Mystery elephant deaths | Sunday Observer

Mystery elephant deaths

Tragedy of a fallen giant
Tragedy of a fallen giant

It is a love-hate relationship that Sri Lankans have with the great tuskers, the country’s symbol of majesty and strength. Elephants are a key stone species which affect the island’s biodiversity. Last week found seven of these giant pachyderms mysteriously dead in the central plains.

While the Minister of Wildlife appointed a six member committee to look into the mysterious deaths of seven elephants in Chumbikulam at Hiriwadunna, Habarana the initial investigation report by Wildlife Department officers is to be handed over to Director General, Chandana Sooriyabandara tomorrow, October 7, the Sunday Observer learns.

The preliminary inspections suggested that the elephant deaths were due to poisoning, the actual cause is yet to be determined.

It was on Friday, September 27 that four elephant carcasses were found close to the Chumbikulam forest reserve at Hiriwadunna, Habarana. Saturday, September 28, revealed three more carcasses. Search operations in the area by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) the Army and area residents found no other elephant deaths. Six of the dead were cow elephants between the ages 20 to 30 years and within their reproductive age. The male elephant was estimated to be 35 years of age. Out of these six cow elephants one already had a four year old calf which lingered near her carcass, another was found pregnant and two others showed signs of lactating, said department sources.

Multiple deaths

Conservationist and Head of the Centre for Conservation and Research, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando said that the multiple deaths of elephants are very worrisome and puzzling.

“Elephants have a distinctive social structure and it is surprising that most of the elephants killed in this case are females,” Dr. Fernando said.

It is surprising because, if the elephants were targeted by humans, why female elephants were exclusively killed.

“You see, most of the raids are done by male elephants. They are also hard to chase away. We can’t understand then why they kill the females,” Dr. Fernando added.

He further added that it is hard to understand how one could poison the elephants. Poisoning their water sources is not an easy task, and if the water sources are poisoned as formerly assumed there could be other casualties.

He said a full post-mortem needs to be conducted to understand what caused the deaths of these jumbos.

“This is not an easy task, but it needs to be done,” he said adding if there is a need to conduct toxicology testing that should be done immediately to stop further deaths from taking place.

Dr. Fernando likened the incident to the mass deaths of pygmy elephants in Sabah, Malaysia, last year.

Sabah saw 27 elephant deaths caused mostly by poisoning in 2018. The deaths prompted the Malaysian government to set up an action plan to control the human-elephant conflict.

Dr. Fernando said Sri Lanka too need to adapt an effective plan to mitigate the human-elephant conflict that is resulting in a ‘dramatic’ increase of elephant deaths.

DWC statistics

DWC statistics reveal that the human elephant conflict takes a heavy toll in the number of lives lost. Statistics since 2009 record that human, and elephant deaths which had been around 50, and 200 respectively in 2009 had increased to 93, and 319 last year (2018).

The first nine months of 2019 alone counted a total of 293 elephant deaths and 93 human deaths.

The area where the elephant deaths occured is a proposed elephant corridor in the Elephant Management Plan of the DWC, officials confirmed. This area belonging to the 20 kilometre long elephant corridor from Kalawewa to Habarana, through Ganewalpola, Ritigala and Chumbikulam which is also a forest reserve. However, some private properties also exist in this area. They use electric fences to contain elephants.

The area contains shrub jungle, grass plains, abandoned chenas and paddy fields. A few paddy fields are cultivated. Chumbikulam forest reserve is a good habitat for elephants with four to five small tanks and an abundance of grass on the banks.

The elephants showed signs of good health said the official, “their abdomens were full of wild grasses. However, they had blisters on their skin, a sign of poisoning.”

They belong to a small herd which had been travelling through the corridor and staying in the area for about two weeks. Area residents had heard a lot of trumpeting the previous night. There had been no signs of movement in the bodies of the elephants after falling on the ground, “perhaps they were dead by the time they had fallen down,” the official said.

Chemical poisoning?

Wildlife Director Sooriyabandara on Tuesday, October 1 told the media that though they suspect chemical poisoning as the cause of the elephant deaths, the cause is still not clear. It was yet to be determined if it was poison containing in the leaf-based diet of the elephants or the water. It could be agro-chemicals or any other natural chemical such as the ones found in algae blooms in water sources, he said.

Speaking to the Sunday ObserverTourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga stressed the need for scientific evidence to arrive at a ‘conclusive’ answer to the current mystery.

He noted a possible increase in the number of wild elephants in the country. This, he said, means that elephants need more space and food to live on intensifying the human-elephant conflict.

The Minister added that he will next fence elephants to stop them from breaking into villages and damaging crops. He was also advised by ‘someone’ to control the elephant population in a bid to tackle the issue.

Possible causes

“I am at a loss for words here,” the Minister said adding that they are looking into several possible causes for the deaths.

One of them is that the elephants have consumed crops laced with weedicides. “Different types of weedicides are imported to the country. We don’t know how strong they are. They could have killed the elephants,” he said.

At the media briefing on Tuesday, he also promised to add tougher penalties and fines to the country’s law to stop wild elephants being killed.

The current fine of killing a wild elephant stands at Rs. 500,000 to 1000,000, a paltry sum compared to the benefits the country gains by letting it live in the wild, according to conservationists.

Veteran Environmental Lawyer and Activist, Jagath Gunawardena, says that the best way to stop atrocities against both wild and tame elephants, for which the DWC is responsible is to increase the capacity of the Department to enable them do their duty. “We have to set our priorities right. Just setting the fines high won’t help without increasing the capacity of the DWC.”

DWC capacity

The situation would not arise if the Government would (through the Treasury) spend a fraction of the money earned by the Wildlife Parks to increase the field cadre and to provide them with proper training and equipment, noted Gunawardena.

The economists who take decisions at higher echelons of the Government have no idea of the economic value of the environmental reserves in the county, he lamented.

“Though we have been presenting this message for decades so far, they have not paid any attention to environment protection,” he pointed out.

Sri Lanka, a haven for environmental tourists may be the only country in the world where you could see elephants, the largest land mammal; and whales, the largest marine mammal within a span of 24 hours. Elephants in Sri Lanka are a unique sub species of the Asian elephant.

The last census estimated the number of wild elephants at around 6,000. Another census was also conducted a few weeks ago, the results of which is yet to be published.

Lanka’s elephants walk long distances to forage approximately 135 to 270 kilograms of vegetation a day. It had been found that in the wild they form deep family bonds and show a variety of emotions.

Elephant herds act differently and more responsibly than other herd animals when faced with danger to a member, weak or young animals, new births and so on.

While the human-elephant conflict had claimed many lives of both humans and elephants, often the number of elephant deaths at such incidents are limited to one, or two at the maximum. However, the past two years had seen small herds being eliminated due to collision with trains plying long distance.

It was in September last year that seven mysterious elephant deaths were reported at PeriyaAru, in Polonnaruwa. Later, they were confirmed as deaths due to drowning. Meanwhile, another elephant was found dead last week near the Puttalama Kurunduwetiya tank, and was later confirmed as having been poisoned.

However, it is not clear whether the incident was related to the death of the seven elephants at Chumbikulam.