Back in 2004, a male calf was born to the young female elephant, 458. The calf had baby tusks and this made his birth all the more special. He was named Therapuththa, or T458. We named him Therapuththa but labeled him as T458, following his mother’s ID, this is because it helps us keep track of him in the future when we catalog his movements, features and characteristics. His name, Therapuththa, was taken from ancient history: it is said that King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors protecting him and Therapuththa was one of the most loyal and endearing ones. The mother, 458, was often spotted with two other female elephants, who we have labelled as 040 and 041. After tracking this herd for so many years, we have unfortunately not seen any calves after Therapuththa. So he was quite special, besides being a tusker, which is rare in Sri Lanka.
Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic halted travel around the globe, the island of Sri Lanka thrived on tourism. A big part of the country’s GDP is attributed to tourism. According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Association, 783,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka’s national parks in 2018, which is roughly 38% of the travelers who entered the country. The parks earned over 2 billion rupees (over $11 million USD) in entrance fees alone. Clearly, elephants have a huge economic value (more about this here).
Photo by Mohan Krishnan of injured elephant in the water.
Somewhere, there is a hungry elephant, following her nose, wandering an ever-diminishing forest in search of food. She ventures to her usual places, finds them lacking. She wanders further from where she feels safe, considering what she may find closer to the villages nearby.
Somewhere there is a hungry person. Perhaps a farmer, perhaps a hunter. He is looking to drive away pests from his land, or maybe to earn a bit of money from bushmeat. He selects a large fruit or vegetable, say a pumpkin or pineapple. He hollows it out, hides an improvised explosive inside, leaves it where some animal will find it.
He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.
But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong. Continue reading →
A female elephant was seen on the corridor – note the raised bumps on the skin, which are suspected to be old gunshot wounds.
Uda Walawe elephants have access to nearby protected areas (managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) through two separate “corridors;” Dahayyagala, connecting the park to the proposed Bogahapattiya Sanctuary on the northern boundary and Wetahirakanda, connecting it to Lunugamwehera National Park on the eastern border. Elephants can be found outside the park pretty much all along the border except for the southern section. The identified corridors, however, are too narrow at some places (500-1000m). Corridor boundary is marked by electric fencing. The existing fences sometimes run too close to human settlements and at other times they run through forested habitats leaving elephant needs (like water holes) outside the corridor. In such cases, those who maintain electric fences have to walk into elephant habitats for a few kilometres daily and that doesn’t sound practical (as a result, some parts of the fence easily go non-functional). Given the inefficiency of fenced boundaries and escalating human elephant conflict in the area, the Department has taken a very timely decision to re-define corridors and upgrading electric fences to better serve both humans and elephants. The plan is that eventually the corridors will be broadened while the existing fences will be lengthened and strengthened. Continue reading →
In the fishing industry, the term “bycatch” refers to species that are entrapped in fishing nets that are not the intended target species. Such victims, many of whom may die and simply be discarded overboard, represent a terrible waste of life.
An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.
A snare is a hunting device resembling a wire noose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to trap wild animals. In Sri Lanka, such poached bushmeat consists of wild boar, porcupine and lesser members of the deer family and is mostly locally consumed. Hunting non-protected species (wild boar and porcupine, which are considered as vermin) is not illegal but other species like deer are protected by the local Fauna and Flora Ordinance.
Locals say snare traps are often meant for wild boars. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate, they also make victims of species like leopard and elephant. During the last five years, more than ninety percent of the leopard deaths occurred in hill country, Sri Lanka was due to physical injuries of ensnaring. Our observations in Uda Walawe and Minneriya National Parks suggest that it is usually less-experienced juvenile elephants are the victims of snare traps, though adults may sometimes show signs of old wounds. Trunk injuries show the animals are vulnerable even during grazing, not just while walking. Perhaps calves’ natural curiosity makes them especially vulnerable. Continue reading →
The Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project is now approaching eight years, a unique study of Asian elephants. Because elephants are such long-lived animals, it takes a long time to understand them – particularly for important variables like who reproduces and how often. Studies of wild African elephants have been conducted at multiple sites over 10 years or more (in some cases as many as 40!), but this has not been the case for the Asian species in the wild. There have been long-term records of Asian elephants populations in captivity from places like Myanmar, where they have long been used in timber camps, and it’s interesting to see how the two compare.
This past December we published a comprehensive paper analyzing six years of data on the wild Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. This paper is one of a kind as it has been difficult for researchers to successfully monitor wild Asian elephants due to the difficulty of their habitats, and the logistical challenges of conducting steady research over longer time periods.
Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her skull and jaw were recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans. We aged other females in the population relative to Tailless.
Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison’s technicians in carrying out her death sentence while demonstrating the dangers of AC current. Photo: Chicago Tribune
By Ilja Van Braeckel
New York, anno 1903. The city stirs as dawn breaks. Woken up by the distant rumble in the neighboring tenement, you might join the breakfast table. You might appreciate your morning cup of chicory root coffee and nibble on some hard-earned buttered toast. You might scratch your head and raise an eyebrow or two as you open the newspaper and read how none other than Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy, the 28 year female Asian elephant. You might learn how the murderous ‘beast died without a trumpet or a groan’, in Edison’s slanderous attempt to discredit his rival’s discovery of alternating current, per demonstration of its potential hazard.
Uda Walawe today, some 14 000 km and 110 years away. Neither Topsy nor Edison outwitted the tusk of time and all that remains of the unfortunate elephalectric turn of events is the original video footage and the alternating current that proved innovative. In fact, electricity is now commonly used to separate humans from other animals and this is no different in Uda Walawe, where the national park is delimited by an electric fence line. In reality, however, frequent power cuts make its efficiency questionable to say the least and the elephants, keen creatures that they are, seem to have learned to jostle over the fence poles. Continue reading →
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.
A juvenile named Samanthi, with her trunk injured by a snair.
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. Continue reading →