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 backdrop…

By 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.
Attractive colour
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.         
Elephant threats
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 irritably.
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 matter.
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 reported.