Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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

During dusk at the Kitulana Tank a tightly bunched herd rushing off to the safety of the jungle 

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 Back Story:  After the project meeting we headed back to the place where we had seen 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.  Now, 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.

We must have walked at least 200 meters or more on open ground to get to the elephant that in our minds—at least in the brain dead part of it—we were convinced was the injured elephant.  Induced by a latent suicidal gene that we all must have inherited from some common ancestor we had walked right up to the unsuspecting bull elephant.  Wonder how long the ancestor survived with such a trait?  Apparently long enough to pass it on very generously to us. 

Standing at various distances and angles from the bull, we did our best to get a glimpse of its’ front left leg. The elephant quiet unconscious of the fact that there were several people in the back gawking at its very generous posterior very frustratingly kept the same position. 

After several minutes—it felt like eons—of this very uncooperative behavior, the elephant started to shift but unfortunately towards the wrong direction.  In the meantime I had been frenetically taking photos worried about lighting conditions when due to the deepening dusk the automatic flash popped out with a click and went off. 

The elephant while feeding had turned slightly right angle to us when the automatic flash went off
The elephant now standing slightly right angle to us immediately noticed the flash go off and flinched as if it had been struck a physical blow.  For a Nano second the elephant and we stood frozen in time.   With not many options available we stood our ground and waited to see how the elephant would react. Would it decide to run or attack? 

The elephant just as the flash went off
Part III - Conclusion

It took less than a millisecond for fate to give its verdict and the verdict was:  The elephant just erupted.  He reminded me of Mount Vesuvius—from the stories I had read about it of course.  Letting out a mighty roar and blowing air out like a turbine engine he swung around with head raised ears spread, trunk curled and glared in our direction.  Whatever memory that connected a camera flash to its past seemed not complimentary at all to humans, or turn out to be a boon that would assure us coming out of this situation intact.  As far as injuries were concerned no surprises there—the elephant was in perfect physical condition.  It did not have one unhealthy molecule in its body as far as I could notice other than for the unhealthy thought to pulverize us all to the ground. 

It turned  on a dime while releasing air like a Pratt & Whitney turbine engine
Stretched along the edge of the pool transfixed to the ground we stood and ironically the elephant seemed similarly afflicted. There was no doubt as to who will come out from this staring match unscathed.  Meanwhile courting annihilation I hastily took photographs.  What with trying to balance on an uneven ground trying to breathe into lungs that seemed to have completely shut down, and control hands that shook and shivered as if I was out on a first date (not with the elephant) the photos came out pretty blurry.  The accompanying photos are a testimony to this.

Suddenly a lot of shouting came from the side.  It was Ari and Jeggan, the two game guards, they had apparently recovered from whatever trance they had gone into and were waving their arms and yelling as if to shoo away the elephant.  Perplexed I wondered what they were trying to do.  Did they really think they could shoo away a 10 ton elephant as if it was a barnyard rooster!  But quickly realizing what they were actually trying to do, soon we were all yelling and shouting to frighten off the elephant. 

Standing at the forefront of this action Chandima and I shouted and waved our arms at the colossal pachyderm—we must have looked as ludicrous as two Lilliputians challenging Gulliver to a fist fight.  Actually it was not shooing chickens but playing chicken what we were doing—trying to frighten the elephant before it attacked us by bravely trying to act more dangerous than it was. 

The big question was whether it would buy it? Would it take us as a serious threat and scram?  Given the predicament we were in there was not much that could’ve been done either other than to stand our ground, which again is rather easy to say than actually do it then. 

It was a terrifying situation.  The first instinct was to run but there was no way we could have outrun an elephant especially in those conditions.  The elephant stood there—looking flabbergasted.  Probably couldn’t believe that a bunch of puny humans dared to yell and scream at him—who was just minding his business until rudely disturbed by an idiot pachyderm paparazzi.   I was yelling my head off as well, all the time thinking whether all this shouting would encourage rather than discourage the elephant?   

My doubts seemed to be justified when the elephant started to get larger through the view finder!  It charged from the water causing small tidal waves to erupt and made loud sloshing and squelching sounds as its’ pillar-like feet smashed through the mud.  It suddenly dawned on me that whatever escape plans that I had been thinking about, now was the time to execute at least one of them.  While these thoughts raced through my mind I heard the others still shouting and yelling at the elephant. They were really going at it.  

The Charge
In a last ditch effort I bent down to pick up my shoes.  At least they’ll say “he made a valiant effort to escape before the elephant got him.”  As I grabbed the shoes in one hand with other hand clutching the camera my glasses slid off and fell to the ground. 

Frantically I snatched at the glasses with the hand that was holding the shoes and one of the shoes slipped out.  What was I to do? Leave the shoe and run to live another few moments, or get squashed into my shoe and hope to be reborn as a pair at Payless Shoes?  

In the meantime the elephant who despite all the shouting and yelling seemed to have doubled its efforts to get to know me personally.  He in fact as I had pondered—seemed to be encouraged rather than discouraged by the shouting and yelling.  It must have been a rugby flanker in its previous life.  As I was struggling with these thoughts a blur went past me and it was Chandima racing hell for leather.  That boy could sprint!  Watching his receding form made me realize that I better follow suit if I wanted to come out of this alive however remote it seemed right now.  There was no time for heroics anymore leaving the shoe where it was I turned around and fled.  

I ran over the craters and corrugations on bare feet as if I was a hydroplane, which only a little while ago I had walked with such care.  I had the urge to look behind but knew it was not advisable since the last thing I wanted was to trip and fall.   I ran behind Chandima and could not even get close to him.  Years later he told me that his only objective was to stay a few feet ahead of me to avoid getting trampled by the elephant.  Now that is what I call a heartwarming confession.

Amidst the yelling, shouting, ground reverberating thudding and ear piercing trumpeting I sped away as if the yakkas (demons) were after me.  Not to demonize the elephant but it felt like the biggest yakka of all time was coming after me.   As fleet footed I was, I knew for a fact that my speed was a like a tortoise’s compared to the gigantic strides of the elephant that was probably already inches behind me.  How I wished to be anything other than a tortoise.   I ran towards the trees that seemed to be receding.  

While sprinting I was imagining what it must feel like when an elephant whacked you with its trunk?  It was imminent and probably a few centimeters away from happening.  Probably the first whack will make me airborne and then who knows I’ll be able to glide up to the tree tops.  A devoted guardian angel or a fairy god mother with a magic wand is what I desperately needed now.  I urgently needed the power to levitate or to have the single shoe in my hand transformed into a Lamborghini in a flash. 

Amidst these frenzied thoughts I ran for my life.  After it felt like I had run the New York Marathon ten times over it suddenly occurred to me that the elephant was taking its time to catch up?  It seemed highly unlikely that a guardian angel had showed up at the last moment and even more improbable that I must have acquired super hero abilities all of a sudden to outpace an elephant!

Then I became aware that the shouting and yelling had stopped!  The first panicked thought was the elephant had stepped on someone else.  Damn! I stopped immediately doubled up breathing hard, hands resting on my knees but hesitating to look behind fearing what I might see.  

In front Chandima was sprinting at Olympic speed apparently determined to stay ahead of me!  Having no other choice I forced myself to snatch a quick look to see what was going on behind me.  Nishantha, Ari, Jeggan and CC were standing wherever they had scattered to and were staring at something.  Relieved that none of them looked like they had been pancaked to the ground I followed their gaze and it was an improbable sight. 

The elephant had given up chasing and was heading away from us towards the jungle at a fast walk.  I was so thankful for the reprieve but wondered what had made it change its’ mind? Gasping for breath I walked back while watching the bull briskly head towards the forest swinging its head and waving something in its trunk.  

The elephant walking away
What was it holding in the trunk?  Then I noticed what it was. It had picked up my shoe and was waving and twirling it around.  The shoe had saved my life or for that matter all of our lives that day.  If not for it, it would have most probably been me that the elephant twirled, waved, kicked around, and practically amalgamated into the rich littoral plain of the Kitulana Tank that evening.  I was so glad that I had washed my feet before putting on those shoes that day.  It would have been rather tragic to get stepped on by an elephant for having dirty feet.  As the elephant headed for the jungle I suddenly started to miss my shoe knowing that I’ll never see it again.

My shoe and the elephant...going, going...

...and just about to be gone for ever.  So sad 
Rohitha who suffered from a knee problem had wisely stayed at a safe distance while we lacking in cerebral faculties were walking up to the elephant.  When the elephant charged he had managed to get to the safety of the tank bund quickly.  The rest of us adrenalin coursing through our bodies walked back to the bund talking excitedly how a shoe had saved us.  

At the bund we stopped to discuss this amazing incident with Rohitha while Nishantha continued on to the Defender that was parked below by the roadside.  When Nishantha walked up to the vehicle the elephant stepped out from the jungle right in front of him.  With the vehicle still locked Nishantha was unable to get into it.  Having no other choice with alacrity he clambered on to the roof that probably won him the respect and admiration of a group of macaques that were lounging nearby. 

Wow! This guy is definitely one of us
The elephant crossed the road just a few feet away still carrying the shoe and disappeared into the jungle on the other side.  Fortunately it seemed none the worse for its experience either.  Probably like one of Cinderella’s fat stepsisters it could not wait to try out the shoe, otherwise it could have plucked Nishantha of the roof like a ripe pawpaw. 

When we got to the vehicle, Nishantha was still up on the roof turning this way and that way like a rooster on a weather wane worried that the elephant will reappear any moment.  Our routine field trip had turned out to be adrenalin generating wild adventure which could have quite as easily ended tragically.  But then this is more or less how it is every time we are in the field.  This is the wilderness that we are making every effort to protect and conserve.  How bland and inglorious our lives would be if not for the incredible wildlife and their habitats.  This is what the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society fervently believes and is sincerely committed to conserving for the future.  But it also must be said, that saving the environment, especially our vulnerable wildlife and their habitats is everybody’s responsibility as well.    

During another trip to Lahugala observing elephants the proper way. 

At the time we were initiating the Lahugala Project, Sri Lanka was facing severe terrorist problems.  On several occasions when traveling in the Lahugala area, we had been either 5 minutes late, or early, our Karma barely averting us from becoming victims of remotely detonated road side bombs. 

Just to give an idea of what it was like to travel during those days, once we were returning from Pottuvil in the late afternoon and had just past Sengamuwa when a mortar fell into the jungle not even 30 meters away exploding with a muffled thud.  The terrorists had suddenly decided to attack the Special Task Force camp that was nearby.   Smoke, dust and debris mushroomed through the trees and even engulfed the road we were on.  The acrid smell of explosives was suffocating.  We sped away before a mortar fell on top of us.

Wherever we travelled during those days it was in such a climate of death and mayhem.  Not only to Lahugala but even to the more remotely located Somawathiya Chaitiya National Park where the SLWCS erected a 3 kilometer electric fence to protect the pilgrims and the temple from elephants.  It did not matter where we went those days there was always the specter of annihilation hanging over us.  And yet, just like a Romeo who was enamored by a Juliet, from a very young age we were smitten by the wilderness—so when it beckoned to us during its time of need we ran to its aid putting our lives within inches of the maws of death.  Several times I’ve had to evacuate the field teams from our project sites in Kalpitiya and from the East due to intense terrorist activity. 

For the Department of Wildlife Conservation personnel it was an even worse situation.  Some of the parks were massive and had become havens for the terrorists and to other criminally minded elements to conduct various nefarious activities.  Under staffed and ill equipped they could patrol and protect animals only within a very limited area.  So to go looking for an injured elephant that was still very mobile under those conditions was an impossible as well as a highly dangerous task.  In fact they would have been blatantly courting death. 

Then there was the issue of actually trying to find the elephant.  As seen from our experience to go searching for an injured elephant that could move around was a tremendous challenge and dangerous as well.  To find elephants is easy, but to find a specific elephant in the wild was like searching for a slightly reddish red herring in the red sea. 

And even if one wanted to go in search of an injured elephant during those days of turmoil, it would have entailed taking deadly risks—and these risks were not from wildlife but from terrorists.   Not only were they severely handicapped by the terrorist activities to perform their duties but as government officials the wildlife department personnel were attractive targets as well.  In the 33 year old conflict several wildlife department field personnel were killed and some of them I knew personally. 

The injured elephant that we went in search off, months later the wildlife rangers found its dead body in the jungle.  It was identified from its injured front left leg.  It had eventually succumbed to its injuries.  This was just one elephant.  The reality is several hundred die every year due to human elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka.  This is why we are so committed to maintain what we had managed to accomplish at our project sites in Wasgamuwa.  Through the measures we had developed it has been possible to create an environment of coexistence in a once conflict driven area.

The injured elephant that was found dead months later
It is a wildlife department regulation to burn elephants that are illegally killed as a precaution to prevent the spread of infections as well to discourage people from taking body parts.  The game guards mentioned that they were unable to incinerate this particular elephant because they were scared that the smoke from the burning carcass would have provoked an attack from the terrorists. 

Fortunately those days of death and mayhem is over and Sri Lanka today is a land of peace, but the challenges to save our wildlife still persists—these challenges have only changed in form but not in their magnitude.

With deep gratitude and respect I dedicate this blog in memory of all the Department of Wildlife Conservation personnel who had sacrificed their lives to protect our wildlife and their habitats.  May they travel in sublime tranquility through Samasara until they attain Nirvana

Something to muse over: According to Buddhism if a person is not fortunate to be born in his or her next life as a human being, then the Prarthana* is they will be reborn as an elephant.  This is because Buddhism identifies the elephant as the noblest of all animals, as well as the most human-like non-human being in the world.    

*wish, prayer or seeking

1 comment:

  1. Very inspiring article.. Hope all of your efforts will deliver right results.. in minimizing the loss of elephants life .. Keep up good work .. guys ..

    Janaka Mudalige,

    Director (IT) / 118 Emergency, Ministry of Defence & Urban Development