Caring for the treasured jumbos

The month began on a sad note for Sri Lanka’s wildlife enthusiasts, when an 11-year-old tusker was shot dead in Udawalawe National Park, about 160 km southeast of Colombo. The results of the post-mortem examination pointed to a fatal bullet injury in the animal’s head. Caretakers in the park told local media that the calf, which had two tusks, had no history of menacing people living in the area. Authorities have since been trying to find the person who fired at the elephant. In fact, 2018 hasn’t been great for Sri Lanka’s tuskers, which are venerated as a “national treasure” and have been a huge tourist draw for decades. As many as 277 elephants have died during the year, due to causes such as electrocution, accidents on railway tracks, ‘Hakka Patas’ or traps made of explosives, and gun shots fired by people guarding their crops from the animal. Last year, as many as 256 tuskers died, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation. In a bid to address the growing threat to the elephant population — over 6,000 across the island — authorities are taking a range of measures from electric fencing to earmarking some zones as “protected areas”, Department spokesperson Hasini Sarathchandra said. “We are also trying to increase awareness among people through schools in areas near the different national parks,” she told The Hindu . The task at hand is not easy, especially in the wake of growing environmental challenges — both natural and man-made. In July, a tusker was found washed out to sea and was later rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy, whose personnel spotted the animal in distress and towed it to the shore. Officials suspected that the elephant might have been swept into the sea while crossing the Kokkilai lagoon, near Mullaitivu and Trincomalee districts in the island’s northeast. The prolonged drought in the region was pushing the elephants off their usual course in the nearby jungles. Especially so, in the case of fatal train accidents that make frequent headlines here. In September, a train transporting oil across the island killed two baby elephants and their mother. Last month, a passenger train hit and killed three young elephants in eastern Sri Lanka. “The Wildlife and Railway Departments got together and agreed on certain measures to address this problem, but nothing gets implemented. The human element in this has been very negative,” said Mr. Jayawardena, managing trustee of the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust. In his view, authorities do not have a much-needed proactive conservation strategy, but are often “just firefighting”. “If an elephant calf inside a national park is shot dead, then where else can the animal be safe in our country,” he asked, referring to the December 1 incident.
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