‘Elelphants, elephants, run, run!’

Retired Irrigation Engineer Nissanka de Silva recalls his adventures at the Kuda Willachchiya tank area in the Wilpattu of the ’50’s

After many visits to Yala National Park, I was fortunate to carry out some work within Wilpattu National Park in 1959. The Ranger in charge was a Mr. de Alwis from Kandy.

The Maha Willachchiya Project was 22 miles west of Anuradhapura in the Wilpattu intermediate zone. I assumed duties in May 1958, on transfer from Matara after serving there from mid 1955. May 1958 ended with the Sinhala- Tamil conflict and riots that began in Batticaloa and soon spread to all parts of the island including the sacred area of Anuradhapura.

At Willachchiya, irrigation and land development workers numbering about 200 and 150 respectively, defied the orders of their superiors and forced open the stores, taking away gelignite, guns and ammunition in order to kill twelve Tamil officers. These officers saved themselves by hiding in the jungle for a day and a night until a police party from Anuradhapura, led by ASP Tiny Seneviratne, arrived, rescued and delivered them to the refugee centre at the Kachcheri. From there they were sent safely to their homes.

When the conflict subsided somewhat, I obtained three weeks leave and a permit from the Police to travel during the emergency and night time curfew, went back to Matara and was married.

Soon after settling down, I decided to visit an abandoned tank named Kuda Willachchiya which according to the topographical map had some ancient ruins. The tank was almost on the Wilpattu Park boundary and six miles as the crow flies from Maha Willachchiya. It was a 12 mile hike to and fro. With four workers armed with kathies to clear the way, my wife (who insisted on coming) and I set off after an early breakfast. The going was difficult. We were guided by the sun and moving slightly north of west. After about two hours we reached a path. Broken twigs hung on branches indicated it had been traversed recently. About half an hour later we met a villager who directed us to Kuda Willachchiya which was 15 minutes away. We had walked for four hours.

The tank had been first built about 800 years before, same as Maha Willachchiya. We cleared a way to the bund top and found the ruins on a widened section of the bund. Some stone pillars were standing, others lying on the ground, covered by the jungle. The breach was about 50 feet long and 20 feet height from the stream bed which was dry. On the other side of the breach, standing on the bund was a very large tamarind tree. Six of us holding outstretched arms could not encircle it. It was over 30 feet in girth. Looking at it one could say it was really very old.

We had a lunch of sandwiches while leaning our backs against that old tamarind, rested awhile and started our trek back to get out of the forest before dark.

When the Maha Willachchiya reservoir filled up, animals in the Park were attracted by the large body of water. Hence, the request from the Wild Life Department for the Irrigation Department to help improve / restore one or more tanks within the Park. I undertook to carry out the preliminary investigations which involved a study of the topo maps to ascertain the catchment area and its surroundings, an inspection of the site, measurements of the bund, breaches, spillways etc and most importantly estimating the capacity and cost of construction.

From memory the first inspection was of Maradanmaduwa tank at the entrance to the Park. It was a working tank and only improvement to increase capacity was needed. I went by car and stayed with the Ranger. He had a pet female bear at the time and a young boy as his domestic. The two were playmates and would roll on the ground embracing each other! Sugar, jaggery and honey had to be kept under lock and key or on top of a tall cupboard out of reach of the bear, who was free to move around the camp. A bell was hung on its neck to distinguish it from wild boy friends it could attract during the mating season!

Willpattu had several "villus" which are natural low-lying saucer shaped basins that fill during the two or three month rainy season and gradually dry up thereafter. Some, such as Kali Villu, are very extensive providing lush grass as well as water. Large herds of deer easily exceeding one hundred were common. Sambhur were generally seen in ones and twos, as were bears. Occasionally a lone leopard could be spotted. Wild boar were plentiful, sometimes more than twenty together, like wise with wild buffalo. Elephant herds were smaller. The largest I saw was about ten.

It was agreed to inspect a few more abandoned tanks located in different sections of the Park, so that once restored, water would be available all over. The topo map showed the bund of one such tank crossing the jeep track leading to the northern section of the Park. It was deep within the Park, an area not frequently visited.

The Ranger agreed to have a path on the bund top cleared to facilitate inspection.
On the appointed day, a government surveyor stationed at Maha Willachchiya wished to join me. Despite advice he carried a shot gun. We went by jeep. At Maradanmaduwa two Wild Life officers, a guard and watcher who had done the clearing were detailed to guide and help us. The jeep was parked where the track crossed the bund trace.The driver refused to stay alone in the jeep. There was no alternative but to take him along.

First, the right bank was inspected. It ended in a circular section with fallen stone pillars lying around. Most likely it formed a pool for bathing, swimming and water sport. The left bank path had been cleared for about 1500 feet up to breach. It was necessary to inspect the full length of the bund. The stream was dry which was usual as most streams were not perennial. It was agreed to 'creep' through the forest as best as possible to complete the inspection.

No easy task as the area was full of Karamba (wild damson), a thorny plant. A cluster of bushes could be 20 feet or more in diameter. The Wild Life officers kept shouting all the time to make our presence known. We crawled on the upstream side of the bund. After about 1000 feet we came to level ground, presumably a natural spillway.

Our inspection was over. The Wild Life officers said we could take an animal track which would lead us to the jeep. They led the way. Suddenly there was a noise of breaking branches very close to us. The Wild Life officers shouted “elephants, elephants, run, run”. It was impossible to run in that thick 'Karamba forest. I did not see them. It was just a thundering noise and trumpeting which died down gradually. A herd of elephants, resting at noon after a meal, had been disturbed and started stampeded. The Wild Life officers recovered first and started calling out.

The surveyor and I had both fallen. We were unhurt except for the shock and many bruises. The jeep driver was missing. Looking everywhere fearing the worst, we finally found him unconscious. He was revived after much slapping and massaging but remained speechless, till we reached Anuradhapura. The surveyor's gun was found, the barrel and butt separated but undamaged.

Time had stood still, the whole incident taking less that half an hour. It was my closest encounter with wild animals in more than eight years of working in the jungles. It did not deter me from going back to Wilpattu during the next couple of months to complete the preliminary investigation reports of four abandoned tanks.

Two months later I was transferred to Medawachchiya to replace a colleague who left suddenly. I was responsible for a very large area- the northern half of Anuradhapura district- from Rambewa in the south to Irathperiyakulam in the north, Yakawewa in the west to Horowpatana in the east and the boundary of the Padaviya Project at Kebettigollewa.

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