I first set eyes on Rambo in the early 1990’s when I started visiting the Uda Walawe National Park. He was a young male elephant at that time, with a very calm demeanor. He had a very unique identifiable feature, where his right ear was torn in several places towards the edge. He must have been around 20-25 years at that time and was just beginning to show the characteristic pigmentation of mature elephants, along the front of his trunk and ears.
Subsequently, Rambo discovered that coming up to the electric fence along the Thanamalwila road, and soliciting food from passes-by, was a very rewarding exercise. He was in fact one of the first elephants who started this habit of coming to the electric fence. Many passing vehicles used to stop and feed him with juicy ‘tit bits’ such as watermelon, bananas and sugar cane. He always paid respect to the electric fence, and never ever did try to break out. (The fence is really a psychological barrier because a full grown elephant can easily knock over the fence, especially during day time when there is no electric current powering the fence)
As time went by, many other elephants ‘learnt’ this behavior from Rambo. Being intelligent animals, this type of ‘copying’ behavior is quite prevalent in elephants. A few years back, there were some 18 or more ‘regulars’ along the Thanamalwila road electric fence. It was always the males who loitered around, since females in herds are wary of taking such risks.
I did some casual, visual observations during this time, and found that there were about 10-12 adult males, including Rambo, and that the rest were young adolescent males who were ‘learning the ropes’. There was very strict territorial and hierarchical behaviour that was evident. The adults had caved out their own stretches of the fence, which they patrolled, while a few of them had the adolescent ‘apprentices’ tagging along behind them.
Although, I do not condone feeding these elephants, one day I bought some bananas to undertake an experiment to check out their behavior. The males were very protective of their ‘territory’, grabbing all the bananas being thrown into their domain, while the adolescents were forced to wait patiently behind the adults, who always had the first pick. Try as much as I did, I could not feed one adolescent directly, since the adults would immediately chase it away. One or two sharp young fellows did however manage to sneak in and get a morsel or two.
Sri Lanka’s foremost elephant researcher Dr Prithiviraj Fernando told me that, if the elephants were really looking for food, they would have breached the electric fence long ago. His assessment was that they were having enough to eat inside the park, and coming for their ‘dessert’ to the electric fence! So perhaps the elephants knew a good thing going, and were very careful to maintain the status quo, without breaking down the fence.
There were many debates and controversies about this activity, and there were even some suggestions, that if it were properly controlled, this would be a good tourist attraction. However, all this changed about a year ago, when the wildlife authorities realized that they could not properly enforce the no- feeding rule along the Thanamalwila roadside, and erected a second electric fence behind the existing one. A large amount of money was spent on this second deterrent barrier last year, which extends from the end of the reservoir bund, right up to the corner of the park boundary on the Thanamalwila road around 25th Km post. This has proven to be quite successful, and today there are no elephants along this stretch of the road.
However, the authorities had not bargained for Rambo. Unable to indulge in his favourite past time, he now started swimming across the edge of the reservoir and got on to the steep embankment along the reservoir bund, to access the roadway and to solicit food from vehicles passing by.
Now Rambo continues to patrol this stretch of the bund. While this is quite an amusing and intriguing sight, which attracts lot of attention, there is some concern that Rambo is getting too dependent on this type of food. I saw him last week and he seems to be quite content to stay along the bund, eating whatever little vegetation is there and looking out for the additional favourite ‘tit bit’. The villagers told me that he more or less spends most of his time on the bund, which means that he may not be getting adequate nutrition from anywhere else. In fact, a closer look at Rambo revealed that his body condition was not that great. No doubt, he is advancing in age (he would be about 40-45 years now), but I still feel that the deterioration could be because he is not getting enough proper food. The Wildlife authorities have tried on several occasions to chase him back into the park, by lighting elephant deterrent fire crackers (ali wedi) but apparently, he swims back across after the authorities have left.
This is another case in point, where it is important that we need to have a proper system in place for the management of our wildlife resources. Here is an iconic healthy male elephant, which is slowly beginning to step out of bounds, and who may soon turn into a problem. He needs to be ‘managed’. Elephants are very intelligent animals and they learn certain behaviour quite easily. That is why even a mature wild elephant, which is captured, can still be tamed. So, using a proper ‘carrot and stick’ approach, in a carefully concerted manner, it should be possible to ‘teach’ Rambo that he should not be indulging in this type of activity.
This is very similar to the situation in the Yala National Park, with its ‘mischievous’ tusker Gemunu, who has got used to way-laying vehicles to rummage through them, looking for food. Like Rambo, this is also an exciting attraction no doubt, but at the same time, it is a potentially dangerous situation. The authorities need to therefore make a proper effort to ‘dissuade’ Gemunu by negative reinforcement that he should refrain from raiding vehicles.
Unfortunately the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC), leave aside being able to manage and develop Sri Lanka’s wildlife resources, is unable to even maintain the minimum standards in the wild life parks today. Yala is virtually a lost cause now, with severe over-visitation, a mass free-for-all, with no adherence to any park rules, causing great damage to the environment and distress to the animals. Uda Walawe is being over- run by lantana, with the whole terrain and vegetation undergoing radical change, affecting elephant migrating patterns there.
Hence, very soon, Sri Lanka may lose most of its wonderful natural wildlife resources.