Collaring an Elephant

It was the rainy season in Tissa and the puddles were full of 'frogses' ready to breed with the onset of rains, and the air throbbed to the melody of the 'frog chorus'. The collaring operation to develop a management plan for the Yala buffer zone was finally underway.

A team from CCR had been following elephant signs in the Yala Buffer zone over the past week. Monitoring elephant movements by traversing the trails in the buffer zone area on his motor bike, Janaka, one of the field researchers from CCR had detected a herd close to the Bandu Wewa electric fence last evening.

We set out from the CCR field station in Tissa to see if we could find the herd again. The sky was a dull grey and the ominous rumbles of thunder accompanied us. The paved road soon gave way to a muddy track full of huge puddles and stretches that looked more like a paddy field! Before long, the sky opened up and buckets of water cascaded down from the sky - the monsoons had arrived!! In a couple of places we had to cross waterways that had turned into quite impressive torrents, in other places the water rushed down the road....making it look like a river! In parts, the track was very slick and the jeep needed four wheel drive to get through. After about an hour of sliding, slipping and sometimes moving in random directions where the jeep decided to go, we finally arrived at our destination.

Fortunately by this time, the rain had finally ceased and the sun even made a token appearance. The elephants that Janaka had detected were in this area. Parking the jeeps at the end of the road, led by Janaka, we set out on foot and entered the scrub forest. The rains had made everything burst into profuse growth and visibility was very limited. In stark contrast to the dry season, when the undergrowth was devoid of leaves and one could see for around 30-50 feet in the forest, now a green wall limited vision to about 5-10 feet. However, the muddy and wet soil took perfect impressions of feet - ours as well as that of elephants!! allowing easy tracking.

Soon we came across an area where we saw signs of elephants... the path had very clear impressions of the unmistakable tracks of elephants. That of the forefoot almost circular with the impression of the toe nails pointing the way they went, the hind footprint more oval and smaller. Some of the tracks had a diameter of more than one and a half feet, certainly of a large animal. But there were also smaller tracks, some as small as 4 inches in diameter - a baby less than a year old. This certainly was a herd. They had feasted on the profusion of new growth - feeding on the tender leaves and shoots that were responding to the rains and growing to make up for the eight months of dry season dormancy. We were following the feeding track of the group. A place where one of them had dined on a woodapple tree - breaking the branches and stripping off the bark from the twigs, a vine pulled down from a tree... another place where some had a mud bath...

After about half an hour of tracking we heard the sound of the herd feeding, a 'crack' of a branch being snapped... the slow 'flap... flap... flap' of ears trying to cool the huge bodies... although it had rained only a short while ago, it was still warm and the completely saturated air made everything steam... so it was more like a green house. Testing the wind by throwing up a handful of small leaves from 'katupila' bushes, and making sure to be downwind of the feeding elephants, we approach them carefully. One could just make out a patch of dark skin through the green tangle. Lying on the forest floor, through the less dense layer of vegetation at the base of the bushes, we can see the legs and the tail tufts of the elephants about 20 feet ahead. We see that there are a number of animals - a 'family group'. We take a GPS position and withdraw without disturbing them.

On the way back we collect a bunch of mushrooms that had come up for the rains. You have to collect them soon after they emerge, otherwise a tiny beetle lays eggs in them and a few hours later they are full of maggots! The ones that have been attacked can be made out by a hole in the stem drilled by the beetle to get in... We come back to the research station and cook up a mushroom curry and have a good meal of rice!

The next morning we leave early and meet the DWLC team at the Nimalawa Beat office. A crack team of elephant experts has been assembled, some of them with over two decades of tracking and catching elephants for treatment, translocation etc. Jayaratne the Assistant Director DWLC for the southern region is there to oversee the operation and we are soon joined by Deputy Director Elephant Conservation, Edmund Wilson from Headquarters. Deputy Director Veterinary Dr. Tharaka Prasad is ready with his team of veterinarians. Radio sets for field communication are distributed and after some final discussions the convoy takes off to find the elephants.

We lead the way to where we had located the elephants the day before and start tracking them. An advance team of six people composed of the leading trackers from the DWLC armed with thunder flashes and a couple of guns, accompanied by Janaka, proceed ahead.

We follow about ten minutes later. After about half an hour, we get a call on the radio, the group of elephants has been located. We are given a GPS location and we go there using our GPS. The advance group comes back to meet us. The herd is about 300 yards ahead, they are peacefully moving around, feeding in a suitable area for darting. Preparations are made for the capture. The anaesthetic used for immobilizing is known as M99 and is very effective. However, humans are hypersensitive to it and it can be absorbed from the skin. Therefore, extreme precaution has to be used in handling it. Tharaka carefully loads the dart with the M99 and prepares it. The dart contains a syringe which is loaded with the anaesthetic and also contains a charge within. It is fired from a special capture gun and when it impacts the animal, the internal charge fires, injecting the anaesthetic into the animal. The prepared dart is placed in the capture gun and the gun loaded. We check the VHF signal from the collar to make sure it is functioning properly.

The darting team moves ahead. We wait in suspense, everyone is tense, listening carefully. The sharp alarm call of a lapwing suddenly rends the still air...sounding like the end of the earth... surely the elephants would hear it and run off... ah! but there are no sounds of running elephants... the suspense is mounting. Five, ten, fifteen minutes... still nothing, then suddenly the unmistakable 'phut' of the dart being fired... and the confirmation of a successful shot by radio. We hear the sounds of the elephants crashing through the vegetation... like the sound of a huge rainstorm in the forest... suddenly one is coming our way... we shout to let it know we are there!! A large female crashes through the vegetation and veers away at the last moment... she passes but a few feet from where we are standing...

The count down begins...the drug takes about five to fifteen minutes to act. We move up to the darting team. They are happy that it was a clean shot, hitting the elephant in the flank. One of them recovers the dart which has fallen off... it is empty... good, that means the drug got injected... We wait, not to spook the elephants and make them run more. Each minute seems like an eternity... five minutes... ten minutes... OK time up! Go, go, go... the tracking team galvanizes into action. They follow the tracks of the darted animal on a trot. It is not easy in the thick undergrowth to figure out who went which way... tracks criss cross everywhere, as the elephants have been feeding in this area for the past few days... but the expert trackers can tell the difference between new and old tracks, between tracks of a feeding elephant and one running... the elephants seem to have moved as a group... ok one of them has split... we have to track both trails... we also split up... a call... The others found the elephant. We take off running through the bush, carrying the collar, implements, ropes etc. Thorny branches rip at arms, faces, we can hear the others now... they set up a continuous cry to guide us... faster than following the GPS!!! We crash through the vegetation... without regard to life or limb!! I am carrying the counter weight of the collar which weighs about 20 pounds. Devaka is in front of me, I run into his feet and go sprawling! Get up, grab the collar again and run run run!!

And finally there it is, an elephant!! lying on its side... We quickly get the collar set up, have to get one part of the collar under the neck, I try to push the it under the neck, it wont go through, scrape out the soil with bare hands and push and push, and finally it is through... set the other half on top... then get the collar balanced so that both sides are equal... bolt the collar in place... the nuts have to be tightened... fingers slippery from the sweat pouring off in the greenhouse humidity... The last nut is in place... cut off the extra length of the collar... check everything is ok... nuts are tight enough on both sides... a call for everyone to get clear...

Tharaka injects the reversing anaesthetic into a ear vein... and almost before we have time to get clear, the elephant is up like a jack in a box!! It stands still for a minute looking round... quite confused... and then takes off. We quickly check that we are getting the VHF signal... everything looks to be in order... everyone draws a breath of relief!!! We have a collared elephant!!

Story by Prithiviraj Fernando