ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 16, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 42

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.

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