Learning from Parakrama’s death

I did not get a chance to set eyes on the iconic Galagamuwa tusker, nor will I ever be able to.  In the wake of the flurry of emails, news articles, blogs, and facebook posts that have followed this tragedy however, it is easy to get so overwhelmed by frustration that we seek out someone to blame – anyone.  It would be easy to blame the vets, to blame the Department of Wildlife Conservation, to blame the villagers etc. and the list goes on.  But that would be a mistake and a greater tragedy.  Let this death bring about changes in the way that HEC is dealt with at its most fundamental level, not simply a witch-hunt.  To that end, I’m posting information to correct some of the misinformation out there, and thoughts on where this is all going.

First of all, the pictures from the Daily Mirror show the animal propped up against a chain (see “media” link above), which was done AFTER death.  The typical mode of transporting an elephant, of course, is standing up.  (All photos below courtesy of Drs. Prasad & Perera).

Typical mode of transport.

The tusker seems to have damaged the floor of the truck in his attempts to free himself, at which point he broke through and became trapped:

The veterinarians say they could not free the animal immediately as they were in a populated location, and instead had to take it 16km to the Siyambalangamuwa Tank, at which point it was still alive.  However they then could not raise the animal for lack of adequate equipment.  They suspected the animal died of suffocation under its own weight after its foot went through the flooring of the truck and it was unable to stand up.  However, the Sunday Times reports that:

“A team comprising Dr. Basil Alexander of the Peradeniya Veterinary Faculty and Dr. Nihal Wedasinghe, Director-Health Department, North Central Province, reported that death was caused by the animal’s body repeatedly thrashing on the lorry, which caused damage to his heart.” (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/101128/News/nws_10.html)

In either case, the death appears accidental.  The vets will issue their own statements after all investigations are complete.

What went wrong and how do we prevent it from happening again?

The vets acknowledge that no special precautions were taken with this animal to distinguish it from any other.  Several arguments have been made: on the one hand, some feel that a ‘national treasure’ ought to have received special care.  On the other, every elephant that is translocated – tusker or not – ought to be handled with the same high level of care.  To me the critical distinction between this tusker and any other animal is that it had the ability to do some serious damage, in the form of tusks, and had that been anticipated, it should have merited extra precautions.

Second, if there is a shortage of resources that the private sector can help to correct (e.g. the lack of machinery, manpower, or money to obtain both), then it would seem to make sense that the DWC and the private sector COMMUNICATE and cooperate to see that it happens.  Why doesn’t it happen?  Because as one person puts it, the decisions to translocate animals are made ‘ad hoc,’ which means that there isn’t adequate notice when it’s going to take place.  If there was good communication, the route from start to finish could be prepared adequately.  As Uda Walawe is often the final destination of some of these animals, we know from personal experience that there is very little warning when a new and potentially dangerous animal is about to be released in the area, which endangers the lives of everyone not just the elephants.

Third, translocations together with electric fences should be a FINAL resort.  It is not the cure-all as none of the animals who are translocated actually stay put.  Yes, elephants kill people, cause property damage, etc.  While moving the problem animal seems like a quick fix, the agriculture and lifestyles of the people living on the edges of elephant habitat are the source of the issue.  We have to find other ways for people in these areas to make a decent living, and SUPPORT them as they try to make the transition so that it’s not a risk and burden they bear themselves.  Those of us who do not live with elephants, in affluent communities, with regular office jobs, if we love elephants would do well to try to support the rural poor who must live with them and find ways for them to do it sustainably.  It’s all very well to love elephants and snap photos of them on weekend trips, but try living in a treehouse or mud hut to earn a living.

With all that difficulty, many villagers still love elephants.  As Dr. Perera points out – the very fact that this tusker was alive and roaming free, when countless hundreds of elephants are being poached today for their ivory, or poisoned due to ‘conflict’ is a testament to the care and protection he was given by the very people he was living among.  Dr. Perera also points out there are other tuskers in the wild, who are similarly living without any form of special protection.  In 2008 we lost the young tusker Ashoka under mysterious circumstances.  In 2009 we may have lost Raja (the hunt is drawing to an end).  But in the midst of all this, I see young tuskers growing up in the wild.  They are there, waiting to take the place of their ancestors.  Let’s work to see that they have a wilderness left to roam in.

Not just Parakrama but EVERY elephant is precious – and so is the dignity of every human life.  While it is easy to sit back and criticize, coming up with solutions is much more difficult.  We can’t let that stop us.

-Shermin de Silva

Director, Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project

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