|Rampaging gentle giant
The elephant is iconic of Sri Lankan tourism, heritage and
culture. These are wild beasts we love, for their majesty,
gentle ways and integral connection with the people of this land
and their ways. Since the colonisation of the dry zone however,
with settlements having invaded several traditional elephant
habitats, a struggle commenced between human beings living
settled in these areas and roaming wild elephants that often
turn violent and destructive when confronted with the
inhabitants. In Galewala last week, a three-year old baby was
the latest victim of this struggle between man and beast. The
Nation visited the area to learn more about the incident and its
Chamindra Wickramasinghe and Thimali Ranaweera in Galewala
It happened in the rural village called Palutawa off Sigiriya.
There, a parched road runs through a thick arid jungle which
leads to acres of chena cultivation, the Palutawa villagers’
livelihood. It is a very narrow road indeed and only one tractor
moves on it at a time - often loaded with big onions and
sometimes fresh green chillies.
Palutawa being located in the dry zone, the vegetation is
scorched: trees with thin trunks, shrubbery, and thorny creepers
intertwine, twisted roots run crisscross along the flat land.
Movement across the forest seems not at all an easy task.
Ranjith Kumara (36) took this road through this jungle at 4.30
p.m. that Saturday from his chena on his bicycle with his
three-year old son, Nimantha Dilshan seated on its oil tank.
Dilshan would have turned four years old today and his akuru
kiyaweema was to have been last week, but the cruel hand of fate
was to dictate otherwise. To his parents’ horror, little Dilshan
became the latest victim of the conflict between the little
village and roaming wild elephants.
Being a resident of Yatigalpotta, Galewela, Ranjith Kumara was
visiting his chena after one and half months. It was the first
time his son was going with him.
“When I was taking the bend, the elephant was there. I stopped
the bike, clutched my son to my chest and ran off to the
thicket,” tears trickled down his cheeks. The elephant’s trail
to the road from the jungle lay across Ranjith’s path and the
beast was on its way back into the forest.
Ranjith could take only two or three steps- his legs got tangled
in the roots and thorny bushes and fell on the flora. Little
Nimantha was in a red suit that attracted the elephant.
The giant pressed his head against Ranjith’s shoulder and
coiling his trunk gripped the boy from his neck. The father lost
his hold despite his struggle to press him more and more tightly
to his chest. Blood dripped onto him the very moment his son was
lifted by the elephant’s trunk. “I struggled to save my son. I
even tried to hang onto the elephant when my child was snatched
from me. Its skin is so very thick that I think it cannot even
be cut with a wak pihiya [curved knife]”.
Ranjith’s wailing and calling for help echoed and disturbed the
village and many gathered to the point. It was the child’s uncle
that stepped into the forest soon to rescue the boy following
the trail of blood along the ground.
Nearly 150 feet away from that baked road, he caught sight of
the elephant- now calm. Then he saw the little boy stretched out
on the ground in a corkscrew position – dead.
Palutawa has been an insecure village for both the elephants and
the humans for over 30 to 40 years. It is surrounded by an area
of 12,500 acres of jungle that stretches up to Minneriya. The
elephant did not kill the child intentionally, the villagers
admitted. But “if we kill the elephant, will the authorities
let us live peacefully?” Ranjith, the father questioned
Lokubanda is an onion farmer. Elephants have turned very
violent and destructive now he said, because tamed elephants
from Habarana and Pinnawala are released in to the jungle. “They
are fierce. They are not scared of humans. Some of them kill
people quite frequently. I wonder whether it is because of the
elephant’s weerathwaya [majesty] that makes them attack people
like this,” says
Elephants devastating their chenas seem awfully regular. They
complained there is no one to look into their losses. “We have
to stand on our own.” A few of an elephant’s footsteps are
enough to destroy a wider area of the cultivated fields. They
come to eat the pumpkins in the chenas. Placing sacks of
poisoned pumpkins to kill elephants in order to save their crops
is something many farmers resort to. “But we never do that,”
little Nimantha’s grandmother said. “We try to scare them away-
my husband spends the whole night in the pala [watch hut]. But
the villagers of Palutawa were determined if such things happen
constantly “we have to do something.”
Long drawn conflict
The last time an elephant killed a man from the village was two
years ago. The incident is ever so much more poignant this time
around because the victim was only a baby.
Are the animals abandoned amidst humans or humans abandoned
amidst wild elephants? One would say the human settlements and
opening up of plantations in the dry zone created this conflict.
True. While environmentalists say that elephants cannot be
blamed for these catastrophes because human settlements have
invaded the beasts’ traditional habitats, the bottom line is
that the villagers are not living on unauthorised land either.
Who will give way here? The elephants or the villagers?
No one realises the injustice to both man and beast better than
the villagers themselves. “They only come to quench their
thirst, fill their stomachs,” say many of the more understanding
people. They realise that they have encroached the elephant’s
space and the wild creatures have nowhere to go.
The villagers have their own techniques of survival from
elephant attacks; quite practical to a certain extent. “The
solitary elephant is hazardous. They are very sensitive to dark
colours,” they said. They are able to identify from the features
of the elephant whether it is going to attack a human or not. In
some cases, when confronted by a wild elephant, the villagers
try to remove their shirts and leave it on the ground and run,
to distract the elephant. They are confident that the beast
would then only come up to where the shirt is. They hide
underneath the tractor when the elephants start chasing the
vehicle. The elephant stops at the tractor then. But small
tractors are often destroyed very badly by them.
No help from authorities
Reporting these incidents to the authorities result in very
little happening. “They will just light two or three crackers
and scare away the elephants - that is all they do.” ‘My husband
underwent a two and half hour operation after being trampled by
an elephant in 1996,” another village woman said.
Elephants start promenading the paths normally by 4 in the
evening. They strike houses at night but sometimes they are
harmless; just wandering to and fro. There are herds of two to
three elephants, at times 5. “We are scared to come from our
chenas because we work till around 6- 6.30pm. Once an elephant
came to our house, we held the torch towards it and it went
away, but attacked the house next door.”
Elephants are killed and poisoned a lot in the surrounding
villages. “We do not have the proper tools to kill them,” some
of these threatened villagers say.
The beasts had repeatedly come to the chenas two days before the
tragedy happened. What did they do to the elephant that brought
the child to an untimely death? “We drove away the elephant by
lighting elephant fires,” Lokubanda said. Who is responsible
for their predicament? The elephant is an icon in this little
island of ours, but as the human-elephant conflict rages on, the
government and environmental authorities would do well to wake
up to the reality; that a great calamity will befall these great
beasts unless and until we find away to secure their habitats
and protect the human settlements.
Electric fence soon
Wild Life Conservation Department authorities in Colombo
revealed that Palutawa, which is in the Mahaweli zone on the
edge of the Sigiriya Sanctuary park, belongs to the Sigiriya and
Minneriya Wild Life Conservation range offices.
At such a fatal elephant attack, a death donation of Rs. 10,000
is offered because the victim is a child. However, the death
certificate of the deceased should be produced to the Assistant
Director’s Office, Mahaweli Region Wild Life Department situated
in Polonnaruwa. The family is eligible to receive this because
Palutawa village is not within the conserved area. It was also
revealed that an electric fence covering this area has been
suggested and will be constructed within this year.
Regional wild life officials helpless
The officials at the Sigiriya Wild Life Range office stated
that it was through newspapers that they found out about the
tragedy. Since the respective parties have not made a complaint
officially, they revealed they cannot take any action on the
The officials had considered visiting the place, but they fear
the villagers will harm them. The officials said that they had
advocated the construction of an electric fence a long time ago,
but the authorities have not yet implemented these plans.
When villagers kill elephants in the area, taking action against
them is their duty, the wildlife officials say. Palutawa is
under the Minneriya National Park’s control. The injustice on
the animals is addressed only by the Wild Life authorities and
people encroach the land day by day, they added. Officials were
unwilling to reveal what steps they can take in disastrous
incidents like killing people unless they are officially