Vets left in the wilds

Wildlife Department vets are on strike, demanding better facilities and more effective measures to manage the human-elephant conflict. Malaka Rodrigo highlights the difficult conditions under which they work

Serving as a wildlife veterinarian is a dangerous job in Sri Lanka. Whether it is to tranquillise a rogue elephant for translocation or treat a dying jumbo, these vets -- there are just seven of them -- have to go on foot in dense jungle braving numerous dangers. They run the risk of being killed by the elephants – even one mistake could be fatal for the whole team.

Recalling one such incident, veterinary surgeon Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe, who is in charge of the North-western Zone, said he had a narrow escape when he treated a female elephant.

“We tranquillised the elephant to put a radio collar on her. After the job was done, we gave her anti-tranquillizer, but the elephant didn’t respond in time. We went closer to check because a delay could be fatal for the elephant. But suddenly things changed.

Lost cause: Wildlife vets attending to a dying elephant

“As soon as the elephant saw me, she got up in a flash. She started charging me and I had to run for my life. While running I tripped over a root and fell into a patch of dense grass. Luckily the elephant, which was still disoriented and a few feet away from me, did not spot me. Seconds later, she decided to move out,” Dr. Jayasinghe said describing his brush with death.

Another Wildlife Department vet, Dr. Vijitha Perera, also had a similar experience while he was treating an elephant with gunshot injuries at Suriyawewa. The elephant had been lying motionless in a water hole. But no sooner the vet started inspecting the wounds than the elephant kicked him, sending him flying in the air. “Had that powerful kick been aimed at my face or chest, it could have been my last day,” Dr. Perera said.

Almost all Wildlife Department veterinarians have plenty of such experiences to share. The danger is not limited to dealing with elephants.

Working in the North and East involves a different type of risk. During the war, wildlife vets had to cross minefields to save elephants. Sometimes they had to cross into areas yet to be controlled by the security forces and treat elephants to the sound of gunfire. According to Wildlife vets, since the jungles of the North and East are not completely cleared of landmines, the danger still lurks.

The Wildlife Department does not have enough vets. Its seven veterinary surgeons are deployed at different zones of the country’s vast wildlife cover. Sometimes, they travel 100 km in search of a wounded animal.

Apart from these dangers, the vets also have to face other health hazards when conducting post-mortems on dead elephants. On average about 200 elephants are killed every year. Sometimes the deaths are brought to their notice several days later and the vets are compelled to carry out postmortems on rotting carcasses full of maggots.

They putrid smell of the rotten carcass is difficult to stomach. If the death is due to a gunshot wound, the vets have to dig deep into the rotten flesh to find the bullet which should be provided as evidence to the courts.

“We stink like pigs after a bad postmortem and the foul smell sometimes remains for several days,” Dr. Perera said. These postmortems often have to be done in the open under the scorching sun and without proper sanitation procedures.

Human-elephant conflict

The human-elephant conflict is the issue that worries the striking vets the most. During 2009 alone, the conflict claimed 228 elephants and 50 people. The vets claim that the department is wasting public money trying to provide temporary solutions like translocations or elephant drives -- solutions which are already proven failures.

According to the Wildlife Vet Association (WVA), the Department has erected more than 1000 km of electric fences, but only less than half that length is effective today. Elephant-holding grounds set up to contain rogue elephants are another failure due to the department’s ineffective handling the vets claim.

So far 18 rogue elephants have been put into this facility, but most of them escaped from the places where fencing is inadequate, they say. “I had personally inspected this Holding Ground and identified the exact points that should be strengthened. I also gave the GPS locations. But our recommendation was ignored,” says a frustrated Dr. Tharaka Prasad, WVA Vice President.

Wildlife Director General Ananda Wijesuriya assured that the matter regarding the promotional scheme (see box above) was being looked into. He said talks were held with Deputy Economic Development Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and the vets have agreed to give fresh proposals to the deputy minister in September, the Wildlife Chief said.

He also said measures were underway to increase the number of wildlife veterinarians to 11. But wildlife department sources said recruitment was a major problem because when the department recently called for applications for the post of veterinary surgeons in the North and East, no one applied.

Continuing to care

Strike or no strike, the wildlife vets care for the sick animals. On Tuesday, wildlife vet Dr. Chandanna Jayasinghe got a message that a baby elephant was found at Silavathurai in Mannar.
The message came while the vets were in talks with Deputy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya. He excused himself and rushed to Mannar.

The baby elephant was found by the Army in the jungles in a very weak condition. It was shivering and apparently terrified without its family. With treatment from the wildlife vets, the baby recovered and was transferred two days later to ETH, where it is being treated and cared for.

No proper promotion scheme

The absence of a properly structured promotional scheme is another area the vets want the government to look at. In terms of a restructuring scheme introduced in 2004, the vets were not absorbed into the scientific service.

The vets feel this has denied them the opportunity to climb the career ladder in the department. Once they reach a position of seniority, they have to move out of the DWC and join the Department of Animal Production and Health Service.

“Wildlife vets learn much in the field and undergo unique training during their career. It is a crime to allow this experience to go waste which will indirectly harm the wildlife of Sri Lanka as a whole,” Dr. Perera says.

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