Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Lahugala Kitulana Incident: Saved by the Shoe

The Lahugala-Kitulana National Park

In 2004 the Department of Wildlife Conservation requested the SLWCS to establish a project to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in the remote Lahugala region.  During one of the preliminary field visits we encountered an injured bull elephant that disappeared soon after we had observed it.  We tried to help the Department of Wildlife Conservation personnel based in Lahugala to find this elephant so that a veterinary surgeon dispatched from their head office in Colombo could treat it.  This is an account of what happened when we went in search of this injured elephant.  While it’s true that a shoe was involved in this incident it had nothing to do with Cinderella’s story.  Though to have had a fairy godmother when things looked pretty desperate during a faceoff with a bull elephant would have made this a very nice fairy tale.

Part I

It was the height of the dry season in 2005 when we came to Lahugala in regard to a project the Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka had requested us to establish to resolve conflicts with elephants.  It had taken us close to 12 hours to get there.  That’s how far Lahugala is from Colombo.  Today with better roads one could probably do it in less than 9 hours.  With me were CC, Nishantha, Chandima, and Rohitha.  

The Team: Myself, Nishantha, Chandima, Jeggan and Rohitha
We had come to attend several meetings with local stakeholders in regard to this project.  Rohitha was an old friend, who had joined hoping for a little bit of excitement and adventure.   My dear old friend should’ve known that going to a garden with me was perilous enough.  And here he was looking for a “little bit of excitement and adventure” in the wilderness.  He had apparently forgotten that one had to be mentally deranged to go with me to the wilderness where wild animals range freely and so do I.  

Rohitha posing by the park offices had no idea what he had got himself into
When I was a child just the mention of Lahugala invoked thoughts of remote and impenetrable jungles, small village hamlets, and abundant wildlife, which this entire region actually was until twenty five years ago.  The first time I visited Lahugala was in 1984 on my way to the Kumana Bird Sanctuary which was even more remotely located in the extreme southeastern corner of Sri Lanka.  During that time Monaragala was the big frontier town before one entered the lonely and elephant infested jungles that stretched all the way to Lahugala and beyond.  Those days Siyabalanduwa was a two shop town where all the residents would stare with wide eyes astonished that you had come to their town.  One could get a refreshing cup of tea at one of the two shops and nothing else before embarking on the long and empty road that led through Lahugala to Pottuvil.  Twenty five years ago the road once it passed Siyabalanduwa was pretty much uninhabited until one arrived at Pottuvil and Arugam Bay.  Today of course these areas had been all destroyed for development or settled with hoards of people.  The remote wilderness that existed is just a memory from the past.     
The incredibly thrilling jungles of Lahugala
During that first trip over 25 years ago, on the stretch from Siyabalanduwa to Lahugala we drove with our senses alert and eyes scanning for elephants and other wildlife.  To our joy there were, close to or over two hundred elephants congregating by the Lahugala Tank.  Unfortunately the tank is situated quite a distance from the road and not having a powerful telephoto or a zoom lens, the only option was to get as close as possible on foot to take photos with my small Olympus instamatic.  As fate would have it this could be considered the dress rehearsal for what was to happen during the 2005 visit.

Observing a large herd gathered by the Kitualana Tank
A friend and I started to walk up to the Lahugala Tank which was a considerable distance from the road.  Unbeknownst to us a massive herd of water buffalo were on our left flank.  We became aware of them only when several bulls detached themselves from the herd and headed in our direction with heads aggressively held high.  They looked so menacing that we immediately and involuntarily started to walk backwards .  It had become a habit now whenever I’m in a situation facing a wild denizen of the jungle and the odds seemed to be stacked totally against me, to wonder how early humans ever managed to get out of the wilderness unscathed.  Since we had no matador training or a red cape handy we beat a quick and hurried retreat back to the Land Rover.  Probably this was not the dress rehearsal for the recent event since no elephant was involved on this occasion.

A massive wild water buffalo bull looking alertly

A young female wild buffalo walking in a typical aggressive manner. An elephant walking away  at the back
Situated in the farthest corner of the Eastern Province in the Amparai District, the Lahugala-Kitulana National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Sri Lanka at 1,554 hectares.  It was originally designated as a wildlife sanctuary on July 1st of 1966 and upgraded to a national park on October 31st of 1980.  The park is situated 318 kilometers east of Colombo.   

Situated nearby to the park was the historically significant Magulmaha Vihara which is supposed to have been constructed for the occasion of the marriage of King Kavan Tissa to Princes Vihara Maha Devi around 200 BC.  They were the parents of Sri Lanak's most famous King, Gamani Abhaya or more popularly known as King Dutugemunu who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC. 

A part of the grand Magulmaha Vihara

From the ruins one can just imagine how impressive it must have been
One of the most exquisitely carved moonstones can be seen at the Magulmaha Vihara
The park consisted of three irrigation reservoirs or tanks which were the reason for its existence.  The Lahugala and Kitulana tanks gave the park its name.  The Sengamuwa tank was the third and all three tanks drained into the Heda Oya that was located south of the park. These three tanks during the dry season collectively made this little park one of the most ideal habitats for elephants in that part of the country.  They provided the most essential conditions for elephants: abundant food, water and forest cover all in close proximity—a veritable elephant Shangri-La.  Long before Minneriya it was at Lahugala where one could see gatherings of over 200 elephants.  As the waters of the three tanks receded with the commencement of the dry season the expanding littoral plains became a feast of lush beru grass (Sacciolepis interrupta) that was irresistible to elephants.  At the peak of the dry season the park probably attracted close to 300 elephants and it was a spellbinding sight.  It also meant trouble for the villagers that lived right across the road from the park.  By 2004 human elephant conflict had become a major socioeconomic concern and environmental issue.  Both people and elephants were getting injured, dying and displaced as a result.   

Lahugala was famous for its large congregations of elephants long before Minneriya

Beru grass (Sacciolepis interrupta) that made the park an elephant Shangri-La
It never ever failed to amaze me whenever I visited Lahugala to see villages on one side and elephants on the other side with the narrow road as the interface of the boundary that divided both species habitats.  Not that elephants respected or took seriously this boundary demarcation.   To stand on one of the tank’s bunds to observe people and elephants going about their lives on either side of the road was a fascinating spectacle—a vivid visual of the finitely thin interface of the human-elephant divide in Sri Lanka. 

Village youth playing cricket with a wild elephant in the background.  
In early 2004, the Department of Wildlife Conservation requested the SLWCS to provide a solar powered electric fence to protect four villages along the southern border of the Lahugala-Kitulana National Park.  The villages were: Pansal Godaha, Parana Lahugala, Nawa Lahugala and Dewalagodaha with a combine population of close to 3,000 people.  These four villages were seriously affected by crop raiding elephants.  To safe guard their lives, property and crops the villages had resorted to shooting, poisoning and maiming elephants in retaliation.  There was an urgent need to address the escalating human elephant conflicts.  

A rice field destroyed by elephants
A villager heading out to protect his fields carrying a gun
This old farmer is lucky to be alive.  He barely escaped with his life from an elephant attack 
A baby elephant killed due to the escalating human-elephant conflicts
Another reason for the escalation in human-elephant conflicts was the rampant illegal logging and clearing of forests that was going on in the surrounding forest reserves.  Unscrupulous businessman from Pottuvil would send convoys of carts, trucks and Caterpillar heavy machinery with their minions to cut down valuable timber trees.  Following in the wake of these destructive illicit loggers the land hungry villagers from Pottuvil and Arugam Bay had come.  They had then converted these vast and beautiful forests into agricultural land to grow seasonal crops.  Due to the lack of water these lands can only be cultivated only for about 4 months during the rainy season.  The rest of the year they lie fallow, a once thriving forest now converted to a barren and desolate landscape.  This illegal and unregulated land grabbing was also causing a lot of tension between the communities as well.  

Illicit loggers come first...

...and then come illegal settlers 
The devastating tsunami of December 2004 invariably delayed our project.  In mid-2005, The SLWCS started to construct a solar powered electric fence with funding support from the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  A few years later, in 2009 the expansion of the fence was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.  By the time it was completed in 2009, the fence was 23 kilometers long, protected four villages and was the longest electric fence we had ever constructed.  This fence was also the first electric fence in the country that was handed over to the Civil Defense Force to maintain.  The trip to Lahugala was to attend several meetings with the villagers and local officials to discuss matters pertaining to this project.  

A meeting with stakeholders
Explaining to the local stakeholders about the project. 
On the final stretch from Siyambalanduwa to Lahuhala, to me are some of the most beautiful jungles in Sri Lanka.  The thrill of driving through these jungles increases when one catches a glimpse of an elephant in the distance framed by the trees or a herd of nimble footed axis deer dashes across the road.  

Driving through the enchanted forest

The road led through some of the most beautiful dry zone jungles in Sri Lanka
A feeding elephant framed by the trees
Another elephant feeding at the Lahugala Tank

These jungles also act as sort of a connecting corridor between two divergent landscapes.  After leaving Colombo and until one reaches Siyabalanduwa—which is the last outpost town before heading to Lahugala and then on to Pottuvil—the road leads through major towns and rural suburbia.  After Siyabalanduwa the suburbia fades off and the road goes through this beautiful park-like jungle with enticingly cool shade and the lure of excitement, adventure and mystery.  The Lahugala villages are an unwanted disruption after which the jungle again continues up to Sengamuwa where the entire landscape changes drastically.  From Sengamuwa onwards until Pottuvil the land is a never ending vista of paddy or rice fields.  This is “Rice Bowl” country and during the wet season it is one vast green sea of paddy fields. But during the dry season it becomes a parched land, literarily a “Dust Bowl” where vast herds of buffalo and a white hued breed of cattle range.  Small herds of goats take residency in the bus stands.  

The Rice Bowl of Sri Lanka...
...becomes the Dust Bowl during the dry season
It is not unusual during this time to see buffaloes and cattle grazing in the company of elephants.  They seemed to share grasslands and garbage dumps not necessarily in that order quite amicably without conflicts.  We had observed this behavior numerous times in various parts of Sri Lanka.  Observing this non-conflict sharing of land and resources is what gave us the idea to promote livestock farming—especially dairy farming—as a main livelihood for farmers in high conflict regions to adapt rather than depend on cultivating rice which elephants raided frequently.

A large herd of domestic buffaloes 

A white cow with an elephant in the background
A herd of domestic buffalo feeding with elephants

A herd of goats waiting for the bus

A nanny goat with twins heading to the bus stand
We had passed by Siyabalanduwa and were now driving through the park-like jungle through which the road stretched sinuously ahead.  This stretch always invoked nostalgia in me for the days gone by, because even 20 years ago practically all dry zone roads led through jungle like this.  It was incredibly exciting to travel during those days especially at dawn and dusk, when practically the only vehicle on the road was the one you were traveling.  Very infrequently one encountered other vehicles, and when you did most of the time they were stopped and waiting because elephants were feeding along the road completely blocking it.  And no one wanted to take the risk of driving past them.  Sometimes it was a long wait unless a pugnacious truck driver would take it into his head to barrel through the herd, air horn blaring and the powerful diesel engine growling.  At such times I had noticed that the elephants would gracefully move aside or fade into the jungle.  The other vehicles lined up bumper to bumper behind the bulldogging truck would sneak past the elephants as well.  With the personal knowledge that I have now about elephants, I know for sure that those elephants wouldn’t have caused any damage or harm if we had just quietly driven past them.  

Two elephants feeding by the Lahugala road
On this day, we had just past the Lahugala Tank on the left, when on the right side of the road was a large solitary bull elephant, it was feeding and the time was around 2 pm.  Slowing down CC stopped the Defender close by to it.  We noticed immediately that there was something very wrong with this elephant.  The entire left foreleg was swollen and he favored it whenever he moved by hobbling on three legs. Apparently it had a serious injury on that leg but we could not see what it was.   

We immediately noticed the swollen front left leg

It seemed to favor the front left leg every time it moved

Favoring the left front leg the elephant hopped on three feet whenever it moved
We had to pick up the wildlife ranger on the way to the meeting—so we left planning to inform him or bring him to see the elephant.  When the Ranger, Pradeep was told about the injured elephant, he was aware of it since several people had alerted him to it, but had not seen it as yet.   On the way back from the meeting around 4.30 pm, the Ranger asked us to take two Game Guards, Ari and Jeggan to where we had last seen the elephant.  He had requested the head office in Colombo to dispatch a vet so he wanted these two game guards to get a good look at it so they could identify it to the vet once he arrived.     

When we got to the place where we had last seen it the elephant was not there. It had disappeared.  This was not unusual since even a wounded elephant will not stay in one place if it could move however much incapacitated it was.  Driving slowly we searched both sides of the road carefully and was passing by the Kitulana Tank when in the far distance by the edge of the diminished water were four elephants.  One was by itself and was standing in the water and looked similar to the injured elephant.  A regular habit of injured elephants was to get into water probably because it helped to sooth the pain.  Assuming it was the injured elephant we parked the Defender by the roadside and climbed the bund to get a better look. 

Four elephants were feeding by the remnant waters of the dried up Kitulana Tank
The Defender parked by the side of the road of the Kitulana Tank bund
We climbed on to the tank bund to get a better look
From the top of the bund we had a good view of the elephants but they were too far away to say with certainty whether one was injured.  With no binoculars or spotting scope at hand the only option was to try and get close them.  To see how feasible this was, from the bund we assessed the ground situation.  It was not encouraging at all.  All the trees were within 20 meters of the bund and beyond that it was just a vast expanse of open flat ground.  And the elephants were even further away—way out in the open.  

The deceptive looking flat ground that was imprinted with thousands of elephant footprints
The distance we had to walk on open ground to get close to the elephants
The ground was pockmarked with elephant footprints that were an effective foot trap
How deceptive the open “flat” ground became quite evident as soon as we started to walk on it.  Moving through the glade of widely spaced trees that framed the elephants in the far distance—as much as people think I’m mentally off when it comes to animals—I wondered albeit very briefly at the wisdom of walking on such open grounds towards a bunch of wild elephants.  The game guards, Ari and Jeggan seemed confident enough to do so.  And we too quite amenably trooped along behind them like a bunch of boy scouts out on a field jamboree.  

To be continued...

We trooped behind the Game Guards like the Scouts of Moonrise Kingdom

1 comment:

  1. Great ..


    Let me comment on this picture ..

    "Village youth playing cricket with a wild elephant in the background"

    It is proved that men & elephant can live together .. but few tasks to be done such as allow .. elephants to have sufficient land for their food and water, etc.
    Government should play a vital role on this ..

    Your projects are so vital as “Eye Opening” except “elephants”

    Janaka Mudalige

    Director (IT) / 118 Emergency
    Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka