Will justice elude poisoned pachyderms? | Sunday Observer

Will justice elude poisoned pachyderms?

Orphaned calf keeping vigil over dead mother
Orphaned calf keeping vigil over dead mother

Elephants have been an integral part of Sri Lankan culture from time immemorial. Bestowed with the honour of even carrying the sacred relics of the Buddha at religious pageants, these majestic creatures are revered by Sri Lankans. But out in the wild, impoverished villagers have begun to regard elephants as crop destroying pests which also damage their homes and even cause the loss of lives leading to the escalation of the human-elephant conflict.

Experts now believe that this was the cause behind the deaths of seven elephants in Habarana, after the Director-General of the Department of Wild Life Conservation (DWC), Chandana Sooriyabandara confirmed this week that the elephants had died due to the ingestion of a poisonous chemical as revealed by the post mortems carried out.

While elephants deaths due to various reasons have become commonplace, the discovery of seven carcasses of pachyderms believed to have died around the same time in the Thumbikulam forest reserve located in Hiriwadunna, Habarana came as a shock to both environmentalists and the public. Some even called it the worst wildlife tragedy in the 70 years of the DWC.

Authorities discovered four elephant carcasses on October 27 while three other carcasses were also found during search operations carried out the next day. A week before an elephant was found dead under similar circumstances near the Puttalama -Kurunduwetiya tank. The post mortem later confirmed that it too had been poisoned.


While the DWC has now received the report of the committee appointed to investigate the elephant deaths, Soooriyabandara confirmed that it has ruled that the animals had died due to poisoning. The animals had been found out to be healthy and well-fed. But the observation of body parts confirmed they had been poisoned.

However, according to the DWC Chief, it is too early to say if the poisoning had occurred due to a willful act. With unauthorised chena cultivation being widespread in the Hiriwadunna area, some DWC officials have expressed concerns that farmers in the village may have attempted to poison the elephants to prevent their crops from being destroyed.

“We are also trying to verify the exact chemical that poisoned the elephants,” Sooriyabandara said. As investigations continue, the Government Analysts Department has been tasked with ascertaining the type of chemical which caused the deaths. “Parts of the carcasses have also been sent to the University of Peradeniya and the Veterinary Research Institute for further investigations” he added. The Government Analysts Department meanwhile has also taken steps to expedite the process by appointing a seven-member team to carry out the investigations.


Though a number of theories had circulated relating to the elephant deaths, with many pointing fingers at the chena cultivators of the area, residents claim the herd that was killed and the villagers had peacefully co-existed prior to the tragic event. According to them the herd was not violent and did not harm the people in surrounding villages. They had rarely strayed from the forest areas. As a result, the farmers had even taken to leaving the last crops of the season for the herd.

Therefore, environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella has suggested that the elephants could have become targets of illicit liquor brewers in the area instead of the cultivators. According to Ranwella, elephants in this particular wildlife area have become addicted to locally brewed liquor. “Therefore the illicit brewers give poison to these animals to safeguard the alcohol brewed for sale,” he said. “We are suspicious that these deaths may have ocurred the same way” he added.

According to experts, elephants often become targets of illicit brewers as the animals act violently and destroy the places where the illegal trade takes place after becoming inebriated. Ranwella says this is mostly reported from the Habarana wildlife area.

DWC statistics show that in the last 21 months the human-elephant conflict has claimed the lives of 559 elephants and 163 humans. This year in the first nine months alone, 240 elephants have lost their lives due to various causes. For a country with an elephant population of around 6000, these troubling numbers have caused concern among environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts.

Criminal matter

Following these recent deaths, the Center for Environment Justice has requested authorities to treat investigations into the incident as a criminal matter. The environmental organisation has proposed that the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) should conduct the investigations.

Perhaps the requests of the environmentalists are justified. Though there have been many cases of poisoning authorities have not been able to nab a single suspect in any of the cases as it has been difficult to prove without a reasonable doubt. According to statistics, there have been 21 cases of elephant poisoning deaths in the last four years, but no perpetrators have been identified. “It has been difficult to prove,” he said suggesting perhaps that despite efforts, justice will be elusive to the seven gentle giants who lost their lives. (M.B.)