The wildlife officials of Sri Lanka do an amazing job of rescuing wild elephants trapped in hideous contraptions such as crude barbed wire devices made by us humans as well as agri-wells, and irrigation canals. We must salute these officials who spend hours of arduous work to get the unfortunate animals out of their misery. [...]


A jumbo task that can be done more humanely


The wildlife officials of Sri Lanka do an amazing job of rescuing wild elephants trapped in hideous contraptions such as crude barbed wire devices made by us humans as well as agri-wells, and irrigation canals. We must salute these officials who spend hours of arduous work to get the unfortunate animals out of their misery.

However, anyone who watches social media clips of elephant rescue operations will think that we have not yet shown how important certain tasks of the wildlife management are. There is no other way to explain the shooting of two elephants to death  three years ago in a field at Omanthai near Vavuniya.  The elephants were coming out of a well, understandably angry and confused and we should have known the possibility of them attacking the Caterpillar excavator sitting in their path. If the rescuers had not used the gun but the right technique and tool to slide down the slope just carved on the edge of the pit and moved away, we would still have two lively elephants roaming in the wild today.  I will describe this tool later in this essay.

Elephants have become part of our life and while we regard them as a national treasure, no one seems to have given thoughtful suggestions how to resolve humanely and wisely the ubiquitous problems that come between us and them.

Since of late, as the elephant population exploded, canal building under expedited irrigation projects too has expanded.  These canals are slicing through elephant habitats.  They are major obstacles for the unobstructed movement of elephants and smaller wildlife.

When an elephant falls into one of these canals or an unprotected well, we still use medieval methods to extricate it.  Renewed emphasis on rural agri-business has speeded up the construction of agri-wells in spaces where elephants used to roam.  Often by the time the villager finishes digging the well, he has spent all his resources and the well is left out in the open, quite literally a death-trap, not just for elephants but livestock and even people, until the second phase – the protective cover or the wall around it – is finished.

Once an elephant is found in a well or canal, the behaviour of the people gathered around to witness it desperately trying to get out is shameful to say the least.  It is no different where elephants find themselves in other unusual situations.  I watched a You Tube clip the other day where a huge wild elephant walked along a two-lane highway in the midst of throngs of people.  It walked about half an hour through small towns while nervous onlookers gawked.  It was a sight to behold.  The elephant quietly but majestically walked on the bike lane, mind you, while being escorted by two police vehicles in the front and back.  From the casual manner it walked past the boutiques and people, I had no doubt that this elephant must have been one that was released to the wild some time back after being rehabilitated at a wildlife half-way station.  Finally, as soon the elephant stepped off the road and entered a teak plantation, people started throwing Ali Don firecrackers at him.  Why do we have this warped infatuation with firecrackers – no pun intended, at a retreating elephant?

When an elephant is discovered in a pit or an irrigation canal, we must not forget that the poor creature has been stuck there for hours or even days.  It is hungry, tired, scared and disoriented.  If it is a canal carrying cold water from the hill country, the animal is probably suffering from hypothermia, not to mention any existing ailments or injuries. The behaviour of people flocking around an elephant struggling in a water hole is preposterous to say the least.  Such sights have become instant carnivals.

After the elephant is pulled out of a pit after a 3 –4-hour struggle, it is dead tired.  The moment it stands on solid ground, hungry, and having a hard time even to take few steps on its wobbly legs, it turns back with a ‘thank you’ look, at the rescuers and pauses to reset its thoughts.  Then the crowd begins to scream and shoot guns in the air while deafening crackers begin to rain down all around the poor creature.  Instead of this mayhem, if you stay quiet and give the animal time to collect itself and absorb the moment after having been able to stand on its own, it is sure to walk away harmlessly.  Its first instinct after such a long ordeal is to head towards the safety which awaits in the cover of the forest nearby.

We must not think that after the edge of a well or pit had been smoothed out and levelled off with a D4 caterpillar to make it to look like a walkway going up, the elephant will just walk up like you do going up the stairs to the first-floor office.  Its smooth foot lacks traction to hold and the frustrated elephant slips and falls back on to the muddy bottom.  After few tries, it gives up.  The other day, I saw a ring of tyres thrown at an elephant floating on a fast-moving irrigation canal.  The tyres are wobbly, moving like a pendulum and the clumsy movement of elephant’s legs cannot keep up with them.

The solution

After seeing dozens of rescues, I have thought of a simple idea.  I have already emailed a sketch of this to the Anuradhapura provincial Forestry and Wildlife Office. It is an elephant ladder, movable, with individual rung blocks which can be disengaged or disassembled into smaller parts for convenience of transport and storage.  Each removable square rung block made of wood or light metal is about 2ft x 2ft.  One side of each square has a piece of wood twice thicker than the other three pieces.  It is placed horizontally for the elephant to anchor its foot to begin the climb.  This special piece of wood in each square block is used by the elephant as anchor as it moves up. On the two corners of the block facing the adjoining square block are two metal hooks facing similar hooks or rings on the adjoining rung block.

The ladder can be disassembled and stored by unhooking each block from the other and extended as needed by adding more rung blocks.   The last rung block can be attached with a rope to a nearby stationary object like a tree.  If there are no trees in sight to be used as an anchor, the rope can be attached to the bucket teeth of the Caterpillar excavator after it is dug deep in the ground to hold the rope taut while the elephant climbs up.

The ladder can be lowered down the slanted wall of the canal or the agri-well and the elephant will feel it.  Elephants have sharp and focused instincts and as soon as it feels the hard wood or light metal crossbars of the last rung below the surface of water, it knows what to do next.

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