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Sunday, October 9, 2011
Apart from primates, if there is any other animal species which has a wide variety of behaviour patterns, it is none other than the elephant. While being the largest animal on land it is also an outstanding animal due to certain characteristics acquired in the process of evolution. Pre-eminent among them is the possession of a comparatively far more developed brain than other herbivorous animals.
I had the wonderful opportunity of observing and literally brushing shoulders with wild elephants, having spent most of my career in forests inhabited by them. The erosion of their natural lifestyle as a result of human harassment and the diehard resistance displayed in return by them to maintain their freedom, with no compassion on the part of humans in sight, creates a sense of despair within one.
A wild animal gains the capability to identify its predators through instinct. Thus a deer quickly identifies a leopard as a predator that comes to prey on it and tries to escape no sooner its appearance is detected. Such an inborn or genetic trait has developed through millions of years of animal evolution and experience. An elephant in Sri Lanka only reacts to man as a serious predator. It can be assumed that this genetic character of aversion to humans developed after harassment over thousands of years. Today, the intensity of the conflict is far greater than ever.
The English captive Robert Knox in his book ‘An Historical Relation of Ceylon’ published in 1681, over three centuries ago, reveals that the human elephant conflict existed even then in Sri Lanka. He says that wild elephants destroyed crops and killed people who were travelling in jungle areas and in turn people killed elephants with arrows.
Several European sportsmen who lived here in the 19th century wrote about their experiences in the wild and published them. Most of these writings reveal the merciless manner in which they killed wild animals and the pitiless satisfaction they enjoyed in doing so. In ‘Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon’ published in 1853, the author Samuel Baker gives an account of an episode in a ‘kurakkan’ chena in the Nalanda area, in which he pursues a family of elephants and kills the leading cow.
‘To my delight, on entering this low jungle, I saw the female at about forty yards distance making off at great pace. I had a light double-barrelled gun in my hand, and in the hope of checking her pace I fired a flying shot at her ear. She had been hunted for so long that she was well inclined to fight, and she immediately slackened her speed so much that in a few instants I was at her tail, so close that I could have slapped her. Still she ploughed herself. Owing to the barrier of jungle, I could only follow close at her heels and take my chance of a shot. At length, losing all patience, I fired my remaining barrel under her tail, giving it an upward direction in the hope of disabling her spine.
A cloud of smoke hung over me for a second, and throwing my empty gun on one side, I put my hand behind me for a spare rifle. While I felt the welcome barrel pushed into my hand, at the same moment I saw the infuriated head of the elephant with ears cocked charging through the smoke! It was the work of an instant. I had just time to cock the two-ounce rifle and take a steady aim. The next moment we were in another cloud of smoke, but as I fired, I felt certain of her. The smoke cleared from the thick bushes, and she lay dead at six feet from the spot where I stood. The ball was in the centre of her forehead, and B., who had fired over my shoulder so instantaneously with me that I was not aware of it, had placed his ball within three inches of mine. Had she been missed, I should have fired my last shot.’
Those early books relaying the reminiscences of the Europeans are packed with such stories which describe the senseless killing and virtual annihilation of animal populations. The idea depicted is that wild animals have no right or necessity to live freely on earth and are only to be killed by humans just for the pleasure.
Yala East is an ideal habitat for wild elephants, as it meets all their living requirements. Scrub forest abundant with short bushes and interspersed with open grasslands that are green during a greater part of the year provides ample fodder to meet an elephant’s huge daily requirement of food. Large and small water holes, tanks and rock pools scattered in the park, and the Kumbukkan Oya River, provides water right through the year. Towering trees such as Palu, Satin, Banyan and Ahatu with protruding branches give ideal shelter for their mid day siesta. Yala (Ruhunu) National Park in the south and the contiguous forest spreading northwards through Kudumbigala, Lahugala and Gal Oya gives room for seasonal movements in search of new feeding grounds. Disturbances from human activities are minimal as there are no large settlements around the periphery. All these factors create the most favourable environment for elephants.
Encountering a wild elephant while walking in the jungle is a common happening here. Only constant vigilance will prevent you being surprised and charged by one while all other ploys in general being spontaneous in nature are subject to chance as described before.
My first close encounter with an elephant while on foot took place after a couple of weeks of starting my career as a wildlife officer. That morning the other two freshmen, Jayantha and Shantha and I were to walk the eight kilometres up to Bagura and join another group of officers.
With the whole forest washed and made fresh after a heavy shower in the previous night, we started from Okanda early morning. The best time to see the liveliness of the jungle is on a clear morning like this – at dawn after a rainy night. Walking on the wet sandy road while inhaling the crisp and fragrant fresh air soothing the body is of course a pleasure. As the waving crowns of the trees glimmer in the sun, the call of the jungle fowl busy scratching the ground in haste can be heard right round. The short flights of the paradise fly catcher chasing behind insects aroused by the rain looks like a dance in the air. ‘Tuck’, one can hear clearly as the two lids of the bill close around an insect. The deer playing on the mat of grass and the monkeys leaping around on branches gives life to the forest. The crystal clear waters in the streams quench the thirst as one hurriedly takes a sip.
As we reached ‘Yodha Lipa’ passing Girikula and Kematottama we detected a strong elephant smell, the first sign of the presence of an elephant. Elephant odour spreads from the body as well as from fresh dung. This is the sign for us to be on heightened alert observing even the tiniest movement.
The sandy road twists its way between the three huge boulders of Yodha Lipa and straightens again, stretching ahead. Here the road is clear for some distance. As we passed the first bend thereafter, an elephant was coming towards us in its rhythmic walk. The distance between us and the elephant was about twenty five metres and we had enough time to think what we should do. In such a situation, the first evasive strategy is to turn back and run until you get out of the sight of the elephant. Though the elephant saw us it did not show any sign of agitation. We turned back, ran and stopped at a safe distance, panting. By then Jayantha had given up the idea of proceeding any further completely.
Reaction of elephants towards people can differ from one to another greatly. Having a sharp sense of smell, they can detect human scent over a long distance. Most of the wild elephants become restless and react on sensing humans. If it is a herd they escape hurriedly sheltering the calves. Lone male elephants can become aggressive and prepare themselves to charge. The Walaskema elephant described before was such a loner. Some though become so accustomed to people that they do not show even the least disturbance at close range. The elephants which walk between rows of vehicles in Yala National Park are such examples. At downwind, an elephant does not detect human scent even at close quarters. In such a situation escape from the attention of an elephant is not that difficult given its poor sight.
After some pleading, we managed to convince Jayantha to continue the walk up to Bagura. We proceeded with great vigilance and reached the same bend passing Yodha Lipa. As we carefully peered round the bend we could see the elephant browsing at a distance with its back turned towards us. There was no risk in watching the elephant as we had a safe distance in between. The wind was blowing towards us and the elephant showed no signs of having detected our presence. Our intention was to proceed up to Bagura if the elephant entered the jungle clearing the road ahead for us. All three of us had our total attention on the elephant, watching its movements.
Suddenly, we were startled to hear a sharp hissing noise behind the scrub on our right and turned towards it. What we saw over the bush was the head and the back of an elephant bathed in mud. Although the elephant had not seen us as we had treaded silently with the bush separating us as a screen, it nevertheless became restless soon, having got wind of our scent. The only separation between the elephant and us was the spreading branches of the bush.
Being more slender than Shantha and I, Jayantha quickly took off and back tracked quite a distance as we turned. Though we managed to give chase and stop him we had to abandon the journey and return to Okanda as we just could not compel him to proceed again.
‘Dath Kota’ (short tush) at Bagura was quite similar to Walaskema elephant in behaviour. It was nick named Dath Kota, as its left tush jutted out a few inches even when the mouth was closed. He spent a longer part of the year around Bagura plains and then disappeared for a few months only to return. Such seasonal movements take elephants to new habitats where food and water are more abundant. It also allows the original habitat to recover from the impact of heavy foraging.
Whenever we crossed Bagura plains we were always vigilant of Dath Kota because of its noted unusual behaviour. On hearing any vehicle noise or human voice it becomes stone still. If the vehicle comes to a stop near him, it will take a few steps towards the vehicle from the side or behind keeping its eyes focussed on the vehicle. Suddenly, he takes off reaching the vehicle to within a few metres and trumpets aloud. This behaviour is more than enough to make the hair of the passengers stand out. But, at the end it is still a mock charge, for Dath Kota never really makes physical contact.
Once, we were returning from Bambaragastalawa with some experienced officers back to Tummulla bungalow where we were staying. As it was a long walk we wanted to be brisk and get to base in time for a good night’s rest. We were to take the path across Bagura Plains and it was late evening when we entered the grassland.
In our jungle journeys our hobby was collecting bird feathers. In doing so, Janyantha and I walked a little ahead of the rest so that we could keep our eyes focussed on the ground and be the first to notice fallen feathers and collect them.
The road from Bambaragastalawa enters Bagura Plains and winds ahead through isolated thorny bushes therein. As we were passing a Karamba bush on the right side of the road we suddenly came upon the silent still figure of Dath Kota waiting to waylay us. I was within five metres and shouted ‘Jahah.. Aliya…’ instinctively, driven by the inner conscience. The next minute all I could see was the curled trunk of the elephant with a raised forefoot.
As I turned, I saw that the others had guessed what was wrong on hearing my screaming and were retreating as fast as their legs could carry with slippers flying literally over their heads. The haversacks too got thrown here and there. Being in the front, Jayantha and I were the closest to the elephant.
As I noticed others running along the road I suddenly saw Jayathilaka, one of the experienced guards, turning to the left and running towards a bush. I instantly felt that running along the road would expose us more to the elephant and decided to follow Jayathilaka immediately. As the two of us took cover in the bush the elephant continued straight along the road pursuing the others.
Though Jayathilaka was physically small-made his thinking prowess was large. He came out of the cover and started shouting at the elephant from behind and began chasing it. At once, the elephant stopped and turned back taking aim at Jayathilaka, with its attention now switched. But, before the elephant could start the hurl Jayathilaka disappeared back into the bush. By that time those running along the road were out of sight of the elephant. Loosing its interest, the elephant too walked away as if nothing had happened. Jayathilaka’s ploy worked perfectly. Thanks to him I learnt the tactic of escaping from an elephant’s wrath by drawing its attention in a different direction. But, it is not a trick one could use always. There has to be adequate distance between the elephant and the one who draws it and good cover that can deceive it. Many officers have sadly lost their lives when circumstances were otherwise.
Wildlife Guard G. V. Gunawardana once led a rescue operation to save an elephant fallen into a well. With the help of others he managed to rescue the elephant after hours of toiling to build a ramp. No sooner the elephant came out of the well it went after Gunawardana and trampled him to death, thus ending the services of an energetic young officer.
One of the rangers well known for elephant control work, Kamaldeen Mansoor, also died under similar tragic circumstances. In the past, the procedure to get rid of a rogue elephant that goes on the rampage killing people and destroying property was to issue a licence to identify it and shoot it. Renowned elephant hunters were engaged by the department to shoot such elephants. This practice was abolished in early 1980’s with the development of the technique of chemical immobilization. Veterinary surgeons in the department gradually gained experience in capturing and trans-locating wild elephants by immobilizing them. Today, the department possesses a well experienced team of veterinary surgeons and support staff to handle the risky task of capturing wild elephants.
Mansoor was one of the leading members of this team of elite officers engaged in elephant control work. In a wild elephant capture operation, the veterinary surgeon with the help of the others in the team reaches the animal on foot to within thirty metres. Then the elephant would be darted with a syringe containing the immobilizing chemical using a gun of a special type. Under the effects of the drug the elephant will fall immobilized within twenty minutes. The supporting team will then tether the animal before the veterinary surgeon revives the elephant with another drug.
Then the elephant will be transported to a suitable alternative jungle area under sedated condition and released. A rogue elephant darted by Mansoor and the team near Dehiattakandiya within the Mahaweli region turned back and started chasing the team. Mansoor was the closest and was not lucky. Other members of the team upon regrouping found the body of Mansoor stilled by fatal blows.
Once I escaped from a tusker literally with the skin of my teeth just before getting pierced by its long tusks. It was a sunny morning and we were walking towards Itikala lagoon through the jungle. The trail was narrow and overgrown with ‘Nelu’ bushes on both sides. The undergrowth was so thick that one could only see through for a short distance. Along the trail we could see a large Banyan tree looming over the Nelu bushes on our right.
As we were nearing the tree a towering tusker was waiting for us silently, having its large ear flaps cocked. The huge pair of tusks not less than two metres in length and discoloured with mud was menacingly waiting to pierce us. As someone in the group shouted ‘Aliya ……’, I turned back, ran along the trail for a few steps, turned to the left and rushed into the Nelu bush. But it was not possible at all to negotiate through the dense undergrowth. As I moved away from the trail as much as possible and looked back over my shoulders, the bulky body of the tusker moved passing me like a train engine.
During mid day in elephant country it is quite risky to approach large shady trees carelessly. The intense sun and heat falling on the thick hide with sparsely distributed hair is quite irritating to the elephant. It relieves the stress by sleeping under the cool shade of a tree either standing or leaning against the tree trunk. Sometimes, a herd of ten to twelve elephants might laze under the shade of a huge Banyan or similar tree and sleep. If you are alert enough, such a sleeping group can be identified from a distance by their snoring or the rumblings.
The respite of an elephant is by way of an aggregation of short naps. It is not their habit to indulge in long, deep sleep. Even in sleep they do not loose their watchfulness beyond a point. Slightest noise or scent awakens them and they can regain their agility within a fraction of a second.
At times there would be no time or space to take evasive action against an elephant. One has to bravely let circumstances take over and literally hope that fate would be kind. One of my senior officers who was the then Warden of Wilpattu National Park had such an experience.
Even to this day, at certain places, wild elephants cross the Puttalam – Anuradhapura main road. Sometimes, they do so even in day time. Riding a motor cycle the Warden was coming back after attending to some official work in Puttalam. Though he saw an elephant walking along the road at a distance his mind was elsewhere, being preoccupied on some serious work related thoughts. The elephant was moving in the same direction as he was going. ‘You come across domestic elephants on the road, isn’t it? So I didn’t take much notice’ he explained later on and went on to describe how he felt as he realized that it was a wild elephant bathed in mud. The absence of a mahout confirmed the reality. By then he was within a few metres of the huge elephant, having no room to stop the motor cycle and turn back. ‘I accelerated to the full, letting anything happen….’ said the officer and explained how the motor cycle raised past the elephant with it taking no interest at all, to his utter relief.
Although I had heard and experienced a number of instances of destructive behaviour of wild elephants during my stay at Yala East, the only occasion when someone was killed was the incident involving the woman as described in a previous chapter. P.E.P. Deraniyagala, eminent scientist and former Director of the National Museum has explained the methods used by elephants to kill humans in his book on living and extinct species of elephants in Sri Lanka published in 1955. Some such methods are; striking against a tree or dashing on the ground, stamping or kneeling upon, ripping off the limbs, kicking between the legs, crushing the head by biting, impaling upon with the tusks or delivering a lancing blow with them, striking with the coiled trunk and hurling a log or a stone. Sometimes, after the attack they cover the body of the victim with vegetation, according to Deraniyagala.
Once, a dog started barking at an elephant which came near my living quarters at Okanda. Though the annoyed elephant chased the dog several times it managed to escape everytime. The elephant soon realised that it is not easy to reach the nippy dog. Then he broke a piece of hardened soil by kicking the ground with a toenail of the forefoot, picked it up with the trunk and pelted it at the dog. The clever dog however escaped from that too and the elephant decided to concede and walked away. According to Daraniyagala, elephants are capable of accurately pelting objects at predetermined targets to a distance of up to 150 feet.
One of my friends at the Dehiwala Zoo explained that a wire mesh had to be erected in front of the shed where elephants are tethered, as the elephant ‘Bandula’ used to throw at visitors the left-over stems etc of the fodder provided.
I have seen elephants while grazing chase wild buffalos and even small birds such as egrets, when they reached too close. It is not clear whether the elephants do this just for fun or simply because they do not tolerate other animals coming their way. The animals however do not show much fear and keep coming back repeatedly.
Aggressive behaviour can be observed among elephants when they are in ‘Musth’. Musth occurs in male elephants quite regularly but rarely in female elephants. An elephant in musth can be recognized at once by the oily secretion trickling down from the small openings of the two temporal glands located on either side of the cheeks, in between the eye and the ear. Musth prevails for a period of four to six weeks once a year. Although it is generally believed that musth is directly related to sexual behaviour this is not necessarily true apart from the possibility that the increased aggressiveness and commotion shown during musth might be a qualification in attracting a mate.
Elephants have weak eyesight and therefore moving objects can catch their attention better than still objects. Moving objects are identified as a danger and elephants try to either attack them or to escape by running away. If an elephant is dangerously too close, staying still might help to evade its attention.
For a while I used to photograph the birds coming to Okanda tank, taking cover behind a polythene sheet wrapped around a bush in the tank bed. I got into the hide before sunrise and came out after a couple of hours as the sunlight became too bright. One morning I finished photography and returned to the quarters, to notice an elephant proudly walking along the tank bed. Passing the bush I was hiding behind earlier at once the elephant seemed to have got startled and turned to face the bush showing all the signs of facing a threat. When I tried to figure out the reason for this sudden change of its behaviour I noticed that one of the corners of the polythene sheet had come loose and was waving in the wind. The movement of the polythene sheet and the noise it made had altered the poise of the elephant. While I was watching the polythene sheet waved once again and in great excitement the elephant took a few steps back with its eyes remaining fixed on the bush.
After a while the elephant regained its courage and rushed towards the bush with a curled trunk, in an attacking mood. It ran right up to the bush and stopped with a trumpet call as if being not sure of itself. Then, it retreated again by taking a few steps back. The elephant repeated this action several times before it finally attacked the bush by straightening its curled trunk. Though the elephant is a massive animal with mighty hidden strength, it still prudently takes every precaution for its safety.
Mother elephants are quite concerned about the protection of their calves. They always try to move away from danger as soon as noticed. No sooner they detect a human scent they raise the trunk above the head, check around and hurry away always keeping the calves sheltered in the centre of the herd. They do not hesitate to face impending danger courageously for the protection of the calves.
Once, in 1983, we were camping out on the banks of the Walawe River within Udawalawe National Park while attending the field session of a training course. Present Veheragolla circuit bungalow is built at this beautiful spot. One morning we left the camp early, finished the field exercise and headed back to the camp along with the instructor Professor Sarath Kotagama. In the jeep driven by Martin, I was literally packed at the back along with some of my colleagues. On hitting a stump the silencer of the vehicle got damaged and the vehicle started to make a bursting sound.
As we were coming towards Veheramankada passing Buruthagolla tank suddenly an elephant calf hurried onto the road and ran across, about forty metres ahead of the vehicle. Generally vehicle noise is not a disturbance to wild animals in national parks. They become accustomed to it and do not show any unusual behaviour when encountered. But in this case the calf must have panicked hearing the unusual noise. As the calf entered the bush to the right crossing the road, its mother got onto the road running behind it. Because the looks of the mother with erect ear flaps and raised tail was not friendly, Martin brought the vehicle to a halt. Then she turned towards us in a flash, spotting the vehicle immediately. While caged in the jeep we then saw the image of the elephant enlarging to quickly cover our entire view through the windscreen. The elephant raced towards the jeep with a curled trunk, knelt right in front of it and smashed the bonnet with it forehead. While the vehicle rocked and swayed for the impact, she turned back and ran behind the calf.
All this happened in so quickly, just like a dream. By the time we started screaming she had finished the charge and resumed the chase behind her calf. With the strange vehicle noise confusing the mother and not knowing the direction from which it was coming, the mother would have been prodding and chasing the calf to move away from possible danger. It was a coincidence that she spotted the vehicle while getting onto the road. Then she fearlessly attacked the vehicle identifying it as a threat to the calf. She did not make any noise while charging or running away. Though the body of the vehicle was badly dented there was no mechanical damage and we returned to camp safely.
An elephant calf depends on its mother for existence and protection for several years from birth. Whatever the mother is doing, even while foraging, her attention is focused on the calf. She would probe its trunk, tail or a leg from time to time, to feel the calf and make sure that it is within reach and safe. On sensing danger she would quickly bring the calf under its shade and become fully alert.
During this period of caring the calf gathers all the knowledge necessary for its survival, from its mother. This learning includes awareness on various aspects such as seasonality of different feeding grounds, feeding habits and seasonal movement patterns. Digestion in the digestive tract of an elephant is supported by a bacteria living in it. A baby elephant introduces these bacteria to its digestion system by eating its mother’s dung during the early period.
The forest tract from Kebilitta to Okkampitiya along either banks of Kumbukkan Oya river is infested with illegal gem miners. Once we managed to apprehend a large number of such miners and produce them before the courts while camping out at Kebilitta. One day, we were patrolling up stream checking the gem pits along the river. By then we had raided the area continuously and almost all the miners had vacated their camps. As we reached Eeriyapola, our attention was drawn by the frequent bellowing sound of an elephant in the distance. It was coming from the same direction continuously and there was a strange echoing effect to the call. As we felt something unusual in the call we moved in its direction navigating the abandoned gem pits. Some of the pits were more than twenty five feet deep with tunnels connecting them.
The howling directed us to an abandoned gem pit in which we found a female elephant along with its calf. The months-old weakened calf was lying on the layer of mud in the bottom of the pit. It was obvious that the calf was unable to feed on its mother’s milk as it was stuck belly deep. According to the signs it would have been a number of days since they fell into the pit. In its attempt to wiggle out of the pit continuously, the great strength of the mother had progressively diminished with the brim of the pit smoothened by the drag of its forefeet. The elephant raised its legs with great difficulty as the layer of mud in the bottom had become a thick paste. Though the mother was so weak she was attempting vigorously to hide the calf from us.
Falling of wild elephants into such open mines, pits and wells is not a rare occurrence. It happens frequently in areas adjacent to forests. When such an incident is reported to wildlife officers immediate action is taken to rescue the elephant. Filling the pit with commonly available material like saw dust or paddy husk or cutting the bank with an excavator to make a ramp for the elephant to walk out are some of the tactics used to save the animal. Support of a large crowd and equipment such as crow bars and mamoties are necessary for such a rescue operation. But in this instance we were not equipped with the necessary resources and there was no alternative but to return to the base camp at Kebilitta to comeback better equipped.
We returned to the base camp which was eight kilometres away and collected the necessary equipment and some extra hands from a timber depot nearby. By the time we returned to the gem pit it was nearly dark and the unfortunate calf had died.
With great effort we managed to cut and lower the bank of the pit to the extent that the elephant could climb out. The mother elephant was obstructing our excavation effort and we had to detail a separate group to draw its attention away. It kept on trying to cover the body of the dead calf too.
Although we made the ramp it seemed that the elephant was unable to come out due to the difficulty in raising its now weakened limbs as the layer of mud had further hardened by then. As the hopes of rescuing it receded, one of the old timber depot hands suggested that we pour water to the pit. The suggestion was complied with by using some pots readily discovered at a nearby abandoned gem miners’ camp. The idea worked and the mud gradually began to loosen.
But we were puzzled by the fact that the elephant did not show interest in climbing out. She even did not respond to lighting of ‘thunder flares’ used to chase elephants. Right from the beginning, it was observed that the mother was feeling the calf constantly with its trunk. ‘A mother elephant will never escape from danger leaving alone its calf…’ said the same timber depot hand addressed as ‘uncle’ by the others, putting forward his second idea which was to drag the then dead calf out first.
Uncle’s second idea too was followed immediately as the first worked well. We tried to noose a leg of the calf with a rope and pull it out. But every time we tried to put the noose on with the help of a long pole the mother opposed it vigorously. After a few attempts we succeeded with great difficulty, again employing a separate group to draw the attention of the mother away from the calf. The dead calf was pulled out and the mother too followed out of the pit. By then it was about five in the morning and our exhausting overnight effort was well worth it. The elephant was virtually lifeless and in dire need of food and water after days of struggle in the pool of mud.
No sooner the mother came out she reached out to the calf and smelt and sensed the body. Then, she gently pushed the calf with its forefoot, several times. Having seen no response from the calf she realised that the calf was no more alive and slowly moved towards the river. The loving bond between a mother elephant and its calf exist from the moment the calf is born and can only be broken by death.
The behaviour of a free ranging elephant is fascinating. If it does not suffer from a wound or any other disability, the wild elephant is a delightful innocent animal that enjoys a social life. This joy is enabled to the full when factors such as availability of food, water, shelter, space and security are in plenty and well balanced.
An elephant leisurely walks along trails mostly identified and travelled over generations, stops at a plant it loves to eat, picks a branch and eats its tender parts and then discards the rest. There is no need to hang around at a place for long, as sixty to seventy percent of the plant species in its habitat is palatable. Elephants are accustomed to move perpetually while feeding. It reduces the damage done to the habitat due to feeding on plant material. They will have to range over a larger area to collect the food during the dry season in comparison to the wet season when plants bear fresh leaves and twigs. Before prickly branches such as wood apple are eaten, one end is held with teeth and then it is wiped with the trunk curled around it to bend the pricks to one side. Then it is grinded with the molar teeth that have a large surface area with ridges. Browsing by elephants causes no detrimental effect to trees but rather enables the shooting of new branches. Animals such as monkeys who prefer young leaves are benefited by it.
Elephants also prefer the fleshy grass species growing in water especially the ‘Beru’ grass that grows profusely in places such as the Lahugala Maha Wewa tank. They submerge in the tank up to the belly, pull a bundle of lush and fleshy grass and wash it well in water before putting it in the mouth.
During the dry season, Elephants scalp the brown grass off the dusty ground using the nails in their forefeet. A bundle of grass scalped off by the rhythmic swing of the forefoot is lashed on the leg to remove dust and sand, before being pushed into the mouth. Elephants make sure that their food is free of dust and sand as hard particles would hasten the wear of their teeth. An elephant will develop only six pairs of molar teeth during its life time. They grow one set after the other and when the last pair of teeth is worn off, the elephant heads for an inevitable death caused by gradual starvation. The bark of tree species such as Maila, Velang and Teak also is a preferred food of elephants. Tree trunks are debarked with tusks or tushes and then the bark is pulled off with the help of the finger at the tip of the trunk.
The network of trails crisscrossing the jungle is by and large created and maintained by elephants. It helps other species of animals too to reach the feeding grounds and water sources. Green leaves of a broken branch or a tree pulled down by an elephant will provide food for the smaller herbivores which cannot reach that height. Some of the seeds of plants eaten by elephants are not digested within its digestion tract. Such seeds come out intact with the dung and germinate helping the dispersal of the plant in the jungle. Thus, the elephant helps the sustenance of the forest in many ways.
Elephants living under optimum and balanced habitat conditions reach maturity at the age of around fifteen years. Early stage of the calf is spent completely under the protection of the mother and then as it reaches adulthood, it gradually reduces the time spent so. Sexually matured offspring are allowed to remain within the matriarchal family unit only if they are female. Males will leave the family to become ‘loners’ in following nature’s way of preventing the copulation between two closely related animals. By then, the sub adult male has learnt everything he needs for the survival on its own, from the mother and the rest of the herd. Such males reduce the time spent with the family gradually.
Males become sexually matured at the age of about fifteen around which time they leave the herd. They then take another ten years to achieve social maturity. Within this period, the aim of the ‘loner’ would be to build its physical strength which would help it to win a female by overpowering dominant competing males. This building of strength needs good nutrients and lone bulls therefore do not hesitate to take the risk of raiding chena or paddy cultivations. They show a more aggressive behaviour pattern than herds with calves.
Males mature gradually and become adults to join a herd temporarily and win a mate. It may have to compete with other males for this. Time spent with a female may be a very short period. Then the male becomes a loner again and the practice repeats.
Loners are subjected to harassment by farmers when they regularly attempt to raid agricultural fields, home gardens and even stored crops. Sometimes these elephants are punished in inhumane ways which would cause years of prolonged suffering and ultimately death. Elephants that loiter around human habitations have swellings of the size of a table tennis ball all over their skin. Such swellings are the signs of gunshot wounds which could become infested later with pus oozing from the sores. Locally made trap guns loaded with pieces of iron used by poachers to kill deer and other game animals inflict severe leg injuries in elephants. Such infested injuries lead the elephants to years of suffering and ultimately miserable death. A pellet that penetrates critical internal organs such as brain, heart or lungs brings instant death to an elephant. Sometimes such lead pellets embedded in the skull or the bone of a limb cause bone cancers. Most of the elephant skulls I came across had pellets embedded. Once an elephant at Kukulkatuwa on the border of Wilpattu National Park had a severe gunshot wound. Being a victim of a trap gun its bone in the left forefoot was broken and one end had pierced out of the skin. The elephant could not raise the foot and walk forward, so it walked backward dragging the forefoot. After a few days it collapsed and lay on the ground. Despite treatment given by a veterinarian it died after a few more days of severe suffering.
Trap guns are the most common weapon used by poachers in rural areas to kill wild animals. Large pieces of iron are used as pellets in these trap guns made by the local black smiths using a short steel pipe. These guns are set on a trail frequented by wild animals by stretching the trip line across the trail. Height of the gun is adjusted according to the species of animal targeted such as wild pig, spotted deer or sambar. Falling victim accidentally to these trap guns, elephants too receive injuries which bring them long sufferings and a miserable death.
In August 1987, I was attending a training course in Yala with some of my colleagues. On one hot afternoon we were proceeding along Menik river upstream, towards Warahana Bridge along with our instructor Dr. Rudy Rudran. It was the peak of the drought and there was hardly any water left even in the puddles on the dry river bed. During the peak of the drought during which all the tanks and water holes in the jungle dry up completely, wild animals congregate along the banks of the river.
While reaching Thalgasmankada we saw an elephant in the river bed. As the behaviour of the elephant was awkward we stopped the vehicle and reached the bank to observe it closely. As we watched this elephant that was close to the opposite bank of the river, with the binoculars, we could see that it was in a dire state, having a cable noose tightened and cutting into the flesh round the trunk. One end of the cable was hanging on one side of the trunk. The wound caused by the noose was covered with a ball of maggots.
Chena cultivators use such nooses to catch wild animals. The elephant had accidentally got the noose tightened round the trunk while raiding a chena perhaps. By then, the elephant could move only the end of the trunk. Water sucked into the trunk was sprayed on to the belly and it was unable to raise the trunk and drink water. The drained animal was sinking in starvation, thirst and suffering caused by the wound. The elephant noticed us and climbed onto the bank and disappeared into the jungle.
Another punishment given by the chena cultivators to the crop raiding elephants is burning. From the tree top watch huts they drop burning polythene sheets onto their backs. These stick on to the skin causing severe burns. Once I observed an elephant with such burns at Radavige Ara near Elahera in the foot hills of Sudu Kanda mountain range. Apart from burnt patches on the head and back the elephant had a number of gun-shot wounds all over the body. By the time we first observed the elephant it was so weak that it was unable to respond to provocation of the villagers gathered around. Some of village boys were brave enough to hang on its tail, too. Despite the antibiotic treatment given by veterinary surgeon Dr. Wasanthathilaka, the elephant with infested wounds and burns died within a few days.
Signs of blood poisoning or ‘septicaemia’ were observed in the internal organs of the elephant, when the body was cut open for the post-mortem. Swelling, discolouring and appearance of dark patches on internal tissues and organs are the symptoms of septicaemia. After the post mortem the head of the elephant was removed and left buried for a few months before unearthing for study purposes. As it was washed and cleaned a number of lead pellets were found embedded in the skull. Other most important observation was that the molar teeth of the elephant were almost completely worn out. Being an older elephant of about 55 to 60 years, it had its molars worn out and even the bone of the lower jaw was beginning to wear out.
The continuing persistence of the largest terrestrial animal on earth in the jungles of a small island country like ours is nothing short of a miracle. In an island-wide elephant census conducted by the department in1993, the remaining population was estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000. In this census it was observed that the ratio between males and females and that among the different age groups were at optimum levels. Thus, these data show that there is no risk of the complete extinction of the Sri Lankan elephant in the near future. But to ensure the long term survival of this magnificent animal we have to protect and manage their natural habitat better and in adequate extent, and reduce the harassment meted out to them. For this to happen our understanding of them and their plight, and our commitment towards them has to be much more.
“Where are the homes the elephant haunts?
They are there in the lonely places
Where the hand of Nature boldly flaunts
Her strength and majestic graces.
How are the waters in which he laves,
Are they broad and fast and strong?
Yes, and quiet as silent graves,
They sing no rippling song.
And what of the trees? Strange hunter, say.
They are gaunt and grand and tall,
And wistfully still as a by-gone day,
With heaven covering all.
And of the elephant, what of him?
He roams where he will and when,
And feeds in those fragrant forests grim,
Far from the ways of men.
Though wrought of mighty thew and bone,
Soft in his head and slow
In swamp and arbour, far and lone
When the languid breezes blow.”
- Richard Spittel