Deadly clutch

By Hiranthi Fernando
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.

SubInspector 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 family.

After lunch, 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 cage.

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 Hospital.

According to 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.

"When I 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."

Director Kalubowila 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.

Premasiri Peiris, 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.

Mr. Peiris 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 help."

According to 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 incidents occur.

They tease 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.


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