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Do not feed Rambo the Jumbo

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Every morning an elephant wades across the Udawalwa reservoir to reach the main road. There he stands most of the day, morning till night surrounded by tourists and pilgrims traveling to Kataragama along with many fruit vendors. The great giant affectionately called ‘Rambo’ by Udawalawa residents’ poses for pictures with his many admirers while munching on various goodies thrown at him by the visitors. Being an intelligent animal, he has noted the difference in crowds between the days while also understanding the best times to appear during a day where more vehicles travel that path. Occasionally a couple would also visit Rambo on their wedding day to feed him fruit and to pose for a picture with him. A picture with this star elephant in the wedding album of Embilipitya residents is a must have. This is despite warning signs clearly saying ‘Mema aliyata kama deemen walakinna’ (Refrain from feeding this elephant.)

Rambo for what it looks like to other elephants does lead a cushy life hardly ever having to forage for food.

But Rambo is not always very nice and polite never failing to attack anyone who dares to venture across the fence erected as proved by a recent mobile video circulating on social media which was shot at the site. A man can be seen daringly approaching him with fruit and is chased by the elephant because after all even though people tend to forget the fact, Rambo is still a wild elephant.

According to Eco Tourism Officer of the Udawalawa National Park, Chamara Munasinghe this all began around fifteen or more years ago when Rambo discovered that if he stood by the electric fence, people traveling on the road would stop to see him and give him food in return for the privilege and rare sight.

It was at the same time that locals in the area realized that this was a great business opportunity with stalls cropping up along the road bordering the National park selling various food items. “They started selling food especially to be fed to the elephant” says Munasinghe. According to him the problem worsened when other elephants too discovered Rambo’s clever trick and started lining up along the fence for food. “At one time there would be around 40 elephants along the fence” he says. This in turn caused the park to lose its revenue because, tourists had no need to venture into the park when elephants can be seen clearly from the roadside while also getting a rare opportunity to feed them, which would not be granted within the national park.
As the issue became serious a decision was made to erect a second fence within the national park borders, so that elephants will not be able to approach the main fence. “This proved effective as all elephants returned to the habitat and things returned to normal” according to Munasinghe.

But true to his name Rambo found a way around this and there was no stopping him. The elephant discovered that he could wade across the reservoir and reach the main road by the dam of the lake where only one fence was erected. Officials of the Department of Wildlife were stumped according to Munasinghe as there was no possibility to erect a second fence along the dam. Even though they did, Rambo was able to break it down and now business continues as usual for him.

But today the elephant suffers from major health problems due to his diet. According to tour operators at the Park, Anil and Ranjith, Rambo now suffers from Diabetes and is constantly treated by veterinarians. “People at times throw food along with polythene which he also eats” says Munasinghe adding that Rambo now also suffers from hearing loss due to crackers being constantly used in an attempt to discourage him from reaching the main road. According to Anil post-mortems of some dead elephants found large amounts of polythene because they contained the food that animals were fed with.

While health issues of the elephant are also a major problem, human safety has also become an issue as the videotaped incident was just one of many in the recent past. “A foreigner was attacked and he broke her back” says Munasinghe.
When asked why this could not be stopped Munsinghe says there are many issues when implementing the law. “These people are all on holiday or on the way to a religious pilgrimage, so how can we stop them and punish them” he questions. Also according to him people see feeding an animal as a meritorious act and therefore do not understand it is forbidden.

However the Department of Wildlife has made many attempts to discourage the elephant and visitors from continuing this harmful behavior. “We put up posters and there are signs asking people not to stop vehicle on the dam,” he says adding that however, being typical Sri Lankan people, do not heed these warnings. Even though discussions have taken place to move the elephant to a different park his age and health issues are preventing the authorities from taking such a step.

Today Rambo still stands there and nothing can stop him reaching his favorite food. Even though the officials have tried he has always outsmarted them while human actions have not assisted the responsible authorities from carrying out their duties. Munasinghe admits that there is no reforming or turning back for Rambo now. “His lifestyle has changed and nothing we do can fix this anymore” he says adding that all they can now do is wait for his passing which is a possibility due to his advanced age and health problems.

But what must be noted is that Rambo is a prime example of how humans and their thoughtless actions can alter our environment and its animals. The damage done is irreversible and significant so much so that officials now fear that even though Rambo will one day be dead, another elephant will take his place as humans will not alter their behavior.

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