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26th September 1999

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A deadly stroll in the wilds
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A deadly stroll in the wilds

Was it negligence on the part of wildlife authorities at Bundala that led to the tragic death of a young German tourist?

By Udena R. Attygalle

Early last Sunday, September 19, a group of German tourists arrived at the Bundala National Park in the Hambantota district. They were to tour the park in two old British Land Rover jeeps, four to a jeep. With them were drivers Chandana Sampath and H.L Jayathissa, a helper L.M Jayasiri and a guide from Walkers Tours, Ruwan Jayasekera.

At the entrance to the park, tickets were duly obtained from the Wildlife Department officers. Although the bill indicated that Rs 120 had been put down as a service charge, no tracker accompanied the party. The drivers from Dickson Safari Services in Tissa, had motored deep into Bundala many times before without a tracker: they knew their way about the park.

Meeting two more German tourists inside the park, the group was informed of the presence of an elephant close by. At around 7.30 a.m. the group arrived at a place called "Kuruluwala", an inter- tidal mud flat that was dry because of the drought. This place is surrounded by the Malala and Amila lagoons. It was common knowledge that elephants frequented these lagoons in the mornings and evenings.

Parking the vehicles in an open area, one of the drivers had climbed a small tree and scanned the area for the elephant. Spotting the animal, he had signalled to the others. According to Inspector Janaka Puspakumara of the Hambantota police who investigated the incident, "All eight tourists had got out of the jeeps and had gone about 100 metres into thick scrub land."

Grit Frohlich and her fiance Thomas Lyss were ahead of the others trying to photograph the elephant. A few minutes later the group had come running back, but Grit was missing . She lay on a bush about five feet high, having been attacked and then flung there by the elephant.

This was the sequence of events that led to the death of Grit Frohlich, a 29-year-old doctor from Chemnitz in Eastern Germany who was on her first visit to Sri Lanka. She had arrived on the 13th.

After the incident Grit had been rushed to the Hambantota base hospital. Unfortunately about two km from the hospital, the engine of the old jeep had failed. "She was then taken to the hospital in the other vehicle," Inspector Puspakumara said.

She had been admitted at 8 a.m. to the hospital's new PCU (Preliminary Care Unit) but after initial treatment had died at 9.30 a.m, the post-mortem report said, "due to the severe laceration of the liver".

When two days later The Sunday Times crew was taken to the place where Grit had been attacked, there were no elephants there. Only some tracks and the tyre marks of the jeeps were visible.

tracker Upul points to the spotUpul, the Wildlife Department tracker who accompanied us, said there are about 20 lone elephants in the park, some extremely dangerous. The elephants from adjoining Yala who migrate during the drought come in herds and in his view are not dangerous. Upul had seen this particular elephant before and described it as a "35-year-old male, extremely tall, about 12 feet." According to him the elephants don't attack as long you are in vehicles. He remembered a similar incident 10 years ago when an Italian tourist had been injured even before the area was declared a park.

Priyankara Wickremasekara, the owner of Priyankara Hotel in Tissa where the tourists had stayed the night before, described them as 'a budget group, a low spending group'. They had arrived from Kandy and were to go to Tangalle the next day. A steward at the hotel Suisse remembered Grit as "one of the nicer tourists". He said she had politely insisted on paying the bill that night itself; rather than wait till the next morning as usual.

According to the hospital ticket, Grit had been conscious when she was brought in. Dr. Mahinda Hettiarchachi of the Karapitiya hospital who did the post-mortem said, "There were about 14 external scratch marks which included a deep wound around the left eye.

"But this had not reached the brain," Dr. Hettiarachchi added. According to him the laceration of the liver had occurred when the elephant had flung Grit onto the ground. He said that the liver was so badly damaged that she had no chance of surviving.

Dr M.Y. Kamil the DMO at the Hambantota hospital said she had been given initial treatment like antibiotics and saline. He added "The maximum possible was done according to the resources available." But facilities seem to be sadly lacking at this base hospital. According to a doctor at the PCU, Dr. Mrs. S.C Sooriarachchi, the X-ray machine cannot be used on Sundays as the technician is not there on this day. (There is only one technician for both the Tangalle and Hambantota hospitals). Plus there is no surgeon or consultant at the hospital on Sundays.

Thomas, Grit's fiance has complained that proper treatment was not given to Grit at the Hambantota hospital. He says that although Grit being a doctor had indicated what should be done, the medical staff had not responded quickly.

Meanwhile Nishan Jayasekera, brother of Ruwan the guide who was with the group said his brother had warned the tourists against getting out of the vehicle but they had not heeded his advice."

S.P.R Somapala, a veteran safari driver at Dixon Safaris said that on most occasions when they go to Bundala, they are not provided a wildlife tracker. "We also get down at certain places in the park," he said, indicating that many such excursions took place before this incident.

Michael Elias, Director of Walkers Tours, who handled the group said that on earlier occasions too excursions had been organized without a tracker. Since the Wildlife Department authorities allow vehicles to enter the park without trackers, there was nothing wrong in doing so, he felt.

The excursion into Bundala had been arranged by freelance beach representatives that the company had hired to take care of the tour party at Browns Beach Hotel, Negombo.

Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation A.P.A Gunesekera said that as a rule, "getting out of the vehicle, except at certain areas inside national parks is prohibited; the place where the drivers had got out was one such place." Asked why a tracker was not provided, he said that Bundala has only three trackers, and all were out with touring parties that day . "Steps are being taken to increase this number," adding that there was no policy disallowing the visitors inside Bundala without trackers .

But the list of park regulations given out to us on entrance to the park stipulates that, "The permit holder/s shall be accompanied throughout his/ their stay at the park by an officer nominated for that purpose by the Game Ranger or the officer in charge of the national park. The permit holder shall give the officer so nominated accommodation free of charge in the vehicle used by him/them."

The Acting Magistrate of Hambantota had meanwhile remanded the drivers, the helper and the guide till September 29 due to "grave negligence" on their part. After an appeal on the 23rd they were released on bail .

The Deputy Ambassador at the German Embassy in Colombo Dr. Von Bothmer said "The fact that arrests have been made indicates that something did go wrong."

He questioned whether the medical facilities in Sri Lanka were of an adequate standard.

The tragic and untimely death of this young tourist should, at least serve as an eye-opener to the authorities on the need to have trackers accompanying visitors within wildlife parks and the need to strictly enforce safety regulations.

Or like in Grit's case, the consequences may be too grave.

The park

Bundala National Park is an area of 6216 ha, located 246 km southeast of Colombo.It is Sri Lanka's only Ramsar wetland. It hosts over 20,000 shore birds, at any given time from August to September (149 species of resident and migratory birds). The migratory birds come mainly from east Europe along the "Indo- Asian free way". Most tourists visit Bundala during this time as the much larger Yala National Park nearby is closed for maintainence, from September 31 to October 16.

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