The sleepy and picturesque town of Hambantota lies on the south-east coast of Sri Lanka, with a host of multicolored fishing boats drawn up along a swath of golden sand encircling a small bay with palm trees waving in the background. During 17th century Dutch rule, the town became populated by ‘Malays’ – Muslims from Indonesia, who were brought in to capture elephants. To date, Dutch-period buildings dominate the hillock overlooking the beach. The low lying area next to the beach was thickly populated with dwellings. The market place was the centre of the town and was situated adjacent to the main coastal road a hundred meters from the sea. On Sundays it was a bee hive of activity and a riot of color, sounds and smells, on account of the weekly fair. Here, whole-salers, small time traders, transporters, farmers, fisherman, and the populace from far and wide came together to buy and sell, to bargain and argue, to strike deals, stock up for the week, and to make a living.
One such Sunday morning, as the town was all a hustle and bustle, the entire sea suddenly rose up and roared inland. In one terrible moment it smashed pulverized and swept away all before it, the houses, trade stalls, people, animals, vehicles, all and sundry, depositing much of it, together with uprooted trees, twisted telephone poles and a jumble of debris, in the lagoon about 500 m inland. Many hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands their homes and livelihoods. One of the greatest natural catastrophes to strike mankind in living memory, the 2004 tsunami had struck Hambantota.
The outpouring of aid and assistance that followed from people in Sri Lanka, National and international NGOs and the government tried to help the people so devastated, and high on the list was their housing. Consequently, an area immediately north of the town was cleared of the scrub jungle and many hundreds of houses built. This area was excellent elephant habitat previously, and in the middle of it was an open dump where the garbage from the city was deposited daily. Like all such dumps in elephant country in Sri Lanka, this dump too had its retinue of ‘garbage elephants’. They practically resided there, feasting on the vegetable matter, over ripe fruits, palm fronds and the odd consignment of stale bread that was discarded from the market and ended up in the dump. All of them were males and about 5 of them were fairly young; around 10-20 years, a couple were older; around 20-30 years and one big male probably around 30-40. The ‘tsunami houses’ that were built were fairly close to the dump and the elephants became a danger to the people who moved into the new houses. Some of the elephants used to wander among the houses, some were aggressive and occasionally raided a garden or kitchen, creating panic among the people who did not want elephants in their backyard.
With mounting complaints, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) decided to translocate the elephants to a protected area. Translocation of elephants from areas of conflict with humans, into protected areas is one of the mainstays of elephant management in Asia. Where large numbers of elephants need to be moved, ‘drives’ are conducted and in the case of a few, chemical immobilization and transport is used. However, hardly any translocations have been monitored. The assumption being that elephants translocated from an area of conflict with people, in and around settlements, and cultivations, where they are disturbed, harassed and chased all the time, sometimes even shot, to an area with good forest, where they are safe and not subject to harassment and disturbance would be content and live there happily ever after.
The Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) together with the DWC decided to monitor one of the translocated animals as part of an on-going research program on elephant conservation and management. We were able to obtain a GPS-satellite collar through a collaborative program with the Smithsonian Institute. We set the collar so that it would take a GPS location every 4 hours. The positions would be uploaded to the ARGOS overpass satellite once a day and we received the data every other day via e-mail.
Consequently, one of the eight elephants that were translocated, was collared, a fairly aggressive adult male about 20-30 years old. He was loaded on to a truck and transported by road to the end of Block I Yala National Park, a distance of about 50 km as the crow flies and about 75 km by road. He was released on the bank of the ‘Menik-ganga’ a perennial river that flowed through the Park, and chased across the river to Block II. The next morning we waited impatiently for the data to arrive. The first data point was at 9.30 pm, a half hour after release and being chased across the river. To our surprise, he was on the Block I side. We continued to get locations in the subsequent days and were able to follow his movements. He stayed in the release area that night and the next day, probably still groggy from the sedation. The next evening he took off practically pointing straight at Hambantota. By night fall he had covered around 20 km and came up against the electrified fence which ran north-south on the Park boundary and prevented further progress.
Electrified fences have been erected on the boundaries of many protected areas in Sri Lanka in efforts to restrict elephants to such areas. Similar to cattle fences, they carry a pulse of high voltage of around 12,000 volts DC but very low amperage. On contact with the fence one receives a thumping shock that practically throws you, but no physical harm is caused by the current itself.
He obviously couldn’t get through the fence and with the breaking of day he retreated into cover and spent the day in the vicinity of the fence. That night he started moving north along the fence, passing the Bembawa office and getting to Bandu Wewa, about 10 km further north. This section of the fence was electrified only from 6 pm to 6 am, whereas the section between Bembawa and the sea was on day and night. He broke through the fence at Bandu wewa between 2 and 6 pm and moved rapidly south-west, going through cultivations and villages, and passing close to another garbage dump without as much as a break in step. By next morning he had reached the coast and spent the day under cover in the Bundala National Park. The next night he again took off in a bee line to arrive back at his favorite garbage dump in Hambantota by 6 am the next day.
A couple of months after the translocations, there were ten elephants at the dump including Homey. While it wasn’t clear how many of them were ‘returnees’ we knew definitely about one!
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Story by Prithiviraj Fernando