Another elephantine disaster waiting to happen?

Saturday, 12 January 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A newcomer to the fence

Feeding happens right by the notice


There is possibly no other wild elephant who is more famous in Sri Lanka than Rambo of Uda Walawe National Park (UNWP). For the past two decades, Rambo has patrolled the stretch of the UNWP bund, and he has now become a permanent fixture there.

Many passing vehicles stop and feed him with juicy ‘titbits’ such as watermelon, bananas and sugar cane. He has always respected to the electric fence, and never tried break out. (The fence is really a psychological barrier because a full grown elephant can easily knock over the fence, especially during day time when there is no electric current powering the fence)

While this is quite a unique and intriguing sight, which attracts a lot of attention, it is a phenomena fraught with danger. Rambo, although seemingly docile, is a wild elephant, and if he were to break through the fence, it would result in some great disaster with dangerous consequences. 

Many attempts have been made by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to chase Rambo away with no success. The efforts came too late. Elephants are very intelligent animals and learn behaviours quickly. So any such new ‘initiatives’ have to be nipped in the bud. 

Hence some form of ‘uneasy equilibrium’ has now been established, with Rambo behind the fence, and with passers-by still feeding him. 

Newcomer to UWNP electric fence  

Of late it has been noticed that another young male elephant with tusks has started frequenting the electric fence perimeter near the causeway and that passers-by are already beginning to feed it. 

This young tusker is called Bullet and has rather unique elongated tusks. Tuskers are very rare among Sri Lankan elephant species and therefore they are very precious and should be protected at all costs.  

The dangers 

It was only recently that another young tusker of the UWNP was shot and killed within the confines of the park. Although there was some attention drawn to this, no follow up action seems to have been taken by the DWC or the law enforcing authorities to bring the culprits to book.

This practice of feeding wild elephants is now quite widespread and not confined to the vicinity of wild life parks only. It is very prevalent in the Deep South and areas of the North Central Province

While the grim Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) takes its toll with some 279 wild elephants dying in 2018, (that’s more than five deaths per week!) it is even more alarming that this tusker was apparently killed inside the Wildlife Park.

So there is grave and serious concern that if this young tusker gets too acclimatised to humans due to feeding, he could be lured and killed for his tusks

Therefore there is an urgent need for the authorities to take some immediate action to stop this elephant from getting used to coming to the wire fence and begging for food. 

The culprits are not only Sri Lankans, but also misguided tourists who are encouraged to do so by guides.

Some simple, cohesive and sustained actions are all that is required to mitigate this problem and it should involve all stakeholders and not only the state authorities. 

Sustaining the effort is of utmost importance. Many good initiatives fall by the way side because the state authorities do not persist with the initiative after the initial effort and euphoria 

A case in point was when the DWC wanted such signage displayed at UWNP some years ago. I obtained sponsorship from LTL Holdings and got 12 such signs done. With a lot of fanfare these boards were erected, but there was very poor follow up ‘policing’ by the DWC. Today the elephants are fed right by the side of the warning sign!

Suggested actions

  • The DWC must put up some information boards warning people that it is an offence to feed wild animals, and those doing so could be prosecuted (I am aware that not many will take heed of such warning signs, but it is a statutory necessity for action to be taken against the perpetrators ) 
  • The DWC and local police should introduce a periodic patrol along the Thanamalwila road, once an hour or so. 
  • Anyone found feeding the elephants must be immediately fined/charged (I am not sure about the exact legislation, but I was told by a former Director of the DWC that once proper signage is displayed, they can take action against perpetrators) 
  • The general public must be educated through a series of advertisements on TV and print media. Funding for such a campaign can easily be found through a private sector organization as a part of their CSR activity budget. I am confident that many advertising agencies will gladly undertake such an exercise at cost, and not on a commercial basis.
  • The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA should instruct all registered tour guides and Chauffer guide lecturers, and drivers of tourist vehicles that they should not encourage their tourists to indulge in this sort of activity. Anyone found doing so should have their licence suspended for 6 months.  
  • The Sri Lanka Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) must advice all guides working with them that such activities will be not acceptable. Those who are found to be encouraging these activities should be blacklisted by SLAITO.
  • The general public also should be encouraged to report such incidents. It is indeed a simple exercise toady to take a picture of the offending scene with some identification of the vehicle. Such pictures can be uploaded to a DWC/Police social media link, so that follow action can be taken. If possible a small incentive (of perhaps Rs. 1,000 for each such clear identifiable report) can be considered.)  

Pix by Srilal Miththapala


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