By Srilal Miththapala
Most visitors to Yala are very familiar with the iconic elephant Gemunu. He is a young tusker in his prime, possibly about 25+ years old, who frequents Block 1 of the Yala National Park.
Gemunu’s notoriety is due to the fact that he has got acclimatised to waylaying jeeps and searching for food in the visitors’ possessions. This has apparently originated (according to unconfirmed reports) of him being fed during his young days at the Sithulpahuwa temple premises.
Subsequently jeep drivers and safari operators have enticed him by carrying titbits and other food in their hands, so that their clients get an ‘additional thrill’ of having an elephant put his trunk inside the jeep and all over them. This is a well-known fact, and there are several video clips on You Tube clearly showing safari operators holding out their hand with food and encouraging Gemunu closer.
Now this may give some additional thrills to visitors to have a wild elephant touch them, but it is an event fraught with great danger. True, to this day Gemunu has not really harmed or attacked anyone, but for those who know elephant behaviour this is a time bomb waiting to go off. It will only take a frightened visitor to make a wrong move, that will anger the elephant and he could then wreak havoc, causing great damage to the jeeps and even lives.
There are reports of jeeps overturning when sometimes confronted by the boisterous Gemunu. But careful observation of video clips of such incidents show clearly that it is the panicked jeep drivers that veer off the road and tip the vehicle over inadvertently in their fright.
So although Gemunu has become somewhat of an ‘icon’ at Yala , albeit a rather dubious one, this issue has to be addressed urgently before something serious happens.
Elephants are very intelligent animals and therefore can learn certain behaviours very quickly, especially if they give positive reinforcement. This is why elephants, even when they are relatively older, can be tamed and taught to carry out various commands and even perform certain ‘tricks’.
In Gemunu’s case it is the positive reinforcement of receiving juicy titbits from his ‘raids’ on vehicles that has made him get used to this habit. It is the same with the other iconic elephant at Uda Walawe, Rambo, who comes up to the electric wire fence and solicits food from passers-by. But in both cases it must be noted that this is habit that has formed due to the behaviour of the elephants that has been rewarded over the years, and more of a ‘hobby’ than driven by necessity.
Many people have a misconception that these two elephants are ‘searching for food’. Nothing could be more erroneous. A full grown elephant like Rambo or Gemunu needs about 200 kg of food a day, and there is no way that the few titbits they scrounge off visitors can sustain them. As Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Sri Lanka’s foremost researcher of wild elephants, says, ‘they are looking for their dessert’, and not really to satisfy their hunger!
So what can be done about
this alarming situation at Yala
1. Can Gemunu be deterred from this habit?
There has to be negative reinforcement of his behaviour to make him understand that raids on jeeps will not yield and positive results. This will be a slow and long-drawn-out process.
A few years back I tried an experiment along these lines with the concurrence of the then Director of Wildlife. My theory was that if Gemunu found that the ‘food’ he found in the vehicles was repulsive, would he then ‘learn to unlearn’ his habit of raiding vehicles?
To test my hypothesis, with the help of the Cinnamon Wild hotel in Yala and few of the resident naturalists, I prepared a concoction of chilies and capsicums shredded in a few bags, which were placed in accessible places in the jeep.
It was a totally passive exercise, in that we did not plan to anyway engage Gemunu aggressively. The idea was that he would, on his own, come up and put his trunk inside, in his customary fashion and find, instead of juicy titbits, something very repulsive, and immediately withdraw.
Unfortunately three days of travel into the park surprisingly did not yield one single sighting of Gemunu! Maybe he know something was up and gave us a wide berth! I did not have time to follow up with the experiment since I had to return to Colombo.
I believe some form of such prolonged and sustained action of a similar nature by the authorities will help mitigate this problem somewhat. However, given the present state of affairs, where the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has other multiple pressing issues to handle, with limited resources, I am not hopeful that a project of this nature to rehabilitate just one single elephant can be launched and sustained.
Another possibility of using the same concept would be to prevent visitors taking any food into the park. Again this will be very difficult to implement practically. There is also an outside chance that over time Gemunu may get frustrated that he is not finding food inside the vehicles and get angry and do some damage
2. Give Gemunu a wide berth and prevent him access to vehicles
This would be the easiest and most logical solution, but also the most difficult to implement, given our present conditions of management of the wildlife parks. As we all know, the jeep drivers and safari operators at Yala are a law unto themselves. They are the biggest culprits who have been encouraging Gemunu, so as to give their clients the extra thrill of an elephant ‘up close and personal’, with the prospects of a larger tip for the ‘special experience’.
Good efforts to rein them in were in place during the brief tenure of Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya as Director of Wildlife, but we all know that about how that story ended.
It is very evident that all Gemunu’s hair-raising interactions are with such jeep drivers only. None of the realty serious wildlife enthusiasts and researchers have ever had any problems with Gemunu. That is because we know exactly how to behave in a manner that we do not allow Gemunu the chance to cause any issue.
It really is a shame that people don’t take simple precautions to avoid these situations with Gemunu. Avoiding him is easy—he does not actively pursue a vehicle. It is only when the vehicles move all around him that he gets excited. It only takes good observations, and quick decisions to move away and not get ‘caught’ to Gemunu
It is obvious from the foregoing that there is no practical and quick solution to this problem, unless there is a paradigm shift in the way our wildlife is managed.
Gemunu and Rambo have done more to promote Sri Lanka’s wildlife to the world than any other promotional campaign can ever achieve. They are famous all over the internet.
The worst, and most probable thing that will eventually happen, is that there will be some incident where visitors will get injured and then all the blame will come on the poor elephant. There will be calls to translocate him elsewhere (already I am told there have been one or two efforts do so, which were thankfully thwarted by a few sane-thinking officials).
Then, this wonderful and majestic animal will be traumatised and relegated to a life of misery in some god-forsaken corner, for no fault of his own.
But one must not forget that after all this, Yala is his home, the land alienated and allocated by statute and reserved for him and his fellow animals to live in peace there. Is it not we who have intruded and caused so much mayhem? Aren’t we the trespassers? Aren’t we the ones who have to be reined in and disciplined?
We must guard against this at all costs. Wildlife enthusiasts, journalists and all sane-thinking people who love the natural wonders that we are endowed with in this country must speak with one voice to prevent such atrocities from taking place at all costs.
Long live the Gemunus and Rambos of Sri Lanka… such characters are what make Sri Lanka’s wildlife so unique and interesting.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its environment animals are treated” – Mahatma Gandhi.