An Elephant Encounter

Another day in the field in Tissa. In the evening we decide to go to the Keligama area to look for Sapumali, one of the collared elephants in the area that will be coming under development in Hambantota. She has been frequenting the area around Keligama the last few days, not far from the Gonnoruwa road. I suspect that in the evening she and her herd may come out onto the strip of land cleared for the southern railway line, which will cut across the area.

As we come to the Gonnoruwa road junction on the new Hambantota road, Sampath spots an elephant by the road side just inside the scrub. We stop and jump off. There are two adult males in the scrub not 10 m from the road. One of them moves inside a patch of ‘kalapu andara’ (Mesquite), breaking branches and feeding while the other stands under a tree, facing the road. A lorry and a van stop to look at the elephants. A police bike comes along the road and they spot the elephant at the last minute. The pillion rider yells ‘aliyek, aliyek’ and the rider zooms off, almost doing a wheelie. The male stands unconcernedly flapping his ears in the afternoon heat.

A man walks along the road from the other direction. He says that he came by bus just now and there were about 10 elephants with small ones on the Hambantota-Mirrijjawila road near the Telecom transmission tower. Bandara heard last week that there were about 50 elephants in the area between the ‘adi seeye para’ (the hundred foot road) that runs through the Walawe Left Bank area and the paddy fields that extend from the new road to the South. They were in the area that will be developed for the Hambanthota port that is coming up.

We jump in the cab and put the pedal to the metal. We go along the ‘new road’, turn onto the ‘adi seeye para’ and go towards Mirrijjawila. The Telecom transmission tower is visible from afar, jutting out of the scrub. It takes us about 10 minutes to get there. The tower is only about 50 m from the road. There is a building with two cars parked close to the tower and a small clearing next to it. There are about four elephants at the edge of the scrub at the far end of the clearing. Two juveniles and an adult female are feeding on the vegetation at the edge of the scrub. Another adult is just inside. There are others further in and we can hear the crack of snapping branches as the elephants feed.

Soon the elephants at the edge also move into the scrub. We watch and listen for a few more minutes. The elephants appear to be moving north. We go back onto the main road. There is a small roadside shack where a woman is selling sweets, drink bottles and odds and ends. A couple of people are seated outside on a log bench, having a ‘kahata’ (a cup of plain tea, which you sip while biting on a piece of jaggery - hardened sugar syrup made from coconut sap). We ask them if there is a tank close by where the elephants go to drink. They say that there is one towards the south and another across the road.

The proprietress thinks the elephants will cross the road in a little while about 100 m away, just in front of a dumper truck that is parked by the road side. They did so yesterday, and moved along the boundary of the ‘dry zone botanical garden’ that is coming up on the western side of the ‘adi seeye para’. The botanical garden is supposed to display vegetation of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. The irony is that, to establish it an area had to be cleared of the dry zone vegetation that was already there, which was frequented by elephants. After it was started, the elephants destroyed a number of the plants that were being grown there and now there is an electric fence on its boundary preventing them from entering it.

However, there still is a stretch of scrub habitat west of the ‘adi seeye para’ around and beyond the botanical gardens which the elephants use. Beyond that, it is mostly developed and highly populated. The people in the surrounding areas are not happy when the elephants come to the patch of scrub because they are worried about having elephants in their back yards.

We go up the road but there are no signs of the elephants yet. About a 100 m further on there is a gravel road that leads into the scrub and we turn in there. The cab has just been painted and the clear coat sprayed on. In fact it was not finished when I brought it down to Tissa, because I had to transport tires for the other cab. As we make our way through the scrub on the gravel road, thorns and branches that stick out on to the road rub along the sides, screeching and scratching the brand new paint. I can just see Aladdin, my mechanic tearing his hair out and having a few choice words to say about it.

We emerge onto a small clearing about 500 m North of where we saw the elephants. We can hear the noise of them feeding and breaking branches very close. A couple of minutes later a juvenile about size five emerges onto the clearing about 20 feet from us. He spots us and panics, turns tail and with a few ‘hick hick hick’ cries of alarm, moves back to the scrub where we can just see a few of the others. A few minutes later a very large female appears at the edge of the scrub. Her ear is torn and is a good marker individual as she is easily recognizable. She calmly and assuredly moves another twenty meters or so away from us at the edge of the scrub and crosses into the clearing. She stands in the middle giving us the eye. Another female and a juvenile cross and the female with the torn ear also cross. Four others including the juvenile who panicked follow, making their way across the clearing.

The road continues through the clearing so we start the cab and slowly go across. However, the road continues east, while the elephants were moving north. So we go back and as we again approach the clearing we can hear the sounds of more elephants in the scrub. We stop again and wait. Soon an adult female comes through and again seeing us takes fright and moves back. A few minutes later another adult female comes through and she crosses the clearing followed by five others. All the elephants seem to be moving north parallel to the ‘adi seeye para’. So we go back to the road and go north on it a few hundred meters and turn on to another road that leads away from it into the scrub. We come to a high point on the road and I stop the cab and climb on top.

There is a big adult male about 200 m into the scrub beside a ‘boralu wala’ a clearing where the earth has been dug up to obtain ‘boralu’ (gravel) for surfacing roads etc. On the far side of the clearing there are many elephants standing amongst the Kohomba trees. They are all oriented towards the North and it looks as if they will come into another clearing into which there is a track that leads off the road from further up. So we get back in and drive up to the clearing slowly. On the far side, the clearing is bordered by an area of a hectare or so where earth has been dumped to a height of 2-3 m. A dumper truck and a crane stand on top of it in the distance. We guess that the elephants will come into the clearing and move along the edge of the earth bank. So we stop at the entrance to the clearing and wait. The wind blows across the clearing from the elephants, so that is good. Soon the female with the torn ear comes slowly into the clearing.

She stops and browses an Andara bush. She meanders about going to another couple of bushes, browsing on each of them. One by one the others also come into sight. Then without continuing in the northerly direction they were moving before, the female with the torn ear, turns and walks across the clearing towards the road, where we are.

We are stuck in a ‘situation’ because if we move now they are going to notice us, if we do not move they are going to keep coming and will notice us anyway. So before they get too close I make a little noise, clearing the throat and the lead female stops and senses the air. She is not sure what is going on. She waits for a few minutes and then turns and moves into the scrub with the rest of the herd following. They stand at the far edge of the clearing in the scrub feeding on the Andara bushes. The clearing is on a slight downhill and Sampath and I quickly put the cab in neutral and push it to the middle where there is a tree with some scrub around it. From here the wind is directly from the elephants to us.

A group of elephants split form the main group and move towards a patch of scrub closer to the earth dump where they continue to feed. The remainder of the group, numbering 27, slowly make their way onto the road through the scrub, cross it, and continue in a northerly direction through the scrub.

We remain where we are and after about half an hour, one of the juveniles from the second group comes back into the clearing. Then an adult female with a size two baby. A couple of juveniles size four and five follow. Another adult female with a lump about 8 inches diameter on her front leg around the knee comes out with another size two juvenile. The trunk of the baby seems to be cut with a circular area of denuded skin about three quarters of the way up the trunk, probably due to the trunk getting caught in a snare. I wonder if it is the same baby that we saw at Galwewa some time ago whose trunk appeared to be almost severed by a snare. However this one does not seem too badly off and is smaller than the one we saw at Galwewa.

One by one, more elephants come out and parade their way across the clearing. I am busy snapping profile shots to assess their body condition. Altogether 10 elephants come through. They stand around and feed at the edge of the clearing. Then another two adult females and a juvenile size three come out into the clearing and come directly towards us. They get to within about 5m and then notice the cab. The leading female stops and stares at us not sure what this is. Then keeping their eyes fixed on us they move sideways towards the rest of the herd.

The two of them again come to a stop about 10 m away and keep standing and looking fixedly at us for another five minutes. They are clearly uncomfortable and sense the air with their trunks and put the trunk in the mouth. Then suddenly the first female starts walking directly towards us at a rapid pace, with ears spread out, followed by the other female. The distance between them and us closes rapidly. Fifteen, ten, five meters, they are still coming, now almost at a trot. So I shout ‘hoi hoi’. They stop in their tracks do an about turn and walk back with the tails and trunks in the air.

The rest of the herd too go into the scrub and gather together, around 5 m inside. I wonder why the two females came at us. Their movement towards us was clearly aggressive. They obviously saw the cab and were not happy to be at such close quarters. However if it was aggression, why did they stop and turn back when I shouted? This is something we have frequently seen with females. They will charge you but if you stand your ground and shout they turn back. I wonder what would happen if we kept silent and let them come. Would they have thumped the cab or would they have turned back at the last moment? Maybe I should see what happens sometime. Preferably in someone else’s vehicle!!

Since the second group was now inside the scrub and we had very good documentation of them, we decide go back on the road and see where the first group went. We find them in the scrub about 30 m away from the gravel road, still oriented in a northerly direction towards the lower part of the left bank development area. This area has been demarcated as land for people displaced from the new airport site. As a result, although it was initially completely cleared of vegetation under the left bank development project, it has not been settled and remains largely covered in scrub and elephants continue to use it extensively.

If they continue in the same direction they will cross the new road and get into that area perhaps tonight. The second group also is slowly making their way towards the first group. We are at a vantage point and we can see both groups in the scrub, their backs clearly visible, feeding and slowly moving through the dense but short scrub.

Some Thal palms far away on the beach stand silhouetted against the setting sun which slowly sinks into a sea of burnished gold. Flocks of black cormorants, ibis with their curved bills and snow white egrets wing their way across the salmon pink sky heading for their roosts. A spotted dove coos from the bare branches of an Andara tree, bobbing up and down.

We get ready to leave. Then suddenly there is a ‘whoosh whoosh whoosh BANG BANG BANG’ and the air is split apart by thunderous explosions going off a few meters from where we and the elephants are. Whoosh whoosh whoosh whoosh more trails of fire and smoke across the evening sky followed by more bangs, sounds of people shouting, elephants trumpeting. Pandemonium reigns. For a minute or two we wonder what on earth is happening. Then we realize that this is probably a ‘day drive’ or a ‘chasing’ of the elephants. The two groups that we were watching numbering about 40 elephants turn and scamper back towards where they came from, smashing through the scrub in one head long rush.

The first group come out of the scrub near the earth bank and scurry along it. Adults, juveniles and babies in one big group with the adult male right in the middle, running for their lives scared out of their wits. They go across the clearing where we were before at a trot and disappear into the scrub. From our vantage point, in the distance we see another group of six elephants running through the scrub parallel to the new road. A few people with guns are pursuing them about 300 m behind, lighting thunder crackers and flares. Once you are in the scrub the visibility is very limited and the pursuers are unaware that they are chasing only six elephants and that over forty are left behind and have now actually gone back in the direction of the developed area from where they came.

Both the group of six elephants and pursuers appear in patches of clearings and disappear into scrub, continuing onwards, parallel to the new road. After a while the people stop and we see the group of six elephants still running more than a km away, till they top a rise on the ground and the scrub swallows them up once again. The natural sounds of the evening take chorus once again, as darkness swiftly draws the curtain on the day’s events.

Story by Prithiviraj Fernando