The Brief Life of [T212]

By SdS & USW

All looks peaceful…


…until you look closer.

He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.

But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong.

Closer inspection reveals a tiny wound, in the middle of the forehead. A small streak of what could have just been a splash of water, but was in fact a trickle of dried blood.

By the time the veterinarian and others arrived to investigate, it was too late. [T212] was already dead.

[T212] at final rest.

He was two months shy of his twelfth birthday.

Born in February of 2007, [T212] belonged to a very small and exclusive club – tusker calves born inside Udawalawe National Park. His mother had the ID [111], Naomi of the N family. The Ns were an aloof bunch, preferring to keep mostly to themselves. In the early years of the research project, we saw them only in the dry season, close to the reservoir on the Southern most end of the park.

[T212] in 2011 with his mother, Naomi, and younger sibling, when he was four years old.

We were initially mystified at how they showed up there every year, without being spotted anywhere else. Did they travel only by night? Did they stay away from roads? How did they avoid all those tourists on their journey from wherever it was they spent the wet months, to their dry season home at the reservoir? The answer, as we discovered, seemed hard to believe, but it explains why [T212] became such an easy target.

With some of the other N’s in 2014.

With the family in 2015. Behind [T212] are his mother and younger brother.

But first let us tell you about [T212].  We weren’t sure he was a tusker at first. The pointy little nubs sticking out past his lip were so thin, we thought they might be tushes. But as he grew, so too did his teeth. As far as we could see, he was the only tusker the family had produced. Though we were pleased, we worried that he was growing up so close to the edge of the park.  There was a spate of illegal calf kidnappings going on, and a baby tusker would be a sought-after prize. But the risk is highest until the age of three or so, after that they’re too much trouble to overpower. We were relieved when he outgrew this risk, but kept close tabs on him.

[T212] in 2016, when he was nine years old.

Tuskers are exceedingly rare in Sri Lanka. No one quite knows why – perhaps they were a rarity to begin with in the founding population of the island. Perhaps it is the result of generation upon generations of selective capture and hunting.  So when a baby tusker is born, we watch anxiously until they grow up and disperse from their families. An elephant takes so long to mature, it’s only happened once so far in the duration of our twelve year study.

A dispersing animal faces many perils. He loses the safety of protection and vigilance afforded by his family. He must navigate unfamiliar surroundings and find food that is hopefully safe to eat. Above all, he must learn to avoid people. Elephants born in the park are especially susceptible to two dangers. First, they are so habituated to people they may not fully realize the danger humans present. Second, those that get accustomed to hanging around near the fence might get fed by people, a bad habit that is as difficult to break in people as in elephants.  If the calf happens to be a tusker, the temptation of ivory rears its ugly head.

[T212] still wrestles and plays with other calves, though increasingly more independent by 2017.

As the years went on, park management cleared new roads and fire breaks along the edge of the reservoir.  Irregularities in rain dried out the reservoir in some years, so that the water level was low enough to drive around even during the “wet” months.  We were able to access the far end of the reservoir – and who did we see? The N family!

They seemed to live in their little patch of forest year-round, which would make it one of the smallest home ranges for an elephant family ever known, barely a few tens of square kilometers. In the wet season, they enjoyed a sort of isolated kingdom of their own. On the southern side, the electric fence prevented the intrusion of people. In all other directions, a wide body of water spared them from competing with elephants in the rest of the park, while also keeping them hidden from nosy tourists and researchers alike. They had plenty to eat and shade to retreat under. In the dry season they were merely more exposed so we could see them, but their movements likely didn’t change much.

This tiny area was home to [T212]. He must have known every inch of it, having walked it all with his mother and her family.  At eleven years old, he had started putting more distance between himself and them, but he hadn’t set off on his own yet.  He took to grazing by himself, in plain view of the road and all passersby. He could not have known that the familiar ground on which he had spent his whole life, where people passed by daily and presented no threat, could ever be a danger to him.

We feared it was only a matter of time before opportunistic hunters made plans to go after him.

A wildlife officer inspects the lifelike body.

And so it happened that on December 1st [T212] met his fate. They must have come in the night, and shot him from the road. They probably expected him to collapse there, where they would easily remove the tusks.  But he didn’t fall as they’d expected. As he sank down, his tusks speared the ground and propped him up. There he sat, looking for all the world as though he were merely at rest. His ears may even have moved in the breeze.

They must not have known he was dead, so they didn’t dare try and take the tusks.

So ended the story for [T212]. The saddest part in all this is that he had an entire park to explore, and might have enjoyed a longer life had he chosen to turn anywhere but South. No amount of patrolling could have protected him. The vast majority of people in Sri Lanka love and respect tuskers too much to kill them, those in Udawalawe no different. But it only requires one greedy desperate person to take a life. There are other young tuskers who innocently risk the same fate. We keep hoping they stay safe each day, and grow up to be the magnificent creatures they were meant to be.


Fencing the conflict

by DJ and USW

A female elephant was seen on the corridor - note the gut shot wounds

A female elephant was seen on the corridor – note the raised bumps on the skin, which are suspected to be old gunshot wounds.

Uda Walawe elephants have access to nearby protected areas (managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) through two separate “corridors;” Dahayyagala, connecting the park to the proposed Bogahapattiya Sanctuary on the northern boundary and Wetahirakanda, connecting it to Lunugamwehera National Park on the eastern border. Elephants can be found outside the park pretty much all along the border except for the southern section. The identified corridors, however, are too narrow at some places (500-1000m). Corridor boundary is marked by electric fencing. The existing fences sometimes run too close to human settlements and at other times they run through forested habitats leaving elephant needs (like water holes) outside the corridor. In such cases, those who maintain electric fences have to walk into elephant habitats for a few kilometres daily and that doesn’t sound practical (as a result, some parts of the fence easily go non-functional).  Given the inefficiency of fenced boundaries and escalating human elephant conflict in the area, the Department has taken a very timely decision to re-define corridors and upgrading electric fences to better serve both humans and elephants. The plan is that eventually the corridors will be broadened while the existing fences will be lengthened and strengthened. Continue reading

Collateral Damage Part 2 – Bycatch

By DJ & SdS


In the fishing industry, the term “bycatch” refers to species that are entrapped in fishing nets that are not the intended target species.  Such victims, many of whom may die and simply be discarded overboard, represent a terrible waste of life.

Well, in Uda Walawe the bycatch this time was an elephant. Continue reading

Collateral Damage Part 1 – Snares

By DJ & SdS

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

A snare is a hunting device resembling a wire noose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to trap wild animals. In Sri Lanka, such poached bushmeat consists of wild boar, porcupine and lesser members of the deer family and is mostly locally consumed. Hunting non-protected species (wild boar and porcupine, which are considered as vermin) is not illegal but other species like deer are protected by the local Fauna and Flora Ordinance.

Locals say snare traps are often meant for wild boars. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate, they also make victims of species like leopard and elephant. During the last five years, more than ninety percent of the leopard deaths occurred in hill country, Sri Lanka was due to physical injuries of ensnaring. Our observations in Uda Walawe and Minneriya National Parks suggest that it is usually less-experienced juvenile elephants are the victims of snare traps, though adults may sometimes show signs of old wounds. Trunk injuries show the animals are vulnerable even during grazing, not just while walking. Perhaps calves’ natural curiosity makes them especially vulnerable. Continue reading

Six year update on the Uda Walawe elephants

The Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project is now approaching eight years, a unique study of Asian elephants.  Because elephants are such long-lived animals, it takes a long time to understand them – particularly for important variables like who reproduces and how often.  Studies of wild African elephants have been conducted at multiple sites over 10 years or more (in some cases as many as 40!), but this has not been the case for the Asian species in the wild. There have been long-term records of Asian elephants  populations in captivity from places like Myanmar, where they have long been used in timber camps, and it’s interesting to see how the two compare.

This past December we published a comprehensive paper analyzing six years of data on the wild Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. This paper is one of a kind as it has been difficult for researchers to successfully monitor wild Asian elephants due to the difficulty of their habitats, and the logistical challenges of conducting steady research over longer time periods.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her jaw was recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her skull and jaw were recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans. We aged other females in the population relative to Tailless.

Continue reading

Elephants and electricity

Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison's technicians in carrying out her death sentence while demonstrating the dangers of AC current.

Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison’s technicians in carrying out her death sentence while demonstrating the dangers of AC current. Photo: Chicago Tribune

By Ilja Van Braeckel

New York, anno 1903. The city stirs as dawn breaks. Woken up by the distant rumble in the neighboring tenement, you might join the breakfast table. You might appreciate your morning cup of chicory root coffee and nibble on some hard-earned buttered toast. You might scratch your head and raise an eyebrow or two as you open the newspaper and read how none other than Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy, the 28 year female Asian elephant. You might learn how the murderous ‘beast died without a trumpet or a groan’, in Edison’s slanderous attempt to discredit his rival’s discovery of alternating current, per demonstration of its potential hazard.

Uda Walawe today, some 14 000 km and 110 years away. Neither Topsy nor Edison outwitted the tusk of time and all that remains of the unfortunate elephalectric turn of events is the original video footage and the alternating current that proved innovative. In fact, electricity is now commonly used to separate humans from other animals and this is no different in Uda Walawe, where the national park is delimited by an electric fence line. In reality, however, frequent power cuts make its efficiency questionable to say the least and the elephants, keen creatures that they are, seem to have learned to jostle over the fence poles. Continue reading

Rescuing elephants and wildlife from ourselves

Why is it that news about elephants is usually bad news? In light of recent posts and articles regarding injured animals, we thought it would be nice to post a happier tale and think about what it really takes to conserve elephants and the wilderness they inhabit.

A juvenile named Samanthi, with her trunk injured by a snair.

A juvenile named Samanthi, with her trunk injured by a snair.

October 31 2008. We were on the main road inside Uda Walawe.  There’s a little water hole alongside it called Ari Wala and on this day we saw some members of the Seenuggala elephants coming for a drink and a rest.  The Seenuggala elephants are so named because they are often spotted at or around the Seenuggala reservoir.  They inhabit one of the more densely forested parts of the park, where visibility is poor so we often only get to see them when they come out to get a drink. Continue reading