The fall of Ravana

By Malaka Rodrigo

Among the many elephant deaths we hear of, this was particularly shocking. Not only because it was a majestic tusker being monitored through a satellite collar, but also because it was killed inside a national park.

Ravana died on August 25 in a muddy water hole inside Lunugamvehera National Park, from infected gunshot wounds. The post-mortem revealed that the jumbo– named after the powerful king of ancient Sri Lanka – was starving at the time of death - the wound on its cheek preventing it from taking food in its last days.

The collared tusker

The Lunugamvehera park was supposed to have been a sanctuary for the animal which was translocated there last December. It had initially been moved to Uda Walawe National Park in September 2007 after crop-raiding in its home grounds of Anuradhapura and was radio-collared by elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando before release in the park. But soon, it tried to make its way back leaving a trail of destruction in the villages of Aluthwewa, Handapanagala and Buttala. One man was killed and an elderly villager was saved only after a constable shot the elephant in its foot.

Realising that Ravana was in trouble, Dr. Fernando informed the DWLC officials who treated the injured jumbo and then decided to translocate it to Lunugamvehera. But though it never crossed outside the electric fence of the Lunugamvehera park boundary, its crime was again crop raiding. How is this possible within a national park? Only because lands that should be part of the Lunugamvehera National Park right inside the electric fence boundary are under cultivation. The leased land is part of the Protected Area and Ravana was shot on several occasions when attempting to raid crops.

Ravana was fatally wounded by a gunshot wound that penetrated its jaws. After suffering for a few days, the majestic tusker died a pitiful death.

The 500-acre plot of land in question, leased to Sarvodaya. Lunugamvehera park has little water and the lush green crop in the cultivated area is inevitably a magnet for elephants.

The land was given to Sarvodaya in 1972 on a 30-year lease for use as a farm. There are 19 families living there, but the major threat is from the trespassers. Between 2002-2004, Sarvodaya authorities with the support of Police chased away the illegal encroachers, but with the blessing of some of the local politicos in the area, the encroachment has started again.

Ravana is not the first casualty of this mini-battlefield. This year alone, at least three elephants have been found dead near this stretch of land and the total death toll in the last two years has been as high as 10 elephants.

"No shooting was done by Sarvodaya as we do not have weapons. The threat to elephants is mainly from the illegal encroachers who do not tolerate the raiding jumbos," said Nandana Jayasinghe, Director of Sarvodaya who looks after the facility at Thanamalwila.

One solution would be to have a separate electric fence surrounding the 500 acre land. Sarvodaya is promoting the facility as a Model for Eco Village concept. But since their lease expired on July 2002 and its renewal is still under discussion, they do not want to invest in electric fencing until the lease is extended.

"If people continue cultivating in an elephant territory, these kinds of unfortunate incidents are inevitable. It will be a hassle both for farmers and elephants. So if farmland cannot be removed, at least an electric fence surrounding the 500 acres should be immediately done," said Dr. Fernando.

Ravana dead in a muddy water hole

Meanwhile, Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Ananda Wijesooriya commenting on the incident said it was sad that people who encroached into this land for cultivation were shooting the elephants. “We are analysing the deeds etc, before taking any action," he said, adding that the current electric fence was done according to the boundaries allotted at the time of setting up Lunugamvehera Park. The department is currently evaluating the strategy to fence off this land, located inside the fence.

Unless action is taken speedily, more elephants could suffer the same sad fate as Ravana.

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