The 'Find Raja' team searching for the missing Uda Walawe tusker was greatly saddened last week, by the news of the death of the magnificent tusker known as "Parakrama" by some or as "Deerga-Dantu"( long teeth) or and as the "Galgamuwa Tusker" by others.
The prevailing heavy rains and gloomy weather in Uda Walawe, further dampened our spirits, and completely de-motivated the team. We could not but help think that perhaps Raja was also gone.
We did not get one single call on our 'Find Raja hot line' about any tusker sightings in the area, although we did have several reports of other elephants. So other than for one short, uneventful drive around the Mau-Ara area, nothing much happened on the field last week.
There has been a flurry of e-mails amongst a few of our close 'elephant fraternity', with some of those who actually participated in this failed translocation also joining in, in analysing what went wrong. After some debate we conclude that it was indeed an unfortunate accident, but one that could perhaps have been prevented if some extra precautions, and better planning and resources had been in place.
The Galgamuwa tusker Parakrama was indeed one of the finest animals we have seen in recent times. His tusks were, in all probability, the most symmetrical and magnificent of all. Although the Somawathiya tusker could perhaps boast of longer tusks, Parakrama's tusks were perfectly shaped.
The tusker population in Sri Lanka is small, with only males growing tusks unlike in the case of the African elephant, where tusks are seen to grow abundantly in both males and females. Hence very soon, we could be seeing less and less tuskers in the wild.
Having said that, we must, of course, bear in mind that the Parakramas, Rajas (missing for the past year from Uda Walawe), Kublai Khans (the Yala tusker who died last year probably from natural causes), Mahaputtuwas and Podiputtuwas, ( big crossed tusker and small crossed tusker-both from Yala now long dead), have all 'sowed their seeds' amongst a wide cross section of females, and there are good chances of some budding young tuskers in the making.
There are also several other mature tuskers still around in the wild. The Wildlife Department veterinarian Dr. Vijitha says there are at least three other good tuskers in the same area that Parakrama frequented, and that the youngest among them has the makings of a magnificent animal in the years to come.
Maybe we should launch a programme to identify the bigger tuskers in the wild, and at least try to give them some special protection.
Many years ago the elephant that still holds the record for the largest tusks, Ahamed, also known as the King of Marsabit, ( a national park in Kenya) was declared a national treasure. In 1970, in order to protect him from poachers, former president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta, placed the elephant under his protection by presidential decree. Upon its death in 1975, its body was preserved and is now on display in Nairobi National Museum.
There is no doubt that translocation is not the solution to the human-elephant conflict ( HEC). Renowned scientists such as Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and Dr. Devaka Weerakoon have shown that translocated elephants do not integrate into their new environment easily, and most often either try to get back to their old territory or cause more damage in their new environment.
The translocation process itself is complicated especially since it involves a large animal ( 2-4 tonnes). The selection of the time and place to first tranquilize the elephant, the estimation of the correct dosage of tranquilizer, loading it on to the lorry or heavy vehicle that would transport it, the actual transportation of the animal from one place to the other, releasing it etc…...are all complicated, with each event having its own set of many constraints and variables.
So translocation must be approached with extensive planning.
Human elephant conflict
A large proportion of Sri Lanka's wild elephant population live outside national parks. The 'slash and burn' cultivation methods used by villagers provide ideal elephant habitat, where elephants tend to move into, because some of the national parks do not offer them such suitable feeding areas.
Increased settlements and more cultivation, often right in the path of elephant migratory routes causing human territory to overlap with elephant habitat, results in HEC. The problem is steadily growing and about four elephants die on the average each week while at the same time one person is killed by an elephant, on average each week.
Today electric fences have become the 'cure for all ills'. Electric fencing is only effective if it is erected after a proper study of elephant movements, and done in such a manner so as not to impede their movements, but rather to ensure that they do not stray away from their path. Maintenance and upkeep is also a major drawback. The electric fence works on the principle that the elephants learn that touching it is dangerous and give it a wide berth, even though the fence is not electrified during the day, to allow the solar cells to charge the batteries for the night. However elephants have been known to use ingenious techniques to get across such barriers.
Human elephant co -existence
Dr. Prithiviraj and Dr. Weerakoon have been advocating a new concept of mitigating the HEC: Managed Elephant Reserves, done in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation - as part of their National Policy. This involves a radical method of integrating human and elephant habitat to ensure coexistence of the two species.
During the wet season people cultivate chenas and during the dry season - when cultivation ceases and people move out - elephants move into chenas, since there is not enough food for them within the parks. Some precautionary fencing may have to be done around the villages.
The uniqueness of the idea of Managed Elephant Ranges is that the elephants do not have to be forced back to the park. Since there is more than enough food for elephants in the parks during the wet season, they will go back to the park without any prompting.
Dr Prithiviraj and Dr. Wijekoon strongly believe that Managed Elephant Ranges are the best method for mitigating HEC in areas with seasonal land use methods - especially considering its economic viability - and believe this method would be very practical for the southern regions of the island as well.
Some progress has been made where, with the engagement of a reasonable cross section of stakeholders, a comprehensive national policy for the conservation and management of wild elephants in Sri Lanka has now been prepared by the DWLC. The challenge now is to ensure that it is implemented properly.
But there needs to be the will and dedication of the Government in addressing this issue, from the very 'top'. Today, such matters related to wild life and environment, sadly seem to take much less importance, in the wake of the economic boom and development drive.
So while efforts continue to try and make the authorities see 'the light of day', it looks like 'quick fix' solutions of erecting electric fences, and translocation will continue.
If translocation is going to be a necessary evil, it must be planned meticulously. No amount of detailed planning is going to go waste, when dealing with a highly intelligent, strong and heavy animal.
What can be done to prevent such accidents as Parakrama, the Galgamuwa tusker’s death during translocation the future?
- Formulate a translocation best practices/ guidelines/ checklists which should be available to all participating DWLC personnel.
- Prepare a comprehensive list of resources required for a proper translocation to take place
- Engage the private sector to provide for the shortcomings identified
- Obtain experienced trainers from abroad to upgrade local skills
As stated earlier the tusker population in this country is quite small, and really no one knows the exact number.
Tuskers such as 'Parakrama' and 'Walawe Raja' ( who is now missing for the past year, and who we are now looking for http://findraja.srilankaelephant.com/blog/ ) are unique, irreplaceable national treasures
The death of this magnificent animal must not be in vain.
To quote Dr Shermin de Silva Director, UdaWalawe Elephant Research Project :
"Not just Parakrama but EVERY elephant is precious - and so is the dignity of every human life. While it is easy to sit back and criticize, coming up with solutions is much more difficult. We can't let that stop us."
All that remains
Another tragic death is reported from the Gomagala/ Hambegamuwa area. The carcass of a mature bull elephant had been hastily set on fire, raising suspicions of how the elephant really died. It is reported that the animal had been electrocuted by a home made contraption carrying 230 Volts instead of the low voltage.