Saturday, March 3, 2012

Elephant Encounters of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Kind!

Elephants and cattle at the Mannampitiya Garbage Dump 2005
It is 9.30 am February 15th 2012, and we are waiting at the Dambulla Ibbankatuwa Tank behind the cricket stadium, by a floating jetty, to meet a French television crew who was coming on a chartered SriLankan Airlines air taxi flight from Colombo.  With me are the SLWCS field staff, Chinthaka, Darshana and Sampath, a van we had hired and its driver Paul and four international volunteers, Emma, Gemma and Katha aka Kathryn from good old England and Gene from the rainy State of Washington, USA.  With us was also the local Dambulla media correspondent, Kanchana with whom we work closely to keep track of human-elephant conflict incidences in the region.  Kanchana is a dedicated environmental journalist who is highly respected in the area for his integrity and credibility in reporting matters of environmental and social concern. 

The jetty is located at the tank’s edge and the only way to it is over some marshy land and incredibly enough there is no road access to the jetty where the passengers and their luggage is dropped off!  With no proper road to go up to the jetty the Land Rover Series III that I had brought to pick up the film crew got stuck in the mud.  Now I know what their promotional slogan a “taste of paradise” means.  It’s just mud!   

With no proper road access the Land Rover got stuck in the mud 
My main concern now is how to extricate the vehicle—but I’m also wondering how this incident would bore well in relation to the nearly one week of shooting we will be doing on human elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka!  Apparently a “taste of paradise” has to be taken literarily.  While the SLWCS field staff battled with the mud to get the vehicle out—the air taxi ground staff looked on as we were very kindly providing them with off flight entertainment!  In the meantime the French film crew sat on their luggage on an abandoned paddy field enjoying the fresh damp air and drizzling rain. I can’t think of a better tasting paradise!  It was an adventuresome morning indeed, what with an off road passenger pick up and a mired vehicle we could not have asked for a better start to our day.
The SriLankan Airlines Air Taxi by the floating jetty
Great customer service: If you brought it then you gotta carry it off!

Off flight entertainment: The Air Taxi ground staff looks on while we try to extricate the Land Rover!

"A Taste of Paradise!"

Elephant Encounters of the Ugly Kind: A Buffet of Refuse and a Victim of a Hit and Run Train

February 15, 2012.  After extricating the Land Rover and picking up the French film crew members: Bertrand, Andre and Jean Michel from France 3 television and their half ton of equipment we headed out on the Habarana Road to the Digampathaha Forest Reserve.  
Heading off to the Digampathaha Forest Reserve
What was going on there was a story straight out of an unpublished version of Dante’s hell!  The refuse dump for the entire Dambulla town was in this forest reserve!  What a place it was—a rottenly nutritious and violent landscape!  The huge piles of garbage attracted a hoard of animals both wild and domesticated: Cattle, cattle egrets, crows, myna birds, house sparrows, dogs, cats, lord-only-knows-what, and elephants! They were all gluttonously consuming refuse at the dump!  
The refuse dump in the Digampathaha Forest Reserve

Cattle Egrets....

...cattle and elephants all come to the dump to eat garbage!
Why visit a refuse dump? We visited the refuse dump for two reasons.  First the dump is a good example of the lack of a cohesive national or at the local government level—a garbage processing and management plan.  Garbage is simply collected and dumped in the nearest convenient location that is as far away from the town with total disregard to environmental impacts or health and hygiene concerns.  Even at Wasgamuwa where we have been addressing human elephant conflicts successfully for the past 16 years we are facing this dilemma.  We are now looking into developing measures to address this issue in a manner that it could provide a win-win-win situation for the local authorities, the environment and elephants.  These measures need not be based on “rocket science” to use a very colloquial idiom so to speak.  It is the lack of public-private participation and contributions from the private sector that are the hurdles to put in place sustainable measures to address the garbage issue.  Over ninety percent of the garbage is generated by private commercial enterprises and households.  Both of these entities neither care nor consider it is their civic responsibility as producers of garbage, to encourage and support the authorities to properly process and manage garbage so it will have the least impact on their environment.

The second reason we were in this cesspit representing human disregard to everything else other than themselves, was because we were told that villagers set trap guns in the forest surrounding the dump.  They set these trap guns to kill wild boar who relished the refuse.  Unfortunately these trap guns injured or killed indiscriminately any animal that was the height of a wild boar or taller and several elephants had been thus injured.  All the injuries sustained by the elephants were on their legs.  So we were there basically to see if we could find these elephants—and if possible get some footage or photographs of them which we could then submit to the authorities to follow up.  The images would help to easily identify the injured elephants and also to get an idea of the extent of their injuries—that is if we could find them or if they were still alive!

Generally elephants that get shot from homemade guns and ammunition rot to death after prolonged suffering due to infectious agents in the ammunition and also due to the fact that they never or hardly get any veterinary care.  Unless it is a superficial injury to treat successfully a wild elephant with a serious injury such as a broken bone or a major infection is near impossible.  It is better to have an official policy of euthanizing such animals to quickly put them off their misery rather than allow them to die such a prolonged and horrendous death.  When we were filming a documentary on human-elephant conflicts in 2010 ( Greener Media, a documentary film production company based in New York, we came across a male elephant in Kiri Oya close to the town of Laggala-Pallegama in the Central Province that was shot about a week before on the right leg breaking its' thigh bone.  
The Kiri Oya elephant with the broken thigh bone 
The elephant was lying on its own filth and the place where it was shot was a gaping maggot infested orifice oozing pus.  The crew could smell its death and decay a hundred meters away before they got to it!  It is horrifying to see a live animal rotting away—especially to smell the odor of death in an animal that was still alive.  While some kind hearted people had erected a canopy over it to give some shade others more inhuman have chopped off parts of its trunk and tail.  
While some have showed kindness to a fallen enemy...

...others had mutilated it in its defeat. A part of the trunk and the tail had been chopped off
It took two weeks for this mutilated elephant to die since there was absolutely nothing anybody could have done to save it other than euthanize it.  Since the wound was manmade euthanizing it would have been the most humane thing to do.  This would have at least ensured the elephant did not suffer unnecessarily.  Unfortunately today, mainly due to bureaucratic ignorance, apathy, and insecurity and pressure due to the sentiments of an unrealistic public—hundreds of elephants are left to die an agonizing death from manmade injuries.  Ninety percent of these elephant casualties are victims of human-elephant conflicts.

Eyes glazed over in pain reflects the in-humane mentality of the authorities responsible for the fate of these elephants
As we drove down the deeply rutted and winding dirt track leading to the garbage dump through a teak plantation we passed two men leading a pair of buffalos in the direction of the dump.  This turned out to be an interesting side incident that also got the local police involved because as we found out from Kanchana—an area behind the dump was used as an open air abattoir to slaughter cattle illegally.  Apparently this refuse hell could not get any worse!  Fortunately for these two buffalos and another five that had been brought earlier and were waiting to be slaughtered our timely arrival help save their lives.  The Police were tipped off and they arrived quickly and arrested the culprits and took the cattle and the illegal butchers into custody.

One of the men with the two buffaloes
Our timely arrival saved the lives of seven buffaloes that were going to be slaughtered illegally  that day.

Volunteer Gemma aka Wamma walking past one of the apprehended illicit butchers
To approach the dump as quietly as possible we got of the vehicles and walked the last few hundred meters.  The unmistakable and overpowering stench of fermenting and decaying refuse hit our olfactory organs like a sucker punch!  
We got off the vehicles to go on foot to the garbage dump

Leaving the vehicles behind we headed to the garbage dump on foot
On the left side of the dump partly hidden by trees a solitary bull elephant was feasting on the refuse.  As we approached, the elephant stood staring at us for a little while and then spun around and took off as if ashamed to have been found eating garbage! 

A solitary elephant was feeding on refuse

We moved cautiously forward...was this one of the wounded elephants? 

Kanchana cautions the film crew from approaching too close to the elephant

The elephant stopped eating and kept looking in our it  going to  charge?

It kept looking in our direction for a few minutes and then made up its' mind...

...turning around... bolted into the forest. I guess ashamed of been found out eating refuse! 
But in a little while it was back because it could not resist the refuse.  First it poked its’ head out like a miscreant and tested the wind with its raised trunk.  I wonder whether even it could smell us because of the overpowering stench of garbage.  Apparently not having the will power to resist the irresistible aroma of rotting garbage it became quite bold, and treaded directly to the garbage pile it was eating from before and resumed pigging out on refuse.  Our presence did not seem to bother it at all!  It is disconcerting as well as makes one so angry to watch an animal that is so magnificent and tightly integrated with our culture, religion and day to day life brought to a level of a garbage scavenger.  
I'm back...but I want to check whether you are from the press.
What the heck - you chaps seems OK. 
Having convinced it self that we meant no harm it strode up to the pile of garbage with no shame. 

Digging Dirt


What rubbish! This is good stuff!

There is nothing like spreading a little rubbish around!  If people can do it  then we can do it too!

You chaps want some?
It would be easy to put the blame on official disregard and reluctance to apply ethical environmental measures, their “don’t care attitude,” and apathy.  Rather than blame it all on bureaucracy it needs to be pointed out that the lack of civic responsibility and national pride in the civilian population is actually one of the main reasons.  For example while it is the local Municipal Council or Provincial Council that has the responsibility of collecting and transporting garbage to dumps such as this, most of the garbage is generated by commercial establishments and private homes.  Therefore both the public and private sectors are responsible to implement a garbage processing and management plan and put measures in place to ensure that wild animals cannot get at the refuse.  But everyone’s attitude is, “out of sight out of mind!”

This is not the first dump I had visited that elephants and various other animals were feeding on refuse generated by commercial enterprises and civilian homes.  The first one I visited was in Mannampitiya in the early 1990s which was in fact located in the Floodplains National Park.  The last I heard about it the Mannampitiya garbage dump was shut down around 2006 or 2007 due to the lobbying of concerned people after the death of several elephants from eating polythene.  The second dump I visited was in 2007 and it was located in Hambantota.  The third dump I visited was in 2010 and it was in Trincomalee and it definitely gets the first prize for been the worst hell—probably compared to it Hades must feel like heaven!    
Mannampitiya Garbage Dump circa 2005

Hambantota garbage dump circa 2007

Hambantota Garbage Dump circa 2007

The worst of them all the Trincomalee Town garbage dump located in a Wildlife Sanctuary.  July 2010

At the Trincomalee Dump a partially hidden elephant seems like a ghostly apparition due to the smoke from the garbage fires 

Trincomalee Dump. A magnificent animal reduced to the level of a garbage scavenger
As we were observing and filming the elephant to find out whether it was injured a massive bull at least one and a half the size of the first bull suddenly appeared—it displaced the smaller bull and attacked the mounds of refuse with relish.  From whatever we could see of their lower extremities, it was obvious from the way they moved and their disposition that these two bulls were not the less fortunate ones that had got injured.  After about an hour of observing and filming the refuse scavenging elephants we left this place of decay and stench to see another elephant—in fact a victim of the official “don’t care” policy that was hit by a train 5 days ago.  
A massive bull appeared suddenly

Displacing the younger bull it kept looking at us

Don't you know it is rude to stare when others are eating?
The smaller younger bull came back.... 

...and they let bygone be bygones since there was enough rubbish for both.  SLWCS staff members Sampath  and Chinthaka in  the dumps 

Inspiring and gutty volunteers tramping around in a garbage dump! Rubbish ! If there are elephants there we are game. 
We drove down the Kantale Road to a place called Gal Wanguwa where a young bull elephant had been hit by a train 5 days ago and was supposed to be lying injured near the tracks. Unfortunately or fortunately for this elephant—since we know how these wounded elephants suffer—two days ago the elephant had succumbed to its injuries.  As we were driving off from the dump we saw the three butchers that had been arrested for illegally slaughtering cattle seated on a culvert by the road side waiting to be taken to the police station.  Several police officers and a truck was there probably waiting for further instructions from the head office.    
Getting back into our vehicles we headed to Gal Wanguwa along the Kantale  Road
Within a short time we arrived at Gal Wanguwa and parked the vehicles by the road side and walked up to the railway tracks that were about 20 meters away parallel to the road.  The elephant was supposed to be lying by the side of the railway tracks.  As we were walking on the tracks we could see to the left of us a large solitary bull elephant about 50 meters away feeding placidly on the Mana in an open scrub forest area.  Even though we were a large crowd the bull did not pay any attention to us and went on feeding—either quite oblivious or completely ignoring our presence—at least it behaved like that which was fortunate for us, because railway tracks are not the most suitable track and field conditions to do the 100 meters dash—it would be an impossible situation—especially with a very determined pachyderm trying to beat you to the finish!  

A string of Pall bearers heading to carry a casket.  The film crew, Kanchana and Ravi walking to the place where the elephant had died  

The massive bull that kindly allowed us to walk along the railway tracks unmolested to see its fallen compatriot.
As we got close to where the elephant was supposed to be we were assailed again by the unmistakable stench of death and decay.  We were sort of getting used to it by now—out go Channel No. 5 and “Death & Decay” becomes vogue!  Soon we came across the dead elephant by the side of the tracks in a prone position with its head facing the jungle.  The train after hitting the elephant had dragged it several meters along the tracks.  We could see the main injury from the collision.  Its’ left thigh had a gaping wound and obviously the thigh bone was broken.  Again nothing could have been done for this elephant either.  Fortunately time has ceased for this elephant.  It was now just a decaying maggot ridden and a fly infested carcass—a somber reminder of state institutional apathy and disregard to protect and safeguard one of our biggest national assets.
The elephant that got hit by a train

A requiem for a dead elephant!  
So far today in our quest to encounter elephants we have experienced the ugly reality of the lack of a cohesive national or even a local government level plan to address the mounting refuse management issue.  A situation that is actually created by the lack of civic responsibility and national pride in the local population who should be held responsible for the garbage they are generating.  Both the authorities and civilian population should work together to minimize the impacts of garbage on the environment and wildlife in the area.  They can easily implement a 3R campaign to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle and encourage locals to use their perishable refuse to produce compost or biogas.  There are plenty of simple and low cost technologies available to do so efficiently today.  Such an effort will definitely help to reduce the volume of garbage that is dumped.  Then most importantly a permanent barrier that elephants cannot breach needs to be erected to keep them from entering the dump.  Such a barrier the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has designed for the Millennium Elephant Foundation to provide facilities to allow their elephants to walk around in a large area without chains.  This fence can be easily adapted to surround the garbage dump.  Unlike an electric fence which elephants can break and needs frequent maintenance the permanent fence is designed in a manner that it needs minimum maintenance and cannot be breached by elephants.  We got back into our vehicles and headed off our spirits rather dampened by what we have seen so far.  We drove on the Kantale Road back to Dambulla and took the Kekirawa Road to Galkiriyagama to go to the Kalagama village on the borders of the historic Kalawewa Tank. 

We were in fact going to visit a home in the Kalagama village that had been repeatedly broken by elephants four times in the past three months! The most recent attack had been just two days ago.  There must be something really awful about this house that elephants detest it so much—probably its’ design!  The home owner should sue the architect. 
The house at Kalagama village that elephants broke four times within the past 3 months

Rifkhan the son of the household explaining the last incident that happened 2 days ago to Ravi, Kanchana  and the film crew.  The falling debris hit his father on the head injuring him seriously 
The fact is elephants attack houses where farmers have stored their grain and other crops inside their homes.  With their acute sense of smell elephants know exactly where the food is stored and will knock down walls to get at it.  Many people are severely injured or sometimes even die from the falling debris.  
An elephant lurking by a village home
As we were driving off to Kalawewa I could not but contemplate on what else could be waiting in store for us there?  I guess we were about to find out the “bad side” of the efforts to address one of the biggest national environmental and socioeconomic problems in Sri Lanka which is human elephant conflicts.

Stay tuned please folks because there is plenty more rubbish coming!
To be continued…       

Photo Credits & Copy Rights: Otherwise stated all photographs belong to SLWCS  
The photos of the Kiri Oya wounded elephant is courtesy of Greener Media (, New York, USA 
The photos of the two buffaloes been taken for slaughtering is courtesy of Dambulla Media Correspondent, Mr. Kanchana Ariyadasa


  1. What a great article for eye openers? Let me wish SLWCS field staff, and the volunteers who did this task for us to understand the magnitude of the problem. The level of accountability at the Local Level Authorities as well as the prime responsibility remains at the General Public is at a high degree in this issue. i.e Garbage Disposal. Let us look at this issue on how best we could mitigate it. Keep it up, all your good work, guys… Janaka Mudalige. Ministry of Defence.

  2. These scavengers in nature is the sign of a corrupt government. Do not invest in projects; terminal pair refuse treatment and recycling. This is shoddy India in these countries, pollute the forests, rivers and the sea. blame the government.