Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Lahugala Kitulana Incident: Saved by the Shoe (Part II)

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.

The story so far:  After the project meeting we headed back to the place where we had come across the injured elephant.  To our disappointment it was not there.  So we drove slowly down the road scanning the jungle on either side looking for it.  As we were passing by the Kitulana Tank the two game guards spotted four elephants far away in the distance, one of them was in the water.  It was known that injured elephants liked to stay in water for its calming and soothing qualities.  Parking the Defender by the side of the road we decided to walk up to the elephants, to check whether the one in the water was actually the injured elephant that we had observed earlier on our way to Lahugala.  We had no idea how serious the injuries of the elephant were, but most probably they were not as bad as the serious brain hemorrhaging we must have had to go traipsing in the open towards a group of wild elephants.

Driving slowly we scanned the jungle on either side

The elephant that we assumed was injured was standing knee deep in the water with its back turned towards us.   Intuitively I had marked out a tree planning to make a bee line to it if the elephant happened to be uninjured. Then to my dismay I realized that we had already passed by that tree and the elephant was still a good 50 meters ahead of us!  That's how far we had to walk to the elephant and it was all open ground with only space and air in between, which in my opinion were very inadequate barriers to stop a rampaging elephant.

On the right is the elephant we thought was injured
The terrain we had to walk and the tree I had in mind in case the elephant charged
The ground that looked like a vast flat grass plain from the tank bund had totally misled us to believe that this was going to be a romp in the park.  The flat ground turned out to be like a miniature representation of the moon’s surface.  Every inch of it had small crater-like imprints of elephant feet.  The vast number of elephants that converged on the park as the water receded had left behind these crater-like impressions of their feet everywhere on the tank bed.  With the onset of the dry season these imprints had got hardened and covered with grass.  It was rather deceiving, since one expected it to be an easy walk on flat open ground, whereas these mini craters were dangerous ankle spraining traps.  Stepping gingerly between the crumbling edges of these small craters and keeping a wary eye out on the elephants we trekked onwards.

Underneath the grass were miniature ankle spraining craters made by elephant feet
As the distance between the elephants and us got shorter unknowingly we had spread apart, and I wondered whether the wiser course would have been to clump together, to offer a solid front as a last ditch effort just like the Spartans had done at the pass of Thermopylae.   In this situation though a legendary million armed Persians seemed much less formidable than a right-in-your face, living breathing, and potentially enraged 10,000 pound bull elephant.  This would not even be a standoff; the elephant would just steamroll over us.  At least the Spartans got a chance to knock down a few Persians before they got annihilated—whereas we would get flattened to the ground and not even get to pinch the elephant.

The plan though was very simple and would even be considered brilliant if it was hatched by a bunch of village idiots.  Our simple plan was to get as close as possible to the elephant to see the condition of the front left leg.  If it was the injured elephant then we were not in much of a danger as long as the other three elephants that were little further away did not take offense at our proximity.  If it was not the injured elephant then we would quietly sneak back before it noticed us.  It was just like stealing up on my grandmother when I was a kid if the fact that I got detected every time could be overlooked.  Only one thing was wrong with this simple and brilliant-if-you-want-to-call-it-that plan, obviously the elephant knew nothing about it.  So to make matters rather difficult the elephant kept the same position requiring us to get much closer than we had anticipated.  For the sheer folly of our plan we had a good chance of getting short listed to receive a Darwin Award.  These awards are given annually to individuals who have contributed to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the gene pool by their own foolish actions.  There was a very good chance we could end up with the award this year. 

The large bull elephant was unaware of our approach because the wind was blowing towards us which was fortunate.  Or was it? Because if the wind was blowing the other way, it would have alerted the elephant much earlier on and we could’ve found out from a much further and safer distance, whether he was actually wounded without having to get this trunk shaking close.  

Probably it is a mental state of grown men—the greater the danger, lot stupider they get—because we just kept walking up to the elephant, and Chandima and I had unknowingly become the vanguard of the foot safari.

As we got near to the elephant which was getting bigger and bigger, my mind was a raging torrent of thoughts, ideas, and plans in case the elephant was not injured.  If it charges don’t run—stand your ground. Could I possibly do this? Stand firm and stare down a thundering 10 ton mass of pachyderm?  What if it just kept coming? The ground was unstable so I should take off my shoes if I had to run.  How about photos? Should I take photos or not! Was there enough light? What if I stopped to take photos will there be still enough time to run? Should I remove my glasses? Or run with them? What if they fall while running? Maybe I’ll remove the shoes and glasses, then take photos and then run!  These thoughts were racing through my mind when we arrived by the edge of the pool of water the elephant was and stopped.  We could go no further or to be more accurate any closer, because beyond was thick mud that would have immediately sucked us in if we had stepped on it.  Even from such a close distance because of the way it was standing it was difficult to identify whether it was the injured elephant.  It was not more than 50 feet away, which was just a hop step and jump for a healthy elephant.   

The elephant fed quite unaware that we were walking towards it
The grey toned colossus was completely oblivious to the fact that there was a group of seven people just a few yards away standing and staring at its gargantuan backside.  The elephant with its posterior skin hanging loose in folds—like a chubby man in baggy pajamas—looked so disarmingly and deceptively cute—from the rear that is.     

Standing by the edge of the pool we craned our necks from every conceivable angle to try and snatch a view of the front left leg.  From above we would have looked like a bizarre religious group standing around our pachyderm deity worshiping fanatically its’ very generous rear.  If elephant dung can be considered heavenly gifts then our deity was capable of being a prodigious benefactor.

As it fed the elephant was turning towards the right
I started to take photos with my Canon SLR which had a standard lens on it at the time. As dusk was descending fast I was worried whether the photos will come out alright.  Also on the unstable ground it was not easy to balance and take photos with a steady hand while making escape plans at the same time.  The elephant had finally started to shift from its position but unfortunately in the wrong direction.  It was gradually turning to the right while it fed.  It seemed we were not destined to see its front left leg today.   In the meantime I kept shooting with the camera, when suddenly, due to the deepening dusk and resulting low light the built in flash popped out and automatically went off!  

The elephant now standing at an angle noticed the camera flashlight go off and stiffened immediately.  We just froze where we stood as if the ice age had suddenly descended.  It felt as if time stopped for fate to assess the situation and give a verdict.  In that double domed cranium somewhere in the folds of that massive brain a memory lingered, a memory that was directly associated with flashing light.  What was that memory? Did the camera flash remind it of the flash of gunshots in the night that preceded the piercing and excruciating agony that followed in its aftermath?  Was that why it paused?  Standing still vainly trying to imitate Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt I wondered how the elephant would react, fearfully or aggressively? We were soon going to find out!    

To be continued…

A herd with a small baby rushing to the safety of the forest at the Lahugala National Park

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