|Sunday, 29 September 2002|
Memoirs of a game ranger : Risky jungle encounters
by E. Desmond White, Former Park Warden, Yala
Elephants are certainly one of the most talked about wild animals and can be observed for hours at a time. My first experience with wild elephants though was not the most pleasant. We as Trainee Game Rangers at Yala in 1957, had to investigate a case of an elephant ensnared in a wire noose. This place was a chena area called 'Thambarawa' and was outside the limits of the park.
This male elephant was about 7 1/2 ft. in height and had a wire noose tightened halfway up its trunk with the other end fastened to a tree trunk. Alarmed by our presence and behaviour it possibly tugged harder than before, which caused the wire to snap and the elephant to free itself. At this juncture it was each one for himself as we scattered in all directions and I am sure even the late Duncan White, my cousin, would have approved of the hurdle I cleared - a 'Katuwela' measuring 4.5' ft. in height by at least 4 ft. at the base - in my dash for safety into a chena plot. Luckily, no one was hurt and the elephant went on its way. The story however had an unfortunate ending, as a few weeks later the carcase of an elephant with a matching description, minus half its trunk had been found by Guard Robosingho in Block II of the R.N.P. An elephant unable to make use of its trunk could not survive.
Another heart-warning story was when an elephant calf had been found abandoned after falling into a rock water hole in the Dimbulagala temple premises. I was then serving in Polonnaruwa and the Govt. Agent there was Mr. Amaradasa Guanwardene who when contacted insisted that the young animal be released to the wild herd. The reason being that the majority of animals rescued earlier and sent to the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala, had not survived. Our team comprised Ranger Jayaratne Ralahamy, Guard Seneviratne, Wilbert Kodituwakku and P. Rajadurai. We had our doubts about the herd accepting this animal, as the general belief was that they discarded animals having human scent. The young priest on rescuing the animal had tied it to two trees by the neck. This young male about 3 1/2 ft. in height was healthy and very boisterous.
It kept on tugging at the ropes and trumpeting incessantly as the presence of a herd of elephants in the vicinity was heard. The animal refused food and we had a tough task controlling and calming the animal. We watched it over throughout the night observing how it became more and more receptive to the trumpeting of elephants nearby. Early at dawn the next morning we heard the sound of elephants about 100 yards away and the elephant calf was getting more and more impatient and restless. It was then that I instructed Guard Kodituwakku to release the animal and this he did, deftly cutting the ropes. It pranced off in the direction of the herd and then we heard the gurgling sounds of the happy pachyderms who had found their 'lost lamb'.
After daylight we examined their tracks and found that our mission had been successful. The happiest person to receive this news was the G.A. Mr. Amaradasa Gunawardene.
The buffalo is another denizen of the forest and the really wild males, especially the loners 'Madaya' can be temperamental and easily riled. At Palatupana, Game Guard Brahanudeen and Hudanchiappu, whilst returning after a night patrol at dawn, on a stretch of beach at Kudaseelawa, had observed a lone male buffalo staring menacingly at them. With no provocation it had suddenly charged at them, and with no tree to escape the attack, they had shouted but to no avail, and in desperation had plunged into the sea. Brahanudeen swam into the deep whilst Hudanchiappu had waded waist high and thought he was safe, only to be gored in the thigh by the buffalo who had got ashore and disappeared into the jungle.
Hudanchiappu bleeding profusely could not be carried the distance back to base, and his partner had propped him up against a bush and surrounded him with dry branches, twigs and driftwood, as buffalo are known to avoid even small obstacles in their path. Brahanudeen then running all the way to Palatupana H.Q. had sought help. Hudanchiappu had been carried on a make-shift stretcher and hospitalised. He was back again to serve the Dept. after about six months.
In another unfortunate incident, Game Guard Sumathipala was to find out too late and at the cost of his life the unpredictable temperament of the lone male wild buffalo. One morning whilst leading a gang of labourers in the Kumana beat a buffalo had suddenly emerged from a thicket and charged at them. Despite the loud shouts of the labourers the buffalo had continued on its way and Sumathipala who had been in front bore the brunt of the attack. The buffalo's horns, which are dagger sharp, had sliced his abdomen open spilling out the bowels. The labourers had attended to Sumathipala tenderly replacing his bowels and wrapping up the stomach contents in all available polythene and cloth from sarongs, shirts etc. and had carried him for help.
They had then taken him by tractor the only available vehicle, to Panama and thereafter by van to the Batticaloa General Hospital, a distance of about 75 miles. Here he had been operated on successfully but in a cruel twist of fate, had fallen to his death from the high hospital bed.
There had been a very rare bear/leopard encounter in Yala once. Game Guard P.P.G. Premadasa had been accompanying Mr. Anil Jayasuriya. (son of former IGP, the late Mr. Osmund de Silva), when close to the former Buttuwa tank spillway they had come across the fresh carcases of a bear and a leopard beside a large 'palu' tree. Both carcases had borne multiple injuries due to mauling as both animals have sharp claws and teeth. Sharp claw marks had been visible on the tree trunk whilst there had been signs of a prolonged struggle below.
This may have been a freak encounter with both animals meeting half way up the tree, and neither one giving way to the other. Speculation may lead us to believe that the bear had climbed this tree in search of bees' honey or 'palu' berries and was climbing down when it encountered the leopard climbing up to retrieve its kill (carcase or part of an animal) kept hidden up on the fork of the tree. Or may be vise-versa, where the animals are concerned.
As park Warden of the Gal Oya National Park, I was stationed at Inginiyagala, when towards the latter part of 1970 this incident regarding a leopard occurred. The residents of Inginiyagala made frequent complaints to the effect that their watch dogs were vanishing regularly and believed that a marauding leopard from the wooded rocky outcrop clsoeby to be the culprit. This problem reached a climax when an influential person lost a choice pair of Alsatians and the residents threatened to destroy this leopard by any means available. I pacified the aggrieved persons and promptly informed Mr. Lyn de Alwis, our Acting Director who was also Director of the Zoological Gardens of the prevailing situation, and requested immediate attention.
Thanks to Mr. De Alws, the Zoo lorry and crew arrived the following morning to capture and to remove this leopard, if possible.
The late Game Guard Arulananthan was deployed to assist the Zoo personnel and they got down to work immediately. By evening of the same day a Grey langur monkey was killed for bait and a live puppy dog obtained to lure the leopard into the baited iron trap (cage). The pupy's whining was to attract the attention of the leopard and was placed adjoining the trap surrounded by rather large boulders and made visible but inaccessible to the leopard. By evening all arrangements were completed and the inmates of the house closest to the trap requested to keep us informed no sooner they heard the crash of the iron trap doors. Incidentally, monkey and dog flesh are considered leopard delicacies and we were sure the combination would work.
This leopard had been shrewd enough to avoid the trap all night but the temptation had been too great and towards dawn had walked into the trap. We went to the spot and our flashlights revealed a healthy young male leopard in good condition. It had badly injured its face hitting the stout iron bars of the cage in making futile bids to escape. As expected it was aggressive and very restless. By daylight news of this capture had spread and the whole place was crowded with inquisitive spectators of both sexes, young and old, most of them trying to get a closer view of the leopard they had heard of but had never seen before. The jostling crowds of people irritated the leopard and I was concerned about the danger in case anything untoward happened. Police assistance was sought to clear the increasing crowds of people and thereafter operations commenced to transfer this restless and dangerous animal from the iron cage to a wooden one.
This risky task took quite some time and effort and was done carefully and expertly by the Zoo personnel.
The captive leopard was carried palanquin-wise to the lorry for transport to the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala. Incidentally, as a souvenir, I reared the puppy dog made use of in this operation. About an year or so later I inquired from Mr. De Alwis about this leopard and was informed that this animal had been treated and cured of its injuries and was now the proud father of a pair of leopard cubs born in the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala.
Very few wildlife enthusiasts of today would remember the very first circuit bungalow at Yala built during the days of the Forest Dept.
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