama was killed. Such tragedies could also be avoided.

The proposal of a trained Elephant Squad was submitted to Parliament in 2003, but nothing has happened so far, other than the setting up of a parliament committee.


Shouldn’t Yala animals get drought break..?

October 10, 2010

Yala National Park (or Ruhunu National Park) has been traditionally closed from mid September to October to give a relief to the animals during the height of the drought. But for the last few years, Yala has been kept open. Yala block 1 is the most heavily visited National Park of Sri Lanka; so should this tradition be continued or not..?? This is my article published in 2007 about the traditional Drought Break received by Yala animals…

Yala animals get drought break

Text by Malaka Rodrigo, Pix by Ashwini Jayatilake & Mevan Piyasena.
Published on 07.Oct.2007

“When first I came to my new jungle home at the end of July, there had been no rain in this whole Ruhunu area. The good earth was parched and cracked and hard as concrete; trees, bushes, shrubs and grass all burnt a pale sienna brown. I was able to see far into scrub jungle as there was hardly any foliage, and dead leaves crunched under my foot as I walked. Across a wide salt pan or lewaya, I could have driven a high powered car with no fear of sinking into the hard crust of salt.”

This is how Douglas Raffel unveiled the “The Great Thirst” experienced during the drought in the first chapter of his book, “In Ruhunu Jungles”.

Leopard drinking from an artificial water hole at Yala.

Yala, the country’s most popular National Park is traditionally closed to visitors from September 1 to mid-October during the height of the drought. This is to avoid any disturbance to already wearied animals by hundreds of visitors and moving vehicles.

This year, however the closure has been reduced by two weeks and in response to requests from the travel industry, Yala Park will open on October 16. This decision was taken by the Department of Wildlife Conservation after studying the ground conditions, considering the good rainfall enjoyed during the period.

As the most popular park in Sri Lanka, Yala has become a hot-spot of Sri Lanka’s tourism. “This year the park received pre-monsoon rain and the drought is not severe. In addition the measures we have taken last year to sustain water such as deepening water holes have also assisted to keep the water. Considering the request from the tourism sector and carefully assessing the ground situation, the Department of Wildlife Conservation decided to shift the closing date by 14 days,” park warden W.S.Weragama said.

Located in the arid zone, the Yala Park gets rain mainly from the North-east monsoon, from November to January. The inter-monsoon rains in March/April and September also provide water, but are unpredictable. The dry season usually starts in June and continues until September/mid October.

deer drinking from an artificial water hole at Yala. Pix by Ashwini Jayatilake

At this time temperatures can rise to a high of 37oC, although the mean annual temperature is 27 oC. Average rainfall is 1281mm, but it is lower in Block III, IV, V and the Strict Nature Reserve which receives from 550-775 mm. The drought is most severe during the pre-monsoonal months of September/October.

The need of a closure was first suggested in 1950 by the Game and Fauna Protection Society (presently Wildlife and Nature Protection Society – WNPS). It was initially for a period of two months and later reduced to 45 days.

Drought is a blessing

“Drought is a blessing of nature,” states Childers Jayawardene, who was Yala Park warden in the late ’70s. “Drought eliminates the sick and weak animals. Next year after the drought, what we have is a healthier animal population. Drought is nature’s way of maintaining life.” Hence, the mechanisms to minimize the damages of the drought should be carefully considered, says Mr. Jayawardene.

As vividly described by Raffel, the park loses its greenery completely during the drought. The water-holes start to disappear and animals congregate around the remaining water sources. Lack of food sources and thirst usually make the animals restless and they sometimes fight for the scarce resources.

Water holes – the lifeline

“Everywhere were the signs of a great thirst and of a great hunger too, for with no green leaves and grass, their hunger was as great as their thirst. Visiting two well known water-holes, I found where there had once been water, the sun-baked footprints of wild animals and birds in the hard ground. In a river twenty-two miles away was now the closest water, and there too only at certain pools. Crocodiles had left the river and roamed far. Lullas (a fish) had dug themselves into the earth till the rains came. Everywhere was the desolation of the drought,” Raffel wrote, describing the drought in, “In Ruhunu Jungles”.

Menik Ganga is indeed the lifeline during a bad drought. There are also several natural and man-made tanks such Gonagala, Mandagala, Uraniya, Mahaseelawa, Heenwewa, Korawakka that are the major water sources, until they completely dry up. Several natural rock pools known as kema also hold water even during the height of the drought. Welmakkema, Jamburagala, Padikema, Kimbulagala, Walaskema are some of them.

A sloth bear and cub in Yala.

These rock water pools are sometimes filled by park management during severe droughts by placing large concrete basins at the bottoms and creating artificial ponds.

During the critical time, when the water gets completely exhausted, water bowsers are sent to fill them up once in two days and animals are now used to waiting eagerly for the browser to arrive. This initiative was also supported by other organizations and those in the area.

Poaching during the drought

Drought is the easiest period to hunt game. Hunters only need to wait at a hideout till the thirsty animals emerge. Several years ago, during one of the worst droughts, it was revealed that poachers would dig holes and place bags of water mixed with poison which was drunk by animals like the Spotted Deer, Sambhur and Wild Boar who then suffered an agonizing death.

The park management has now strengthened anti-poaching activities during the drought. Mobile units are sent to nab illegal entrants and small camps are set up in strategic places to deter poachers. The closure of the park frees up additional manpower for these efforts.

Animals’ response to the drought

Elephants who remain on high ground around Jamburagala during the wet season, come down to the plains during the dry season. As the drought sets in, elephants again start moving away from the coastal belt – some toward the perennial waters of Menik ganga and Blocks II and III, while other herds move to Meynert wewa, Heenwewa, Katagamuwa and even to settlements outside the park. With the rains in November-December, they return to the coastal belt. But deepening of tanks and managing of water sources during the drought have altered some of these migratory patterns, with animals staying inside the park itself.

Elephants are also good at finding water. They can sense the water beneath a dried-up riverbed and have the strength to dig the sand in search of water. Other animals follow them to get this rare fresh water source.

Some people believe Yala should not be closed as most of the other parks are not, even during drought periods. But Yala has a unique climatic and hydrologic condition and the welfare of wildlife during the drought should be the key in taking the decision. On the other hand, simply closing it on a given date also does no good. The decision to open/close the park should hinge on this delicate balance of the welfare of its animals and of the dependents.

Soon, the drought will be over and the park will be open to visitors. This is how Raffel saw the rebirth of the “Ruhunu Jungles” after the drought.

“On one night I woke to the sound of rain pattering on the roof noisily. The rain was pouring down on us at last! ……As though by magic, a fresh green mantle covers the khaki and brown jungle of yesterday. Transparent scrub has become thick jungle through which you cannot see. Already flowers adorn each bush. Birds keep chasing each other about and I have seen the foundation stones of several nests. It is almost unbelievable that all this could happen in four days.” Published on 07.10.2007