Why is it that news about elephants is usually bad news? In light of recent posts and articles regarding injured animals, we thought it would be nice to post a happier tale and think about what it really takes to conserve elephants and the wilderness they inhabit.
October 31 2008. We were on the main road inside Uda Walawe. There’s a little water hole alongside it called Ari Wala and on this day we saw some members of the Seenuggala elephants coming for a drink and a rest. The Seenuggala elephants are so named because they are often spotted at or around the Seenuggala reservoir. They inhabit one of the more densely forested parts of the park, where visibility is poor so we often only get to see them when they come out to get a drink.
We noticed something odd about the trunk of a juvenile in the herd. In fact it was a calf belonging to a female numbered . On closer inspection we realized she had a piece of wire embedded halfway up her trunk. Such a device could only be a snare, a trap people use to catch smaller animals but which indiscriminately injures anything unfortunate enough to become tangled in it. Though she was able to use her trunk for the moment, had it cut any deeper it would have severed her nasal passages. We called in the vet, at that time Dr. Suhadha Jayawardana. It is quite useful to have veterinarians nearby, thanks to the existence of the ETH. And fortunately for this young animal, the doctor was available and turned up within minutes.
Luckily they were in an exposed area, and being so habituated to jeeps, they tolerated vehicles coming very close to them. An expert shot with the tranquilizer gun sent the calf down while the confused herd gave way to the jeeps, retreating to keep watch from a distance. The doctor and his team quickly removed the wire and disinfected the wound, then revived the calf. Shortly thereafter she struggled groggily to her feet and reunited with her mother.
We are happy to report that the calf, which we assigned the ID  and is now named Samanthi, survived and made a complete recovery. This was all thanks to the quick response and excellent actions of the veterinary staff of the ETH. It exemplifies what happens when private individuals (i.e. researchers like us) and wildlife personnel work together in cooperation. But it isn’t always so easy – if the elephants are not in an accessible location, they can be difficult or impossible to find; if they’re not used to vehicles and run away, it can be quite challenging to dart them; such operations are always undertaken at great risk to the people involved, particularly when it concerns an adult, who might injure or kill its would-be rescuers if it revives prematurely. So an intervention is never undertaken lightly – the risks and costs must be weighed against the potential of success. While all of that may seem like cold calculation when faced with a suffering animal, ultimately such is reality.
When do interventions fail? As we saw last year, lack of equipment or personnel to perform a job properly can result in tragedy. Currently, the emphasis is on electric fences, rather than personnel or equipment for them. It is not uncommon for park authorities to lack basic transportation because their vehicles are in need of tires, fuel, or repairs. This needs to change or how are parks to be protected? Why is there a lack of resources and what can be done to remedy this? These are pressing questions that must be put to the authorities charged with protecting both people and wildlife, and government agencies that determine their funding priorities.
Seeing an injured animal is a difficult thing to bear and injuries that are human-caused should be addressed whenever possible. But there are graver concerns – elephants cannot be helped by treating each wounded animal one by one. That would be like trying to plug the proverbial dam, which keeps springing two new leaks each time one is fixed. Cases like these will keep coming up until the root causes are addressed. What are those causes? Poaching. Habitat loss. Those are the diseases, of which these injured animals are symptoms.
Samanthi survives. But who will be the next victim – elephant, leopard? We need to ask: where was she injured? We need to know where these animals are going when they disappear from easy view within the national park. We need to clear the landscape of snares and other devices that are killing and maiming animals. And what will happen to the hundreds of elephants whose ranges are threatened with destruction? We need to track them, learn what areas are important for wildlife, and design our development plans around them rather than attempt to force wildlife into the schemes we dream up in our imaginations. Ecology precedes economics, not the other way around. A forest, which provides air, water, and other services, cannot be replaced. How do we balance the creation of hundreds of jobs against the value of such areas? At this very moment, there is a two-day symposium in Colombo addressing these issues. These are pressing questions, and those who truly wish to help elephants would be well-advised to turn their energies toward protecting what habitat they have left, in whatever way you are best skilled at doing – artist, scientist, or businessman.
It is easy to get worked up over an injured elephant, and we may feel good if one is rescued out of a well or cured of its wounds. But that amounts to a band-aid over a deeper wound. It is more difficult to get emotional over the chopping down of a tree, the razing of a forest, the political and economic forces that are altering the landscape of Sri Lanka and the world. It is asking a lot to empathize with the rural populations who must make a living beside wildlife. But these are the real challenges, the real threats to wildlife as well as ourselves. Contrary to expectation, it is not a lack of money that is the real problem. It is the availability of too much money, from the wrong sources, invested in the wrong places. Ill-advised hasty ‘development’ schemes, poor regulation of industries with major economic consequences from tourism to agriculture. And of course, corruption. These are the deep issues, which will keep killing wildlife as well people. They are difficult to address, and seldom yield a sense of accomplishment. But this is not to say we shouldn’t try. Indeed, there are people like these veterinarians who have dedicated their lives to doing so, ready to go at a moment’s notice and dispatched all over the country. Those passionate about wildlife should investigate how they can contribute to addressing these problems and helping the right people do their jobs well.
And what about you, who enjoy elephants or leopards in the park on weekends, who are moved when you see an animal in distress? What can you do? We do need more people like you, we do need you to act. At heart, we should ask ourselves what it takes for people in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, to live in a sustainable way. We should ask ourselves how to live sustainable lives – this means buying sustainable food, and using sensible transport. Where does your water and electricity come from, at what earthly cost? How much do you consume? Where does your garbage go? Where does your meat come from? If you consume the produce of a farmer who shot an elephant, must you not share responsibility for the act? Of course, you would never know. How many people grow Lantana (‘Ganda pahana‘) in their flower pots or gardens? How many have seen what it does to the forests as it spreads? Understanding these relationships is key. Perhaps you already know these things, and have some answers – it is then your responsibility to teach others and spread such awareness among your own friends and family.
Insist that the people charged with running the country truly represent your views and interests, rather than their own. Learn as much as you can about the things you care about, because ignorance does more harm than good. It can hurt the very people who are trying to help. It’s not about one elephant or even one hundred – it’s about you, and the shared landscape. The problem is not just out there, it is manifest in your own lifestyle. Have courage, have commitment. Stand up for what you believe – not just while sitting in front of the computer, but in real life – and support those who do so. Make the connections, understand before you act. This is the responsibility of civic society, only you have the power change the world in which you live.