Srilal Miththapala, in The Island, 12 March 2014, where the title is “Tourist injured by elephant at UdaWalawe”
Last week news was received about a foreign tourist, who had been injured by a wild elephant closed to the Uda Walawe National Park. When I heard the news, I immediately felt a wave of apprehension wondering whether this could be Rambo, the elephant who frequents the Tanamallvila Road boundary fence, along the bund of the Uda Walawe reservoir.
Rambo has been frequenting this area for many years, but has been very docile with passes-by, who are able to even hand feed him through the electric fence. Therefore, I could not imagine that it was Rambo who was involved in this incident. Alas my fears were confirmed that evening, when Dr. Vijitha Perera, the senior Veterinary Surgeon of Elephant Transit Home (ETH) at Uda Walawe confirmed to me, on the phone, that it was indeed Rambo, who had attacked this woman tourist. In spite of the injury to the tourist, I was somewhat relieved that perhaps Rambo was not to be faulted, once I heard of the details leading to this mishap.
The tourist had first stopped on the bund, and fed Rambo (as many people do) and had been highly fascinated to be at such close quarters to a wild elephant (again as most people feel). Rambo had then walked along the bund, in between the two electric fences towards the ETH side. The Department of Wildlife recently erected a 2nd fence along the edge of the water, to prevent Rambo swimming across, and getting on to the bund. However, the two parallel fences are not closed at either side of the bund. Therefore, Rambo has now got used to climbing onto one end of the bund, and then on to the gap between the two fences, which he patrols soliciting food from vehicles passing by.
Rambo had come to the western end of the bund (the side where the ETH is situated) and got down the embankment and started walking towards the water, presumably to swim across to the park. This area has a large open grass land, where many locals creep through the electric fence at the further edge, to bathe.
The tourist also had crept through the fence and gone behind Rambo, in spite of villagers and other passes by warning her not to do so, presumably assuming that the elephant was docile (having hand fed him through the electric fence few minutes ago). The tourist had approached Rambo, when he had turned around and hit her with his trunk, sending her sprawling to the ground. He is then supposed to have kicked her with a foot, injuring her head badly, and walked away. Subsequently, the tourist had been rushed to a Colombo hospital and thankfully, is said to be now out of danger.
The underlying issue and the lesson that needs to be learnt from this incident is that everyone must be aware that these are wild animals, and they are by no means tame. Being very intelligent animals, elephant behaviour is quite complex and ‘smart’. As long as Rambo comes up to the fence to solicit food from passes by, he is aware that he is encroaching into human territory. He knows that he has to be ‘well behaved’ and act in a docile manner, so that he gets his rewards.
However, the moment he is back in ‘his territory’ and a human encroaches into his domain, his personality completely changes. This is what really conspired during this incident, and while certainly a human being was badly injured, it somewhat exonerates the animal from any wrong doing.
Readers will recollect that there was a similar (docile and seemingly tame) elephant on the Minneriya-Pollonnaruwa road near the temple, who was used to soliciting food from passers-by. The bakery by the side of the road had roaring business, where visitors bought buns and loaves of bread to feed the elephant. However, one evening, this elephant, known as ‘Minneriya Marga Badhakaya’ (Road Blocker), was walking back into the jungle, a tourist who had just hand- fed him a minute ago, ran behind him to take a photo. The elephant had turned around and immediately charged at the man (thankfully nothing serious happened).
In fact, last year when Rambo was very seriously ill, I had the good fortune of accompanying Dr. Vijitha inside the park and watching him being treated. I have been very familiar with Rambo for over 15 years and was used to his very calm demeanour, and felt quite confident walking right up to him in the jungle with Dr. Vijitha and his crew. Even though he was in a very frail state at that time, I remember Dr. Vijitha warning me to be on guard, and to be ready to run, if Rambo charged at us. I was quite surprised at first, but then realized the importance and gravity of what Dr. Vijitha reminded me, of never to be complacent with a wild animal, however familiar, docile and peaceful he may seem to be.
Rambo, ‘Marga Badhakaya’ and even Gemunu (of Yala fame) all have got used to being fed by humans from their young days, and the damage is now done. Given their intelligence it is very difficult to make them ‘unlearn’ this behaviour.
Therefore, all visitors to National Parks must always remember that we humans are really trespassing into their territory. We should at all times be extremely careful, and guard against complacency. They are magnificent animals, born to be wild… and wild they should be.
Pix by Chitral Jayatilake