16 June 2014 – S. de Silva
A clear sunny day, Lucy and Mickey are off in the park with Sameera while Kumara and I stay behind to catch up on office work. It’s mid-morning when Sameera calls to tell us Walawe Kota is back! Walawe Kota is the nickname we’ve given the dwarf elephant of Uda Walawe. This would be at least the third year now. What’s more, he’s in musth and reportedly fighting another male. At first, the news is a bit confusing – there’s mention of a possible injury.
I’ve never seen him in the flesh though Kumara and Sameera have. I’ve only seen pictures and video clips, so I’m eager to try our luck. The park office reports he’s been spotted not far from the entrance, so we hop in our Jeep and dash off in hopes he’s still out in the open.
Pulling up to the office parking lot, we run into the park warden Mr. Pathirana, and several guards. They’ve just spotted him, and there’s no visible wound. They tell us he was heading toward a waterhole known as Jithwila.
We head down the Jithwila track. We’re in contact with the rest of the team by phone, and they also happen to be heading in this direction, though they’re searching for elephants to do playbacks on. I scan for any sign of him, since even a shaking bush could hide this little beast. We cross paths with the other two research vehicle, in the midst of observing a large herd emerging from the Jithwila waterhole. But no sign of Kota.
We double back down the track and stop in a clear area with good long range visibility and just sit for a while, hoping he might head our way. It’s a picturesque spot but no luck. We check a second waterhole nearby, but there’s no sign of him around there either.
We decide to keep pushing on down the main road. I don’t feel he would have got very much further, given the locations he’s been seen and the time it’s taken us to get here. Depending on which direction he was actually going, we have a sizeable area to cover, plus the chances of us actually spotting him in the dense undergrowth seem vanishingly small. I tell Kumara we should go as far as the rock water hole at the next intersection and then turn back to search closer to the previous locations.
As we round a bend near the Muwan Palassa intersection, there they are!
Walawe Kota stands just off the side of the road, facing [M175] who has his back to us. Both appear to be grazing peacefully, but in fact they’re merely tossing their trunks about with ambivalence, not eating. We stop some distance away to gauge whether they might move on approach. Kumara knows that [M175] can’t be trusted when in musth, so we inch forward. They stand their ground.
Indeed, Kota is in musth. His temples glisten and this time we can clearly see drops of urine trickling down, wetting both rear legs. When [M175] eventually turns to his side we see that he too is in musth.
With no warning, Kota lunges at [M175] taking him and us by surprise – the dwarf is going on the aggressive rather than the other way around!
[M175] beats a hasty retreat bearing down toward us. I can see fresh red gashes on his trunk where Kota has nailed him properly. Kumara, who’s been filming from the rear, jumps in the driver’s seat and puts us in reverse.
I know it’s the losers that are the most dangerous, remembering how some years ago a bull named Romel had flattened a Landcruiser with my mentor George Wittemyer and his assistant still in it. They were only spared when the other bull he was fighting came up from behind and resumed attack. I also remember once stopping at an intersection as two bulls chased each other flat out, rushing full tilt past us. We would not want to be stuck in the way of either of these two!
Adrenaline rushing, I keep filming as Kumara pulls us back 50 meters, then 100. We’re back at the intersection. There’s a water hole to our left, once we get past it we’ll know if [M175] is intent on us or the water.
To our relief, he makes a beeline for the water which he splashes greedily over himself. Kota meanwhile strolls down the road, taking his own sweet time, and veering off exactly on the trail of [M175].
We pull up alongside to watch. This water hole, which we call Gal Wala, is a shallow depression at the foot of a large boulder. It contains an island of water buffalo, wallowing in its midst. [M175] has circled around to our side of the water, while Kota freshens up on the far side. [M175] scratches himself lazily on a tree, recovering some of his injured dignity.
Bull battles always unfold in slow motion. Since combatants usually seem evenly matched, they appear more a matter of endurance than brute strength. They always strike me as being very sporting.
Both contestants rest and refresh themselves with water and mud, Kota even getting down on his side to rub himself with it. The moment he moves, so does [M175]. For several minutes they circle each other like champion boxers building themselves up. The cattle are cast as somewhat bored spectators.
We on the other hand are riveted. Step for step [M175] matches Kota, moving clockwise while keeping the water between them. Once, twice, they loop and finally Kota decides he’d had enough of it, cutting partially through the water. At this, [M175] picks up his pace till they’ve both made a third loop and then he rounds to face Kota again.
The cattle chew on placidly, failing to register any concern. They seemed about as conscious of the unique spectacle before them as a heap of lumber.
The break over, they now resume combat in earnest, trunks lifted and legs flailing. Kota again is the one to initiate, throwing his short but muscular frame at [M175] like a battering ram. As they fight their way toward us Kumara again throws down his camera, which is still recording, and hurriedly sends us in reverse again. We pull back to the main road and watch as the two go head-to-head.
They pause to break some branches off a small clump of saplings, brandishing these at each other. At one point, Kota pokes his head between a v-shaped gap between two stems and reaches over at [M175]. Perhaps thinking this is his chance since Kota has inadvertently barricaded himself, [M175] suddenly head-butts him straight between the gap! It’s the only time we see him initiate contact. But Kota soon regains the upper hand and returns the thrashing.
As they disappear into the bushes, we decide to call it a day and head back out.
On the way back, we encounter the rest of the team as well the warden and his company. We breathlessly direct them to the scene and everyone heads off to pick up where we left off.
Later in the evening, we pieced together the rest of the events. The two weary contestants had paused for a break, sheltered under some trees.* The eager onlookers had looked on for nearly an hour until Kota had again gone on the aggressive.
This time [M175] had shot straight out past the vehicles and sought haven in the middle of the same water hole. He’d scattered the foolish cattle in his desperation, with Kota awkwardly following at top speed. Lucy, Mickey, Sameera, and the entourage with warden Pathirana watched on gobsmacked.
The battle continued even as the audience dispersed.
It was clear that Kota did not simply have a Napoleon complex. Not only was he unafraid of taller competitors, he actually had an advantage! Kota could ram his opponents full on, whereas they had to stoop to meet him. He could potentially knock them off balance, whereas his squat profile and low center of gravity made it extremely difficult for them to do the same. Muscular as a rugby player and round as a sumo wrestler, Kota packed a mighty wollop!
* Lucy was mighty glad to know what was going on so she didn’t mistakenly play these two a recording of bees and have to flee two panicking musth bulls.
UPDATE: Videos are now up!
de Silva S, Weerathunga US, & Pushpakumara TV (2014). Morphometrics and behavior of a wild Asian elephant exhibiting disproportionate dwarfism. BMC research notes, 7 (1) PMID: 25522959 [FULL TEXT]
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