Last Sunday's shocking incident of a little child being
mauled by a leopard at the National Zoological Gardens in Dehiwela
made headlines and raised questions over safety at the Zoo, so often
visited by children.
But what really
happened to toddler Rukmila Sewwandhi, aged just one year and five
months? The little girl suffered serious injuries, when a leopard
attacked her through the bars of its cage. At the time of writing,
she was in the intensive care unit of the National Hospital. How
the attack took place when there is a gap of a few feet between
the cage and the protective barrier where visitors have to stand
is still unclear. No eyewitnesses were forthcoming and there are
many unanswered questions and conflicting accounts.
D. Wimalasena, OIC, Minor Offences at the Dehiwela Police Station
who inquired into the incident said he had obtained a statement
from the child's father. According to the father, he had visited
the Zoo last Sunday with his wife, daughter and members of his wife's
they had wandered towards the bears' cages. By this time little
Rukmila was asleep on her father's shoulder. Suddenly, there was
a commotion in the bears' enclosure and somebody had shouted that
a bear was coming out of its cage. Seeing a big tree nearby, he
had tried to hide behind it, with his niece. In order to make room
for her near the tree, he backed further in, close to the leopard's
It was then,
he said, that he felt something pulling at the child. He turned
around to find the leopard clawing her head through the bars of
the cage. He too was hurt but had somehow managed to hand the child
to the people behind the barrier. They had rushed her to the Kalubowila
the statement, the father had taken the child to hospital with his
wife's sister. Another relative had been back at the Zoo looking
for the mother and taken her to the hospital. OIC Wimalasena said
there were also other reports of the child being kept on the mesh
barrier to take a photograph and falling into the gap between the
cage and the wall. Others said the baby had been swung to and fro
above the barrier.
spoke to the parents, the mother was somewhat coherent but the father
was crying and couldn't say a word," said Zoo Director Brigadier
H.A.N.T. Perera, adding that the events leading to the accident
were unclear. One of the Zoo staff accompanied them to the Kalubowila
Hospital," Brig. Perera said. "The child was taken in
for surgery immediately."
Hospital Dr. G. Gunawardena said the child's lower lip and upper
lip had been torn. There were deep injuries to the scalp and the
skull had been fractured. There was no damage to the brain tissues,
Dr. Gunawardena said but she had nevertheless, been sent for a CT
scan to the National Hospital.
a reptile handler who has been at the Zoo for 22 years was at the
hospital until the surgery was over. Mr. Peiris who rushed to the
scene said the child had claw marks on the head and face.
said the staff members of the Zoo are conscious of the security
of the visitors. "We are there to safeguard the people. In
case of an emergency, we have a special whistle so that we can summon
Brig. Perera, there are often incidents on Sundays, when an average
of 7,000 - 8,000 visitors come to the Zoo. If visitors observe the
rules and safety precautions, there are sufficient safeguards, he
feels. It is when they violate the regulations that unnecessary
animals, fight among themselves or with the keepers and cause unnecessary
panic. The scare about the bear escaping on Sunday was an example.
He added that
people often kept children on the wire barrier to take photographs.
"Several times I have seen this happening and warned them,"
he added. Zoo staff are trained to stay calm in an emergency, Brig.
Perera said. "We have our security staff with walkie-talkies
and the curator is informed as soon as an incident is reported."
On seeing the
lion's cage, it is evident that the injuries had been inflicted
through the bars in the area beyond the security fence. There is
a 'No entry' board fixed on the tree at this point. The tragic incident
should be a warning to parents, teachers and child minders who take
children to the Zoo, to ensure that their charges follow the rules
and do not stray into restricted areas.