Little do people know that the majority of wild elephants are found outside national parks. Most of these pachyderms are scattered across an endless ocean of human settlements. The end result is a never-ending struggle for survival for man and elephant.
Galgamuwa is located between the Wayamba and North Central Provinces. This region is heavily habituated by humans, with very small patches of forest scattered everywhere. Small forest corridors exist but these too have been used by squatters for agriculture resulting in a heightened level of human-elephant conflict.
This region covering areas such as Meegalewa, Mahawa, Ambanpola and Ehetuwewa are home to many herds of elephants that eke out a living raiding the crops of the villages at night. This region has some of the highest concentrations of tuskers in the country, with almost every herd having at least one.
Hiding the existence of tuskers and their locations does not help in conserving them; in fact it’s to their detriment. A well-known tusker has better chances of survival as poachers would think twice before harming him, and villagers are aware of the public attention a tusker gets and hence are more careful how they are handled.
Travelling to Galgamuwa almost every weekend, I managed to identify a few tuskers who are still found roaming around in this region.
“The future of these majestic giants is bleak, unless we do something about it. Creating awareness and working towards a feasible solution with the local communities is the only way to guarantee their survival for generations to come”
He had the largest pair of tusks on record in Sri Lanka by a wild elephant. This beautiful tusker used to roam this region in relative peace for many years. He was not a very large animal and thus he carried a beautiful, symmetrical pair of tusks measuring over five feet in length.
The existence of this tusker was kept a secret for many years, up until the fateful day he was accused of killing a man. Orders were given to capture this tusker and relocate him to another area. I have been searching for this tusker for a very long time, and when I got news of his capture operation, I made my way to Galgamuwa for the first time.
The capture was carried out and the tusker was tied down in open chena cultivation until the lorry for his relocation arrived. The most heartbreaking sight was when he protested to being loaded into the lorry by burying his tusks deep into the earth while the bulldozers were pulling him backwards His efforts were in vain as he was finally loaded up into the lorry.
Tragically this majestic animal did not survive the journey as it managed to break a small plank on the floorboards of the lorry, resulting in him losing his balance and collapsing in the process. Despite all efforts to get the tusker to stand up, this mammoth among elephants breathed his last in November 2010.
This tragic event sparked a nationwide outcry to investigate into the matter of elephant relocation and its feasibility. A national treasure was lost forever.
Named after my friend whose garden this tusker regularly visits, this gentle giant is one of the most well-known tuskers found in this area. Partially blind, this giant roams the forests and cultivations and is treated with a mild admiration by the villagers, as if it’s the local pet. Seen quite often in the open during daytime, this giant walks along village roads and enters gardens to feed on mangoes and jak fruit.
Called a crossed tusker because the tips of his ivory meet at the end, Bandara is often seen feeding quietly in a forest patch bordering an abandoned paddy field.
Due to his bad eyesight, sometimes he is known to venture off his normal homeland and end up in trouble. One such case occurred in 2012 when he ventured into Kekirawa, where being disoriented he attacked several vehicles. Later investigation revealed that he was suffering from several gunshot wounds and was s partially blind in one eye. The tusker was slowly pushed back into its home turf, where he’s most comfortable.
My first encounter with him was brief but just as exciting. We were walking along a chena cultivation towards a waterhole at the end of the property. We were talking aloud and not worried that any elephants would be around as it was 2 p.m. in the afternoon and the hot sun would generally deter them from coming out. Little did we expect to stumble upon Bandara wallowing in the mud in the waterhole. Clearly disturbed by our conversation, the big tusker got up and walked into the forest.
The second time I found him was in an open abandoned paddy field, where the big guy was taking refuge. We saw him in the far corner of the field a few kilometres away. Running towards him, we stumbled and fell on large craters in the field which we realised were Bandara’s massive footprints. Approaching the big tusker, we realised that he was blind in one eye, as he did not notice us approaching from his right side. He was not aggressive, and simply lifted his trunk to smell our presence, had a good look at us and slowly went about his way.
A sad plight has befallen this gentle giant. While entering a cultivation, he was a victim of a trap gun, which shattered one of his back legs. Severely injured and barely able to walk, this elephant was in misery. After several calls and public appeals, the tusker got some medical treatment but yet not enough for him to reach a full recovery. Months after he was found injured, the tusker still has a badly-infected leg which needs direct medical treatment. Unless something is done soon, we might lose him forever.
The mighty tusker Gajaba is a giant among giants. Towering above all other elephants who walk with him, he is a sight to behold.
This tusker is extremely shy and is seen with a herd at all times. Moving from place to place on a daily basis, sometimes travelling almost 30-40 km in one night due to conflicts with humans, this tusker is physically the largest tusker seen in this area.
Measuring over 10 feet at the shoulder, this is one of the tallest elephants on record in Sri Lanka. In peak physical condition, this majestic animal leads a herd which varies from 30-100 animals at any given time.
Several weekends of back-to-back searches finally resulted in seeing this giant face-to-face late one evening. Walking right across from us, he suddenly realised our presence and ran back into the forest. On the second occasion that I found him he came out yet again into the open along with the herd, but we were deterred from getting close due to an aggressive male elephant in musth who kept charging us.
I hope to find him once again this year, in the hopes of truly witnessing the power and awe this tusker inspires.
Future for these tuskers?
These tuskers and elephants are in constant conflict with villagers when they raid crops on a daily basis, and end up being chased from one area to another. Constantly moving from place to place, these elephant have no permanent refuge and hence move from village to village looking for suitable places for food. All of the tuskers bear the scars of their conflicts with humans, with most having ghastly gunshot wounds all over their bodies.
Another threat faced by the elephants in this area is the dreaded ‘hakka pattas,’ which is an explosive planted inside fruits and vegetables and are detonated when the animal bites it. The end result are ghastly wounds with shattered jaws and damaged mouths, which cause the animal to suffer for days if not weeks before succumbing to the injuries. This cruel method was initially used specifically for wild boar, but is now used to target elephants as well. The sad fact is that most of the victims of this cruel trap are young calves.
The future of these majestic giants is bleak, unless we do something about it. Creating awareness and working towards a feasible solution with the local communities is the only way to guarantee their survival for generations to come.