28th November 1999
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In search of practical solutions

By Rohan Wijesinghe
Earlier this year a domestic elephant fell ill in Habarana. There was no veterinary care immediately available for him there. Though he was ill, the owners walked him up to Kandy, in search of medical help. He died on the way. His body was cremated.

Almost every day the newspapers carry reports of wild elephants, either being killed or injured, usually victims of the human/elephant conflict. The injured are the responsibility of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWLC). However, they have far too few veterinary surgeons in their employ to cover all the areas. Many of the injured elephants die before medical help can be brought to them. Often, this is a slow and agonising death under the gaze of apathetic eyes. 

The Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust's (BECT) recent training course for veterinarians aimed at practically assisting the conservation of elephants was welcome. As their web page on the Internet shows, they have already organised many seminars and events in search of solutions to the grave dangers that hover over the continued existence of wild elephants, and wildlife, in this country.

The three-day course was held at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage for the Veterinary staff of the Department of Animal Production and Health (DAP & H). These medical officers are spread throughout the country, and it is hoped they will be able to treat an injured elephant if there is a delay in the DWLC veterinary surgeon getting there. If the injury or illness is minor, their treatment could be conclusive. If more complicated, they could provide intermediate treatment until the DWLC officer reached there. 

Professor V.Y. Kuruvita, Vice Chancellor of the Wayamba University, along with the staff of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Peradeniya, and experienced veterinary surgeons from the field, all assisted in the formulation of a comprehensive training programme. In addition, two noted veterinarians, Dr. V. Krishnamurty from India, and Dr. Preecha Pongksun from Thailand, and Richard C. Lair, also based in Thailand, shared their immense knowledge.

Dr. Krishnamurty is a key member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, and is the Senior Consultant at the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre in Bangalore. His knowledge and expertise in treating disease in both wild and domestic elephants is legendary. He also has considerable experience in the chemical immobilisation of captive and wild animals.

Dr. Pongksun runs the FIO-RSPCA Mobile Elephant Clinic, which treats the troubled population of domesticated elephants in Thailand. He is also the co-founder of friends of the Asian Elephant which runs the world famous Elephant Hospital.

Richard C. Lair has written many popular stories on elephants, made several films about them, and compiled papers especially on the plight of domesticated elephants. He is also the author of the book 'Gone Stray' which gives detailed information on the tame elephants in Asia. He is currently compiling an "Elephant Care Manual for Mahouts and Managers" and believes that most veterinary problems in Asia result from poor keeping and husbandry.

With such an array of local and international knowledge, the twelve veterinarians of the DAP and H enjoyed an intensive three days, covering every aspect of elephant physiology and anatomy, and the diseases that afflict them. Thanks to the tolerant elephants of Pinnawela, practical demonstrations were possible, enhancing the theory. The Director of the National Zoological Gardens did well in allowing Pinnawela to be used for such a laudable cause. 

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