Where oh where is the majestic ‘Raja’ of Uda Walawe?

By Srilal Miththapala

The Uda Walawe National Park (UWNP) of Sri Lanka is certainly one of the best locations to see wild elephants all year around. Hence, it has been gaining popularity over the years, particularly with tourists. The Park is home to around 250-300 elephants, but new findings indicate that there can be a larger transient population of close upon 300 or more elephants who use the park intermittently, from the surrounding regions of Balangoda and from the northern side of the park.

Walawe Raja with a broken tusk in 2007. Pic by Franklin Silva

Ongoing research by Shermin Silva of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Biology and local research assistant Ashoka Rajeewa, has identified more than 225 males alone in the park.

To those familiar with the park, one of the more familiar and awesome sightings of the park, is its most treasured exhibit, “Walawe Raja”, the majestic tusker in the prime of his life, who frequents the park. Raja is usually sighted during the drought period, from around July to October each year, when he appears suddenly, to spend about 3-4 months in the park. Often he is in musth, and spends most of his time searching out receptive females in herds.

During the balance period of the year no one really knows where he disappears to. In all probability, he wanders out of the northern side of the park towards Balangoda and the Hambegamuwa region. Over the years, one of his tusks has got damaged, and he is now easily identifiable due to his partly broken right tusk.

However, there is growing concern among a few of us who are regulars to the park, that Raja has not been sighted so far this year. This fear is compounded by the fact that when he was last sighted almost 8-9 months ago, he had a bad wound on his trunk, which had developed into a tear. He was finding it difficult to drink water, due to the water leaking out of the perforated trunk. The veterinary team at UWNP had been treating him for a while.

This is, of course, not the first time that Raja has been injured. On several earlier occasions, he was sighted in the park bearing wounds possibly from gunshot injuries sustained during his periodic sojourns outside the park. However, the park veterinary surgeons had always been able to treat him, and there was some jocular talk among the trackers that Raja comes back into the park to get his injuries attended to!

However, this time the injury was much more serious in nature and our real concern is as to whether this majestic animal has succumbed to his injuries somewhere out in the wild. If so, it will indeed be a very sad situation, as Walawe Raja has become an icon of the UNWP.

He was the star of a film shot by the BBC/Discovery by Mike Birkhead and Toby Sinclair in early 2000, entitled ‘The Last Tusker’. In fact UWNP boasted only of four mature tuskers, Raja, Sumedha, Asoka and the Kalthota tusker. Unfortunately, Asoka met an untimely and suspicious death inside the park, possibly from gunshot injuries last year.

Hence, it will be a sad day if the most senior ‘Last Tusker’ Raja, of the remaining trio has died.
Elephant enthusiasts certainly hope that this is not so, and that one of these days, we will see the familiar sight of Raja ambling across the Gonawiddagala plains, one of his favourite haunts.

The author is a well known wildlife enthusiast, and senior tourism and management

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