Remembering a gentle spirit.
When I first started the project in 2005, I was touched to see the relationship between an inseparable pair of elephants. The elder, who I named Janet, was toothless and slender, clearly a grandmother who was peacefully nearing the end of her long life. The other, who looked almost exactly like a younger version of her, was in the peak of her life. I thought this must be her daughter, somewhere in her twenties perhaps. I named her Jasmine, after my favorite flower, because I thought her so pretty with her perfectly triangular and symmetric pink-edged ears. She was perfectly proportioned, a textbook example of elephant-ness. They went everywhere together, drifting in and out of a larger social group that I thought might be a single family.
In time, Janet passed away. The group consolidated around another mature female, Jane. Jasmine continued to be around her former companions, but she also wandered around alone and even mingled with other social groups. The J’s, as it turned out, made frequent use of a corridor to the east, and so would disappear for months on end. At these times, Jasmine might remain in the park on her own. As we wrote in the previous blog post, this pattern typifies what many elephants apparently do – as many as 3/4 of the elephant in the park are non-residential, with social groups often splitting up across years. Jasmine also ventured toward the corridor, but given how often we saw her in the park she must have remained close by.
In 2012 we were happy to see her with a new calf, now named Josh. Despite her youthful appearance, Jasmine didn’t have many calves. In fact, Josh was the only calf to survive in the years since we knew Jasmine. Though elephants can optimally breed every 4 years, it seemed the Udawalawe population was worryingly below this. Overall, it suggested that the population might be going into a slow decline.
In October, I received news that broke my heart. Our sweet Jasmine had been shot on the road side, next to her habitual spot at the edge of the corridor. I was stunned – Jasmine, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, shot? Did I hear that correctly? This was no “conflict” incident, no poaching attempt. She was innocently minding her own business in a protected area when she was quite thoughtlessly executed. In death, as in life, Jasmine’s story is an example of what is happening to elephants in Sri Lanka and around the world. Most, like her, are harmless and merely trying to survive in the fragmented landscapes elephants now call home. They risk their lives just trying to move about. They don’t deserve this.
It is sadly not the first time we have lost animals we care about. But the park will never be the same for me without Jasmine, it was not her time to go. It makes me determined to keep working towards a better future for all the Jasmines out there.
Rest in peace dear girl, find Janet, T212 and Raja too.
Since the time I embarked on this journey, as a researcher and conservationist in Udawalawe, I have known one of the most innocent elephants, easily distinguished by large ears and white hair on her tail. Her name was Jasmine. My time knowing Jasmine began in 2005. This was roughly 17 years ago and we have monitored and tracked her since then. We assume she is in her 30s or early 40s. We always spotted her roaming around the forest and was always healthy.
She is also known as (205), the number assigned to her name in our catalog. She is often spotted with two other elephants (239) and (238), the herd also has 15 other younger elephants. During this period of knowing her, she has never left the Udawalawe forest. Our team mainly spotted her in a few places, in Udawalawe forest, and through the Wetahirakanda corridor that leads to Lunughamvehara National Park next-door.
She and her group/herd were born and raised in Udawalawe and we believe she had very little need to change locations. She would have always thought this place was her home. Unfortunately, things did not pan out well, our beloved Jasmine fell prey to a gunshot wound, we guess it is a hunter’s rifle and just like that her life was cut short.
They were often observed there, as if it was her designated spot. Neither she nor any from her herd ever entered any village or farm, or even the tourist area. Yet, she was killed. This devastating news was very hard to accept, my team and I often saw her and we rejoiced at how we were able to track her for so long. It was a heinous act, killing an innocent animal, and that too in her land.
These days, HEC has increased dramatically. The lack of food in the forest is forcing the elephants to venture into villages and farms. We, as humans, act rashly. Many villagers or farmers have set up illegal electric fences, built shoddy trenches, carried man-made bombs (Hakka Pattas), and even prepared traps. All these inhumane acts are the main reasons why innocent elephants are dying and worse being crippled for the rest of their lives.
Despite the many elephant deaths recorded within the year, somehow Jasmine’s death feels heavier. Seeing her body with gunshot wounds only shows the lack of understanding and empathy we humans have. It is important to note that she was killed in a Protected Area. The whole idea of segregating protected areas is so that the wildlife in that area is unharmed, but Jasmine’s story shows how government laws are not respected and not effective.
Hunters are more prevalent than before. Due to the economic crisis and the drought season in Udawalawe, many hunters venture into the forest to hunt wild boars and other animals for the meat. These hunters keep some and sell the rest of the meat. The rise in the price of meat products has affected many villagers, hence they seek these illegal methods to obtain meat. This means that hunters are entering the park from multiple locations, which in turn makes it difficult for wildlife officers and forest officers to catch these hunters.
On 2nd October 2022 she was killed. We can only assume that the hunters were startled and fired at Jasmine, or they feared the presence of an elephant and killed her, whatever the reason may be, she was killed when she shouldn’t have been. There are many elephants that we know, who frequently raid farms and villagers, Jasmine was never one of them. As I mentioned earlier, she did not even step out of her usual boundary. A day before she was killed, the team and I noticed her and her herd in the same usual spot. Sadly, after the death of Jasmine, the herd is split and now we see different elephants forming different groups. The herd we knew for so long is changing; it can never be the same without Jasmine. But the group lives on.
There are more elephant deaths each year and one of the reasons is because of the fear instigated by careless statements from those in the government. Our wildlife minister said, without any evidence, that there are more than 7000 elephants in the country. This has caused fear in the farmers. They believe these words and act rashly which brings misery. This, I believe, is the reason we lost Jasmine. This is my opinion, but today, tomorrow and in the future, I will mourn the death of our beloved Jasmine.