Chapter 6. Treating the king of the Udawalawe National Park
The Udawalawe National Park is a popular place for wild elephants. There is a permanent population of about three hundred but this increases dramatically as the migratory elephants make their way there during the dry season. Despite the large numbers there appear to be very few tuskers. The reason for this is not clear. Could it be selective hunting or genetic make up or maybe even a combination of these factors?
We normally never know how many tuskers there are in the park but in the late 1990s I did find four distinguished adults there. It was thought that that number was quite high due to release of rehabilitated orphaned babies from the Elephant Transit Home combined with the release of translocated animals from other areas. Alhough the numbers had increased, most of the tuskers live in remote parts hidden away from humans and the tourist areas.
There is one special one in the Udawalawe National Park known as Walawa RaJa (King of the Udawalawa). He has glowing white tusks, the sizes of which are well in proportion to the size of his body. His majestic appearance is enhanced not only by his fine tusks but also by the de-pigmented areas on his ears, neck and the base of his trunk. He is one of the regular visitors to the park usually arriving in July and departing again in early October. Nobody seems to know where he spends the rest of his year but we assume that he lives in a forested area at Kalthota several dozen kilometres from Udawalawe .
I remember that in early 1999 we received information that a group of poachers were near this tusker in the Kalthota area. Because of my great interest in such things I joined a group of fellow officers who planned to track the poachers and to ensure the safety of the tusker in the forest. I also wanted to see him in this natural habitat. However, after searching for three days we could not find either Walawe Raja or the poachers, but there were many other elephants in that beautiful forest. It was an ideal habitat for them being made up of different types of terrain such as hills, scrublands, thick forests and grasslands, together with abundant water sources.
When Walawe Raja is in the Park, he is the major attraction for visitors so the tour guides are always keen to give priority to finding him. Everybody wants to see him and there must be thousands of photos of this handsome creature all over the world. Many wildlife enthusiasts also come to the park simply to see him. One day we got a remarkable chance to observe the beauty of this fine jumbo. When we were tracking a wounded elephant at the Udawalawe National Park, we encountered Raja who was alone and on his way to the water. We watched from a distance then advanced slowly and found cover behind a bush as we saw him approach the water’s edge. He stepped into the reservoir and walked for about fifty metres until the water was deep enough to cover his body. At first we thought he was going to swim across the reservoir but he had decided he needed a bath. As he dipped in and out of the water and played with it we spent thirty fascinating minutes watching a beautiful show of one of nature’s finest creatures, completely at ease in his natural environment. The clean black body, red de-pigmented face and white tusks dipping up and down in the blue water left us with remarkable memories.
The possession of fine tusks such as Raja’s is of great importance in establishing his dominance in order to find a female partner. Once in the park he has little competition from the other elephants due to his fine appearance. Should any of the others challenge him they are sure to be the losers after a very painful encounter with his tusks. However, possession of those same tusks is not always an advantage for him, as he has to live with continuous threats as a result of this possession. Several times he has narrowly escaped from the ivory poachers.
The usual time for the annual gathering of the elephants at Udawalawe is from June to October resulting in several herds roaming the park, amongst which there will be one or two sexually receptive females. Also there will be other males like Raja gathered there from many different areas. This is the normally the time when Raja is in musth so his main reason for being there is to find opportunities for mating. As I have mentioned earlier we are not sure where Raja comes from, but what is certain is that he comes through areas of human settlements. When he reaches the park, it is not uncommon to see gunshot wounds on his body resulting in the need for veterinary treatment on several occasions. I have treated him for two consecutive years when he has arrived with gunshot wounds: once for a wound on his forehead and on the second occasion for a wound on his left forelimb. In 1998, the treatment of the wound on his forehead was memorable.
A short time after his arrival in the Park, we received information that he was wounded, the source of that information being the tour guides as well as other elephant lovers. Some of them arrived at ETH to show us video clips that clearly displayed Raja’s wound, which was in the centre of his forehead. It was a gunshot wound and the aim had been accurate enough to kill him on the spot.
However, Raja was lucky again as it seemed the bullet stopped somewhere between the brain and the skin. As usual it was his time of musth. While we were tracking him for treatment, he was wandering in the park searching for oestrus females. The pain of the wound and the irritation on the temporal glands seemed insignificant to him, as his only intention was to find a sexually receptive female. As a loner and in musth tracking him was not an easy task. Thanks to one of the females however we managed eventually to locate him as he had settled in with a herd.
While we were searching one of the tour guides told us that he had seen him following a herd in the Hulan Kapolla area. We rushed there expecting to see him but, unfortunately, the herd had entered a teak plantation. In those days there were still many trees left in these places making it difficult to see the elephants once they had entered an abandoned plantation. Even though it is risky to follow a herd searching for a wounded elephant in musth, we decided to get nearer on foot. We approached them from behind, very cautiously and down wind, using the trees as cover and hiding in the tall grass. Finally we were able to pinpoint Raja amongst the group. He was keeping close to a female and exhibiting pre- courtship behaviour. It seemed that the female cow was in oestrous or nearly and was receptive to males.We could see the wound quite easily and were able assess the seriousness of the situation. Many flies were trying to take the opportunity of a good meal and to lay their eggs on the spot. The infected wound, irritating flies and possibly maggots were causing Raja great pain. The combination of pain, sexual desire and minimum food intake made it a very stressful time for the poor chap which in turn would cause his immune system to become less effective, and for the wound to deteriorate.
Apart from a risk of septicaemia, there was also the possibility that the infection could spread upwards to the eyes or brain. Altogether the wound was a serious risk to his life. Normally in this situation I would tranquilize an elephant for treatment but at the time I wasn’t fully confident in my ability to use this technique on these animals. I was hesitant to treat Raja but as something had to be done I decided to dart him with long lasting antibiotics and tranquilize later if there was no improvement. We returned to our vehicle and prepared the syringes with the medicine and approached Raja once again, successfully injecting the antibiotic using a capture gun.
We only dared to do this once as we were afraid that he and the rest of the herd would run off and we might not be able to find them again. Two days later we managed to locate Raja once more in the Hulan Kapolla area of the Udawalawe Park. As it was a day of cloudy skies and cool winds hundreds of elephants remained feeding in the grassland and although it was the usual time for them to return to the forest for rest, it seemed that they wanted to enjoy the pleasant weather a while longer. Among these elephants were Raja and his fiancé. The courtship rituals clearly indicated that Raja’s partner was in the receptive stage.
Apart from Raja, there were several other males attracted by the pheromones of the oestrus female but they had to keep their distance as the dominant elephant was already in possession. Though Raja was the victorious one he looked totally exhausted because of his agonizing wound and the fact that he was in musth. The rest of the elephants were busy grazing but he was continually vigilant in case the waiting intruders approached his mate.
We decided this would be the ideal time to treat him again as, being in the grassland, we would be able to approach him in our Jeep. Having loaded the capture gun we moved towards him. As elephants residing in the Udawalawe Park are accustomed to vehicles, none of them took any notice of our approach. The first dart was fired and hit its target accurately but the sound surprised them all, and they wondered what had caused the disturbance. Within a few seconds they decided that there wasn’t a threat and started to feed again.
However, Raja was so upset having heard the shot and feeling something strike his rear end that he panicked and started to run towards the forest. After running for about a hundred and fifty meters he stopped. Maybe he was worried about the reaction of the rest of his herd and the fact that he had left his partner with them unguarded, so he turned back and hurriedly returned to her.
We considered that if we could do the operation with minimum disturbance the treatment would be satisfactory. We were right in our assumption, so with Raja directly ahead of us we once again fired the dart. He behaved as previously and ran off leaving the rest of the herd showing no interest at all in the event.
Immediately something very interesting happened. Raja ran away almost as far as before and this was noticed by one of the other males. Though he was a mature specimen, he was smaller than Raja and some of the other big loners there. He hurried towards Raja’s partner, who was in oestrus, andshe accepted the newcomer without hesitation. She took up the receptive posture and the male elephant mounted her, achieving a successful mating very close to us, which we found amusing.
Surely it was a very exciting opportunity for the male too. However, it obviously wasn’t a pleasant sight that met Raja’s eyes at the end of his run. He forgot his surprise after receiving the dart and started to run at maximum speed towards the intruder. Of course he was late as usual as the mating only took one minute. The mounted male saw Raja approaching him and cunningly mislead him by running away from the female leaving Raja to stand guard over his lover. We injected the drug several more times and every time Raja followed the same procedure.
Raja was a most extraordinary animal. Although he was aggressive towards other elephants he never showed any aggression towards us. We weren’t sure whether he realised that the darts were coming from our vehicle. Even after that day we treated him several more times while he was with his partner, and not once did he attempt to charge. Was it because of fear of the vehicle or human beings? We shall never know. We could never have dealt with most other musth elephants as we did with Raja.
In 1999 Raja was once again in the park. On that occasion he had a wound in his left forelimb that had become infected resulting in a swollen leg. This caused him pain when putting his weight on it. We treated him over a period of several days, first sedating him in order to clean the wound prior to giving injections. This gave us the opportunity to touch and observe him very closely. Even eleven years after these incidents Raja continues to visit the park. The scars of the gunshots on his body demonstrate the hard life he led in a human dominated world. Whatever hardships he has encountered we are still lucky to be able to see this majestic animal. Unfortunately, however, this fine appearance changed several years ago when he lost one of his tusks. Nobody knows how but maybe it broke off during a fight. Nevertheless he is still one of the major attractions for visitors to the Udawalawe National Park.
Though he has lost one of these famous tusks and is now about 40-45 years old, he still maintains his dominance over the other males, retaining his ability to mate and transfer his precious genes to further generations thereby insuring that, in the future, many people may continue to enjoy the sight of such majestic elephants.