By Srilal Miththapala
Many wildlife enthusiasts and Sri Lankans who travel around the country, are familiar with the two elephants named Rambo (at Uda Walawe National Park) and Gemunu (at Yala National Park) who have developed certain close interactive behaviour with people over the years.
Rambo has been frequenting the Southern border of Uda Walawe National Park, bordering the Thimbulketiya - Thanamallvila road. He was one of the first male elephants, who started this habit of coming up to the fence and soliciting food and tidbits from those passing by. Over the years, people travelling got into the habit of buying sugar cane, watermelons and bananas from the vendors across the road, and feeding the elephants. The vendors also encouraged this since it increased their income. Being very intelligent animals, this positively reinforced the behaviour of the elephants and very soon, there were about 20 elephants, joining Rambo along this stretch of the road. When the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) realized that they could not
properly enforce the no- feeding rule along the Thanamallwila roadside, they erected a second electric fence behind the existing one. A large amount of money was spent on this second deterrent barrier, which extends from the end of the reservoir bund, right up to the corner of the park boundary on the Thanamallwila road up to the 25th Km post. This has proven to be quite successful, and today there are no elephants along this stretch of the road.
However, the authorities had not bargained for Rambo. Unable to indulge in his favourite past time, he now started swimming across the edge of the reservoir and got on to the steep embankment along the reservoir bund, to access the roadway ( where there was only a single fence) to solicit food from vehicles passing by.
The efforts to chase him away was not successful and even a 2nd fence erected at the edge of the reservoir did not prevent him accessing the roadway to solicit food from vehicles passing. He managed to breech the fences through a gap on the Western side of the bund which was kept open for people to bathe at the edge of the reservoir. ( why people have to be allowed to bathe inside the perimeter of the National Park is another story !)
In a similar fashion, Gemunu, a male tusker in prime condition in Yala, has developed the habit of waylaying vehicles and exploring the interiors for food. Here again, this elephant has got used to being fed in and around the Sithulpawwa temple from his young days. He still continues this ‘learned behaviour’ even in other parts of the park. There are many video’s circulating where Gemunu is seen putting his entire head into the open jeeps and foraging inside for food.
No doubt, both these elephants and their ‘close encounters’ with people, results in an exhilarating experience for tourists and other visitors, who get a unique experience of interacting so closely with a wild elephant. However there is always the potential for something serious to occur, given that they are still both wild elephants.
So far, other than for a few sporadic incidents, nothing very serious has happened. Gemunu has so far not really attacked any vehicles in Yala National Park in real anger, although there have been reports of broken window panes and side mirrors, caused by his big tusks. Most often it is the jeep drivers themselves who stop close to Gemunu
and entice him into putting his head into the jeep in search of food. This is done to give
their clients a ‘unique’ and exciting experience which then results in possible higher ‘tips’ for the drivers.
Rambo has also always been docile to the point where he can be hand fed across the fence.
In the case of Rambo, however, there was one bad incident recently, where a tourist, after feeding the animal crept through the electric fence on the side where people bathe and had gone close to the elephant when it had attacked her. Although she was injured, thankfully it was not very serious. It was very clear that Rambo was in no way to blame for this incident since the tourist had walked into the park area disregarding warnings from people.
Currently, there is news circulating that the DWC is planning to translocate these animals away from these national parks into some isolated areas. It is a well-known fact that translocation is not a solution for Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) and management. Many researchers are of this view, and in a recent peer reviewed scientific paper entitled ‘Problem-Elephant Translocation: Translocating the Problem and the Elephant?’ Authored by eminent scientists and elephant experts Prithiviraj Fernando, Peter Leimgruber, Tharaka Prasad, Jennifer Pastorini , it is stated that “Translocation caused wider propagation and intensification of HEC, and increased elephant mortality. We conclude that translocation defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.
There is one important and glaring observation that one needs to make here. All previous attempts of translocations were to remove so called ‘problem elephants’, who were raiding crops. In this case, these two elephants have not set one foot outside the confines of their respective National parks. National Parks are areas which are designated areas for the protection and wellbeing of wild life by statute. The DWC seems to have forgotten that in National Parks, animals are the residents, and that we are the trespassers. In fact at a recent wild life discussion it was mentioned that the DWC seems to have forgotten its primary mandate of safeguarding the animals, and is now focusing on safeguarding people instead!
It is therefore, ironical that these two elephants are now to be punished, when they have done absolutely nothing wrong, and it is really the people, who have encroached into their territory and have taught them to behave in this manner. If these two elephants are translocated, it will be virtually signing their death warrants. Being very intelligent animals that have strong home-range fidelity they will try to find their way back, and stumble across village hamlets, get shot at, and eventually succumb to their injuries dying a slow and sometimes agonizing death in some faraway place. In the case of Rambo and Gemunu who have got so used to interacting with human beings, this will certainly come to pass.
Therefore, instead of trying to resolve the problem in this manner, what the DWC should do is to firmly implement the existing rules and prevent people feeding these elephants. I have been discussing this matter with the Director of the DWC who seems to be under some ‘external pressure’ to act. He has assured me that he will give it a little more time, and to help him put up some notices along the bund on the Uda Walawe reservoir. The Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) and The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) sometime ago printed posters and leaflets for the DWC to create awareness among the public about Gemunu. A patrol vehicle was donated to the Yala National Park, due to the efforts of the Environment Foundation of Sri Lanka, with the support of DIMO and Cinnamon Wild safari Hotel.
In a similar fashion, I am sure, there will be support from the private sector to help to put up proper notices and even help with additional resources for the DWC to adequately patrol and police the Uda Walawe bund area until Rambo is weaned away from his bad habits. It is not resources and help that is lacking, but it is the will and the interest that the department perhaps lacks.
Rambo and Gemunu have created so much interest and publicity for Sri Lanka wild life tourism, much more than what we could have expected from any advertising campaigns. Therefore, it is only morally correct and ethical that everything possible must be done to save these two elephants from their impending fate.
It is indeed, sad that we do not pay enough attention to such iconic individuals and make special efforts to safeguard them, instead of trying to destroy them. They are the ones who create the human interest stories with their charismatic personalities. This in turn fuels public interest and opinion, and helps publicize and drawn attention to the plight that is befalling these gentle giants, who roam this island of ours.
Therefore It is the responsibility of every Sri Lankan who appreciates the wonderful natural treasures that this land of ours has been blessed with, to show their displeasure and lobby in whatever way they can, to prevent this translocation taking place.