Tough going

The Sunday Times brings you Srilal Miththapala’s report of the continuing mission to ‘Find Raja’, the Uda Walawe tusker

As the initial excitement wore off, and the grind set in, our weary team was in rather low spirits. Elephant sightings are in abundance in and around the north/ north-east regions outside the park boundaries with several reported sightings of tuskers. But they don’t appear to be Raja. However sifting through all the information does indicate that the north/north-east is the ‘theatre of action’.

Driving through difficult terrain
Villagers who helped the team with thunder-flashes in their hands show elephant footprints

In the meantime the team intensified their search in the village hamlets of Rathanagama and Gomagala in the eastern area, just outside the park boundary and received consistent and fairly reliable information of a tusker (who matched the description of Raja) who had been seen about 7-10 days ago. While we have had reports of ‘fairly reliable’ sightings before, they have all been older than four weeks. This was the first time that we had heard of such a recent sighting. This somewhat lifted our flagging spirits.

Dr. Vijitha Perera, Wildlife Veterinarian of the Department of Wildlife Conservation also felt that this area could be Raja’s territory, because he had tracked Raja in this area a few years ago himself, aided by some village fishermen. He promised to try and locate the same fishermen who had helped him, as they would be able to positively identify Raja.

So Kapila and Sameera camped in the area for two nights, keeping vigil with some helpful villagers. The villagers were armed with elephant thunder-flashes as they had had many close encounters with elephants. Once when they had alighted from the jeep to check out some recent dung, they found themselves surrounded by many elephants and luckily managed to silently get back into the jeep.

However one agitated elephant had attempted a mock charge before retreating to the jungle.
They had stayed up through the night but had no sightings of any tuskers. During the day they had driven around checking with village hamlets but finally returned late in the night to base camp at Uda Walawe without too much success.

With time and funds running out, (my original target was six weeks of search ending November 30) we hope to intensify our efforts next week. But it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The terrain is difficult, although we do traverse every possible jeep track available.

Searching on foot is dangerous and can be done only very sparingly, since this is an area heavily infested with wild elephants.

I am only hoping we can get some positive and conclusive evidence that Walawe Raja is alive, even if we really do not see him. That will be a sufficient reward for our efforts.

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