Pilgrims play dangerous game in tempting Sithulpawwa Tusker

Not a week passes without a report of the animal community being threatened in one way or another by humans who should know better. Last week, the Sunday Times reported on the problem of over-exposure of wildlife sanctuaries to tourists, local and foreign. The increasingly intrusive presence of humans in designated wildlife reserves is a cause for serious concern among wildlife lovers and protectors.

The ancient Sithulpawwa Rock Temple found within the Yala National Park is a popular site with Buddhist pilgrims. The area is also home to a majestic tusker. Admiring a tusker from a safe distance is one thing; offering the animal food is another, and a dangerous one.

The Sithupawwa tusker has become accustomed to taking food from visitors, and even comes within touching distance to accept hand-held food. Wildlife experts say the visitors are taking a huge risk because animals behaviour in the wild is not predictable.

Wildlife photographer Aruna Seneviratne, who has taken photographs of the tusker, told the Sunday Times that the monks at the temple have been compelled to use a loud-speaker to warn people not to feed the wild elephant. However, pilgrims continue to stand near the railing surrounding the temple and throw food for the tusker.

It was an ancient religious practice to offer food to wild animals, in the belief that doing so conferred merit on the giver. Rukshan Jayawardena is a conservationist and a wildlife photographer. According to Mr. Jayawardene, elephants come to humans if they are encouraged, and not because they cannot find food on their own in the jungle. He says animals can make a habit of coming in search of food wherever humans are gathered. It has been reported that this same tusker and other wild jumbos out foraging call at bungalows within the game park.

Less than a week ago, another young tusker, nicknamed Gemunu, tried to enter a wildlife bungalow in Buttuwa, Yala. The animal has been regularly treated to snacks by safari teams, and has developed a taste for cooked food.

Some time back, the same young tusker invaded the kitchen of a Yala hotel, and got out only after a great deal of thrashing about that caused much damage to the property. The hotel has had to enforce a “strictly no feeding” policy among its guests. Sadly, while coming closer to humans through human encouragement, these wild jumbos could be digging their own grave. Several jumbos that became over-familiar with humans and were eventually tagged as “dangerous pests,” have had to be eliminated.

Elephant conservationist Lal Anthonis recalled how a wild elephant broke into his bungalow in Mahaseelawe at about two in the morning. The animal had picked up a food cabinet placed on the veranda and flung it into the garden and proceeded to smash it open.

After talking to the former chief incumbent of the Sithulpawwa Temple, Mr. Anthonis was convinced that this was another elephant that had acquired a taste for food available through human agents, and that it had probably learnt the “bad habit” at the Sithulpawwa Temple.

Not long after, the animal was shot dead when it entered an Army Camp near the reserve and tried to smash its way into a bunker. It is also rumoured that leopards too are being tempted with food at camp sites. Visitors throw food in the hope that they will get a better view of the predators.

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