Edmund Wilson, Retired Deputy Director, Department of Wildlife Conservation argues a case for euthanasia for fatally injured wild elephants  It was close to midnight on August 23, 2008. I was fast asleep in my Kelaniya home. The loud ringing of the telephone jolted me awake. A glance at the wall clock showed it was 1.20 [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Life-saving battle or face saving exercise?


Edmund Wilson, Retired Deputy Director, Department of Wildlife Conservation argues a case for euthanasia for fatally injured wild elephants 

It was close to midnight on August 23, 2008. I was fast asleep in my Kelaniya home. The loud ringing of the telephone jolted me awake. A glance at the wall clock showed it was 1.20 a.m. on the 24th.

“Can we speak to Mr. Wilson-Deputy Director-Wildlife Department…?” “Yes, speaking…,” I said. “Sir we are from CGR headquarters, Maradana…” At once I thought this has to be another train accident involving an elephant–the second incident for September – 2008.
The CGR Officer went on, “Sir,… about 12 midnight at Minneriya there was a train accident on elephant…the Colombo bound express train collided with three elephants…one elephant died instantly and was lying across the rail track… As it was blocking the passage of the train we had to drag the carcass off the rail track…”. “What happened to the other two?” I asked anxiously.

“The other two animals got thrown some distance off the track….. we think these animals are badly injured….. they are struggling to get up but unable do so…probably need urgent medical attention… Minneriya Station Master informs that all the efforts to contact local area wildlife staff have failed…”.

After thanking the officer for informing me I tried to make contact with our staff stationed at Minneriya, Polonnaruwa and Giritale, but failed. I then called the ‘on call’ duty officer at the Department Headquarters in Malabe, passed on the information and requested him to “Contact earliest possible the wildlife staff at Polonnaruwa, Minneriya and Giritale offices and convey my instructions for them to proceed to the spot immediately and attend to the two injured elephants… above all please tell them to contact me immediately…”.
I had only replaced the receiver when the telephone started ringing again. This time it was Mr. Wijesooriya, then Director General of Wildlife Conservation.

“Wilson… another rail accident at Minneriya-three elephants this time…”. I realised that Maradana CGR had contacted him too. I told him necessary instructions had been passed to local wildlife staff and that they would keep me informed.

“Wilson… can you proceed there as early as possible…?” He was nervous about the press. “Yes sir. I’ll go there, make necessary arrangements and let you know,” I replied. As I reached Minneriya about 7 a.m. on the 24th, I noticed three wildlife Department vehicles parked by the roadside. The drivers showed us where the accident had occurred.

I walked through the bush to the railway track. The second elephant too had died. About 12 Wildlife employees and two Department veterinarians were attending to the other injured elephant lying on the ground – struggling to get up – badly injured probably due to multiple fractures of bones. There was a large gathering of people and two newspaper reporters.

On examining the rail track, I observed that the elephant that died instantly on the track had been pushed forward by the force of the moving train – its flesh smashed for about 30 metres along the track. One sleeperette was broken in the centre due to the tremendous force of the moving train – A heap of (elephant) flesh was on one side of the track.

I went up to the Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Tharaka Prasad – Deputy Director (Wildlife Health Management-Department of Wildlife Conservation) who was attending to the injured elephant, which was continually struggling to get up. “Tharaka, can you save it?” I asked.

He looked at me and the two newspaper reporters who were writing notes with cameras hanging over the shoulders, but out of earshot. “Nonsense, two front leg bones are fractured… there’s no hope at all… but we have to show the crowd that we are doing everything possible to save it…look at the crowd…”.

Meanwhile I could see some subordinate Wildlife staff pouring water on the struggling animal and others erecting a canvas tent over its body in an attempt to protect it from the mid-day sunlight. I felt sorry knowing their efforts would be in vain.

During my 40-year career in the Department of Wildlife Conservation, I have observed that apart from Railway accidents, fatal injuries to elephants occur in incidents such as collisions with speeding motor vehicles, falls from cliffs in hilly areas, electrocution due to unprotected electric wires, spraining the feet while walking across rugged rocky areas or across rivers and due to trap gun explosions etc.

Besides, deaths of wild elephants due to gunshot wounds have become a common occurrence. The intense human-elephant conflict continues without proper attention in spite of the recommendations given to the Wildlife Department by the 17-member expert committee in 2006 with the concurrence of the Cabinet of Ministers.

When information about wounded or sick elephants reaches the Wildlife veterinarians’ office, they rush to the spot with a contingent of staff and equipment– in two or three Wildlife Department vehicles and commence treatment. In many instances, their efforts are in vain.

An injured elephant being treated by WildLife Department veterinarians. Pic courtesy Ranjith Silva-Olga Studio Kiribathgoda and Dr. Tharaka Prasad

I have also observed that despite the fact that elephants’ injuries are potentially fatal – for example dislocated hip bones resulting from a rail accident, the veterinarians knowing very well that the injured animal cannot be saved or cured at all – still continue treatment – thereby causing an unnecessary heavy expenditure to the Government.

The DWLC is aware that more than 60% of the elephant population in Sri Lanka lives outside the network of Protected Areas. Many of them cause severe damage to crops and human property. This has led to a serious conflict situation in the Dry Zone-Sri Lanka.
A marauding elephant on receiving a fatal wound as a result of gunfire from an irate farmer–avoids human presence and penetrates deeper and deeper into the forest. Before that happens, if Wildlife Veterinarians could locate it and commence treatment- while the animal moves about in its domain or remains on its feet –there would be a chance of recovery and survival.

But in many instances such wounded animals remain unnoticed by Wildlife staff or villagers. As days pass by, the bleeding wounds start festering, and its legs become highly swollen limiting its movements. Starvation and thirst weakens it so that it can no longer remain standing and soon it lies down on the ground. Meanwhile due to festering wounds, septicaemia (blood poisoning) sets in followed by the ‘death knell call’.

Attempts at saving the animals however futile have become essential to avoid today’s public and media criticism against the DWLC for negligence. Veterinarians are compelled to take futile attempts not administering ‘euthanasia’ (mercy killing) due to lack of legal provision to do so. In my conversations with DWLC veterinarians and senior staff, I realised they believe that in the case of a multiple fracture or acute septicaemia resulting from a festering gunshot wound – the best treatment would be to administer ‘euthanasia’. However there is no legal provision to do so. Therefore, they agree that quite against their conscience they try to ‘exhibit’ that they are doing ‘something’ to save the animal but after a prolonged agony the animal faces a miserable death.

What’s wrong in administering ‘euthanasia’ ? Can’t we have legal backing to do so? Whom are we cheating?

In Africa culling of excess populations of elephants, hippos, African buffalo etc is practised to maintain healthy wild populations. During the period I underwent training in wildlife management in the East African Wildlife College, Tanzania (1982-1984), the trainee students were employed to ‘eliminate’ (kill) as much ‘big game’ as possible in the Kilembero Game Control Area in Northern Tanzania.
The flesh of elephants and hippos we shot and killed was sold to villagers for consumption.

The objective of the exercise was to reduce the population to minimise crop damage. They believe mere protection of animals as practised in Sri Lanka is not conservation. Wildlife is a renewable natural resource and can be utilised for man’s welfare provided properly managed.

What is the utilisation we practise in Sri Lanka – excepting admission of visitors to our National Parks sometimes to the detriment of animals?

Some believe ‘euthanasia’ is not suitable because ours is a Buddhist country. However the fact remains that ‘euthanasia’ is not intentional killing but terminating the life of a sick or wounded suffering animal based on bona-fide reasons and decided upon by qualified veterinarians.

About 12-15 elephants die annually in rail accidents. At least 200 elephants die annually in the prevailing human-elephant conflict. With deliberate wounding, many die miserably despite veterinarians’ attention.

The DWLC gets limited funds annually from the Central Treasury and that annual allocation for elephant conservation is not sufficient to meet the continuous colossal expenditure.

Under the circumstances, is it not wise to afford legal backing for ‘euthanasia’? My opinion is that we are already late. Therefore, let us think positively now in the interest of genuine conservation. Medical research and equipment have advanced today to such an extent that veterinarians would not have any difficulty in safely deciding whether their patients can be saved or not.

I welcome public opinion as regards my proposal.

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