28th November 1999

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Guess who's come to town?

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Harsha Jayasinghe, Assistant Superintendent of Macaldeniya Estate always made it a point to return to his bungalow before dusk. This rather impractical deadline was imposed on him by none other than a herd of marauding elephants that frequent the road on which he daily travels.

On that fateful day, official duty kept Jayasinghe a little late.

Negotiating a bend along the steep, forested road, the unmistakable hulking shape of an elephant loomed before the motorbike's not-so-powerful lights. For Jayasinghe the shock of bumping into the creature at such close quarters was terrific.

"He was so close, I could smell the animal and his trunk was just a few feet away from me," he recalled. But the worst was yet to come. The elephant, sensing danger himself, was preparing to defend his ground. Jayasinghe, in his state of shock had tried to revive the dead bike. Ear-splitting trumpeting echoed through the night. In an instant Jayasinghe was off the bike and sprinting towards the next sign of habitation, another Assistant Superintendent's bungalow, more then three kilometres away. Luckily for him, the elephants had decided against a chase.

A roaming herd of elephants was a common problem in Macaldeniya, situated on the slopes above Wellawaya. A group of seven to nine male elephants roam around several large estate areas from rubber plantation, lower down the mountain and across the main Koslanda road, to coconut and tea on the higher slopes. The jumbos have ventured into tea plantations at elevations of 4000 feet, terrorizing labour by crashing into lineroom kitchens in search of food. Two labourers have been killed in Macaldeniya over the past three years. Over the past decade the elephants had been steadily moving higher up after. exhausting their food sources on the lower slopes. Due to frequent confrontations with estate labour, the elephants have become immune to human threats and more aggressive. Early this year, an elephant was injured by an acid-bomb and had to be treated for a large festering wound on its shoulder.

For the first time, the elephants ventured into Koslanda Estate last June. Perhaps a lack of food in the areas they had grazed on so far, drove the animals to seek newer pastures and instead of climbing higher and further into dense tea land, the animals had decided to move southwards into the more lush areas around Koslanda Estate and town. On a few occasions stunned townspeople found jumbos in their midst in broad daylight.

"We had always heard that there were elephants in the upper reaches- in Macaldeniya and Poonagalle, but to find them in town was a real shock," said Ariyapala, a vegetable vendor in Koslanda.

For Sivali Mudannayake, Superintendent of Koslanda Estate, Poson poya day brought a rather unpleasant shock. Several elephants had surrounded his bungalow and were helping themselves to his garden. "My watcher had climbed the roof and was shouting. When I looked out of my bedroom window I could see their looming shapes in the garden," Mudannayake recalled. That was the jumbo's first venture into this large organic tea estate, but ever since they have frequented the bungalow and line room vicinity, tearing down coconut trees, munching on the bark of breadfruit, swallowing banana trees whole and generally enjoying the man-made food supply that no one dared deny them.

"I immediately called the Wildlife Department and asked for some form of protection for the labour. Whenever the problem is acute, I contact DWLC's southern range office in Kataragama and they send a few men with thunder flashes, which they distribute, to the line rooms. But these elephants are well used to thunder flashes and crackers. Nothing can distract them from food when they find it," Mudannayake said.

Which method to employ to remove this group of troublesome jumbos from the estates is a problem that has baffled the Wild Life Department for years. In 1997, the Department conducted a drive, attempting to herd the small number and push them through to forestland below the Koslanda -Wellawaya road. When that attempt failed, due to protests from the villagers' downhill from Koslanda, the DWLC tried to capture each animal by tranquilising and then relocating elsewhere. But the operation was too risky for the elephant due to the steeply sloping terrain and difficulty of access.

Various experts were asked to study the issue and come up with practical possibilities. Some suggested that the elephants be captured and semi-tamed and auctioned to private individuals. But this met with fire from animal-rights groups. Others said data on this group was insufficient to suggest a long-term solution, since they could be migrating from other areas to the estates seasonally.

When contacted by The Sunday Times an official of the Ministry of Plantations, under whose purview both the estates and the DWLC operate, said the best option would be to drive the elephants down to a lower elevation closer to the main road, tranquilise and relocate them in a national park. If this fails, the Ministry would consider auctioning the elephants, the official said.

"We are still discussing the issue. No decision has been arrived at yet," said the recently appointed Director of the DWLC, A.P.A Gunasekera.

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