Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Return of Robert…what of the elephants?

The road to elephant walk
It is Tuesday, February 7th and I’m on my way to Wasgamuwa after making a short visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  With me is Andy Blue who is one of the mammal curators at the world famous San Diego Wild Animal Park in California.  Andy is on a short visit to Sri Lanka and very interested to get as much experience of our wildlife.   The time was around 3 pm and the skies were heavily over cast and not surprisingly it began to drizzle as we were leaving for Wasgamuwa.  With the first drops of rain I received a text on my phone.  It was from my good friend Robert who had already reached Wasgamuwa with a group of friends.  It read, “Arrived safe & sound, rain good 4 elephants?”  I immediately called Chinthaka who oversees operations in Wasgamuwa to verify about the rain.  He said, “Mr. Ravi we had no rain for the entire month of January and now it is pouring over here. I already took Robert to the tree hut corridor and there were no elephants.” 

I felt despair—because if it was raining that heavily and there was no let up the chances of seeing elephants were remote or at worst—zero!

From mountain tops...

...by vehicle

...from tree tops...
During Robert’s first visit to Wasgamuwa last year he spent three days with us and it became a huge challenge to show him a wild elephant.  Finally Robert left without seeing one elephant but with the promise that he will return.  And of course Robert—like the proverbial son has returned!  The fact that we could not show Robert any elephants during his first visit started off a whole chain of events which resulted in us re-strategizing our entire research efforts to find out what exactly had happened to the elephants.  

...by foot...

...in every nook and cranny....
When Robert informed me that he would be visiting us on February 7th we felt confident that we could show him elephants this time.  So when it began to rain our confidence of showing elephants to Robert eroded like a mud bank on a stream.  I arrived around 9 pm and it was good to meet up again with old friends.  Lorans, a friend of Robert who came with him to Wasgamuwa the first time has brought his wife and three young sons.  This would be their first time seeing wild elephants!  The pressure to find elephants was building up! 

...we searched for elephants to show Robert!
After spending some time with the guests Chinthaka, myself and the rest of the staff sat down to decide on the best course of action to take to ensure that this time Robert would meet up with some elephants.  After discussing the various options we finally decided to spend the entire day at the Wasgamuwa National Park.  We made this decision mainly because it was still pouring and the chances were that it would continue to do so the next day.  In that case it would be impossible to do any activity such as going on a foot safari or spending time in the tree hut in the rain.  The plan was to leave early enough to be at the park entrance by 6 am which is the official opening time of the park.  We will have breakfast and lunch delivered to the park later on.

By 6 am we were at the park entrance only to find the offices still closed with no employee in sight!  We called the park warden who informed us that the entire Department of Wildlife lower rank administrative staff was on a trade union action of work to rule so therefore the park opened only at 8 am! Talk about bad Karma!!!

We immediately got back into the Land Rover and sped off to the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor hoping that we could catch some last minute elephant action before it was too late.  Chinthaka and I went ahead on foot to scout for elephants leaving the others by the tree hut.  We found their signs: fresh dung, footprints, broken branches and trampled grass everywhere.  Having walked about 100 meters away from the vehicle we were suddenly brought to a stop by the snapping of branches which is the unmistakable sound of elephants or an elephant feeding in the forest.  While I tried to get a visual of the elephant Chinthaka went back to bring the rest of the group.  Unfortunately the elephant kept on feeding and moving deeper into the forest.  By the time the rest of the group joined me it has moved away. Again we scouted the entire area but with no success. The sun was rising and whatever elephants that were in the area had moved back into the forest.  The day was definitely not starting of nicely!

We got back into the vehicle and drove back to the park and when we arrived there were several vehicles waiting at the main entrance.  After getting our permit we headed out to the jungle with Game Guide, Vijey Bandara (VB).  I asked VB to take us to where we had the best chance of meeting up with an elephant or elephants.  Staying in contact with game guards in vehicles that were already ahead of us by mobile phone VB took us to all the possible locations in the park that elephants frequent as a habit.  As we drove slowly along the winding sand tracks with eyes peeled we would often come across piles of fresh elephant dung and footprints.  They were so numerous that at one point we came across a male peacock displaying to a pile of elephant dung in the middle of the road!  What unusual things go on in the wilderness!

From 8 am in the morning to 1 pm in the afternoon we drove around the park and did not see one elephant!  The only interesting interaction was with a Bengal or land monitor that to its mortification became a prop for a nature lesson for the kids and adults.  I guess to be held by the neck and the tail is not the most respectable way for a land monitor to be introduced to a group of people!  

The first lesson of nature ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls is...never let anything catch you!
We spent the entire morning up until noon driving to all possible locations and finally decided to call a break and have lunch since breakfast time was long gone and so were the elephants.  It was not hard to figure out what everybody was thinking as we concentrated on our food and made small talk, we were all thinking “whether we will see elephants today?”

After lunch we rested for awhile and then around 3 pm set out for the final game run of the day.   VB, Chinthaka and I held a council of war to figure out where in the park we would have the best chance of finding elephants.  We decided to head first to Sanstha Pitiya and then on to Kokabay and then to Yudaganawa plains where legend says an epic battle was fought nearly 2300 years ago between the armies of King Dutugemunu and King Elara. 

Back again on the road we drove slowly peering into gloomy recess of forests and towards the infinite horizons of vast open plains.  We saw large herds of spotted or axis deer, wild water buffalo, basking crocodiles, and flamboyant peacocks displaying with their tails spread and backs open to whoever was unfortunate enough to be behind them.  If Robert was a birder he would have been in paradise but he could care less whether it was a white-browed bulbul, an Indian Sharma or a plain old crow!  An elephant—a wild one at that what he desperately wanted to see right now! 

A basking crocodile
Heron in flight

Aerial ballet...the flight of the egret

A Bengal or land monitor thermoregulating 

Around 3.30 pm there was a woolly-necked stork close by on the right side of the road.  I asked Chinthaka to stop the vehicle since it was a great opportunity to take a close up of this handsome bird.  I started to click away when Lorans' who was seated opposite to me and was craning his neck to see behind him said, “may inney Aliya (here is the elephant).” And sure enough there were three elephants, a mature female with two juvenile males probably her progeny feeding placidly by the road partially covered by some bushes.  The reason we did not spot them immediately. Robert was unable to see them since he was seated with his back to them.  Moving slowly forward we maneuvered the vehicle for Robert to get a look at his first wild elephants in Sri Lanka!  I don’t know about storks delivering babies but the woolly-necked stork definitely was a harbinger of pachyderm luck to us that day!  What joy and what relief! Now I could breathe and sleep easy knowing the 7th fleet will not be deployed to Wasgamuwa!  

A handsome Woolly-necked stork - the harbinger of pachyderm luck! 

The herd was behind shrubs

A family of three

A fairly mature large juvenile male...

...and a younger male sibling and mother

The juvenile male
We spent close to an hour observing this herd and then a little further on came across a massive solitary bull that looked rather pink! Apparently not with envy!  

Makes other elephants pink with envy due to his massive size!
While observing the lone bull Lorans' elder son spotted a large herd but unfortunately they were two faraway.  It was a great ending to a rather long day of hope, despair, hope and eventually striking luck!  

OMG they do exist!

Robert of the elephants

If happiness had a face then this is it!

The elephant: "Bleaching white ivories Robert's here!"
Very happily we bid adieu to the elephants and head back to the field house where of course we celebrated this momentous event with a liberal quantity of JD that Robert had brought very thoughtfully with him.  Next day was sunny and beautiful. Around 5.30 am we all hiked up the Sunrise Rock.  

To share special moments...that's what friends are for
After the sunrise hike while Robert and his friends relaxed in the field house several of us went again for another hike in the forest.  We came across plenty of elephant sign and even smelled one that was lurking very close by but we did not get to see it.  On our return we found out that there had been some excitement at the field house.  

Morning hike in elephant country
A brown vine snake had visited it and Lorans had made an effort to catch his first tank fish.  The brown vine snake of course is a harmless beautiful snake.  Lorans on other hand had finally resorted to purchasing fish from the local fishermen since the local fish hasn’t thought much if his bait.  After a sumptuous lunch of local curries Robert and his friends left for Colombo—of course with the promise that he was coming back again!  There goes our rest easy!  Maybe we should focus our conservation efforts on an ubiquitous species such as the house sparrow which is so easy to show people!  

I'll be back!


  1. This is a beautiful write up and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I am glad that Robert managed to view Elephants. The pictures are fantastic. Hope to send some clients to the field houses in the near future.

    Roshan Perea

  2. Lovely write up. Enjoyed reading this Mr. Ravi