Let Rambo Be
By Risidra Mendis
Standing tall in his true majestic form he can be seen by the electric fence at Udawalawe National Park waiting patiently for a visitor to feed him some watermelon or pineapple. For years Rambo the elephant has been fed by tourists and locals on their way to Udawalawe National Park and he has got used to human food. Today Rambo’s life is in grave danger for no fault of his own.
Over the years wildlife officers have failed in protecting Rambo from those irresponsible visitors, who fed him. When visitors stopped coming during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Rambo decided to break through the electric fence and went into the villages in search of food. Rambo is a docile semi-tame wild elephant who hasn’t seriously harmed anybody. However, he has destroyed crops while going in search of food and has scared the villagers.
A decision was then taken by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to relocate Rambo to the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground which according to many environmentalists, a total failure and has caused the deaths of so many wild elephants who were sent there for no fault of their own.
The main responsibility of the DWC is to take care of all wild animals including elephants, and ensure their safety and protection. Ironically, it is the Park Warden of the Udawalawe National Park who has allegedly requested the relocation through the Additional Director of the area W.A.A.D.U. Indrajith.
Was the decision taken by the Park Warden correct? Should he be taking the side of the elephant or address the needs of the farmers whose crops Rambo has destroyed? While there are many ministries to look after the welfare of the people, the safety of the animals are taken care of only by the DWC.
Many years ago animal welfare activists had voiced their concerns over wildlife officers using live bullets on Rambo to chase him back into the jungle, because the former Director General of DWC H.D. Ratnayake has not ordered rubber bullets after their stocks ran out for more than a year.
“Live bullets are not used on wild elephants. Wildlife officers use only rubber bullets and thunder flares to chase the wild elephants. DWC officers carry live bullets with them to use in case of an emergency. If an elephant charges at a wildlife officer during an elephant drive he has to protect himself by firing at the elephant. The DWC does not have rubber bullets at present but an order has been placed to get down a stock,” Ratnayake at the time said.
Ratnayake was unable to say how many rubber bullets the DWC had ordered and how many are used per year, but said during the time of the civil war the DWC had ordered 6000 rubber bullets from the Sri Lanka Police.
Was called Memessa at first
Former Deputy Director of the DWC Dr. Nandana Atapattu said 25 years back in 1998 there were three elephants that had migrated from the Wasgamuwa National Park towards Kurunegala. “One elephant we managed to capture and translocate, and one elephant went back to Wasgamuwa. The third one – a very young one about 18 years old – was a male elephant. We managed to find this elephant at the Ridiyagama Vihara – a coconut area. This elephant was not a man killer but had done a lot of damage to coconut trees and other crops,” Dr. Atapattu said.
He said they searched for the elephant for many days and managed to capture him. Wildlife officers named him Meemessa (bee) because he was a troublesome animal. “Usually an elephant found in the village is named by the villagers but because nobody had named this elephant we named him Meemessa. He was a small made elephant but very strong. He had by this time developed a unique habit of throwing stones at people. Two of my team members were injured due to Meemessa’s naughty act. Anyway, we managed to load him into the lorry and brought him to Udawalawe and released him in the same area where the other elephant was released,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
Dr. Atapattu has a strong connection with the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH) or Ath Athu Sevana because he was instrumental in starting this home for orphaned baby elephants. Whenever he visited the ETH Dr. Atapattu kept a track on Meemessa and found he was doing well. “Later on, wildlife officers in the area named him Rambo after the famous English film Rambo. But quite strangely, Rambo became very docile and didn’t harm anybody. Rambo also used to accept any food thrown to him. People gave him pineapple, papaya, and sugarcane and he became very tame. I told Wildlife officers to stop this nonsense and not let him get domesticated,” Dr. Atapattu said.
He said the elephant had developed a taste for human food and then started coming to the park border where there was a fence. “He didn’t try to break the fence but waited till people came and gave him food. For many years he stayed close to the Udawalawe reservoir and waited for food and the DWC officers couldn’t stop people from feeding Rambo. Some foolish visitors saw this as a weakness of the elephant and even crossed the fence to try and feed Rambo. DWC officers took a decision to relocate him to another area but many NGO’s said not to touch him and let him stay where he is,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
Commenting on the relocating of Rambo Naturalist of the Objective Science Forum Geneva – United Nations Suranga Pathirana said, “If Rambo is translocated he will try to compete with the other bull elephants or run away. Also, Rambo already got used to being fed near the roadside. It is not suitable to relocate elephants like Rambo. Before relocating an elephant you have to check if there is enough food for the animal in that area and other biological conditions. The migratory routes of elephants should not be blocked as they are needed for elephants to move from one jungle to another,” Pathirana said.
Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera of Justice for Animals and Nature who is playing a major role in stopping the relocating of Rambo said this elephant has been made out to be a problematic elephant by some people. “Farmers say the elephant is a problem and is destroying their crops so relocate him to another area. Then there are the people who say Rambo is a national treasure to this country and he should not be removed from this area. However, measures should be taken to stop him from destroying crops and causing damage in the area. We met the Director General of DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara and he told us that he will make sure the electric fences are repaired soon,” Sobitha Thera said.
The Thera said there are two electric fences in Udawalawe and Sooriyabandara has agreed to have lights on the electric fences at night so people can see the elephant. “On my request the Director General has agreed to take measures to compensate farmers for loss of crop due to wild elephants. At present, farmers are compensated for loss of life and loss of property. The Sevanagala Sugar Company should take responsibility in compensating the farmers for the loss of crops,” Sobitha Thera explained.
“Rambo is associated with Udawalawe and removing him from this area is a crime. I have seen Rambo for many years. He is a harmless elephant and has not hurt anybody. It is the people who have trained this elephant to ask for food. Visitors going on trips have encouraged this elephant to become like this. It is the duty of the wildlife officers to ensure the safety of this animal,” Zoologist Dilan Peiris said.
He said relocating Rambo is not the solution to this problem because it is not his fault. “Rambo should not be relocated due to political pressure and politicians’ orders. Some wildlife officers take the easy way out by saying the elephant should be relocated for his own safety. They make foolish statements by saying, to protect the animal we must take him out of this area. Politicians have a responsibility not only towards the people of this country, but also towards all animals. It is their duty to protect the animals as well,” Peiris explained.
Relocating old elephants
He added that when old and middle-aged elephants are relocated they have to get used to a new environment and many animals cannot adapt to this type of environment quickly enough. “Most often old elephants die before their time, or they will try to escape from that area. Let Rambo be where he is and make sure the people don’t encourage him to ask for food by feeding him,” Peiris said.
Sooriyabandara said that they want to relocate Rambo for his own safety because if he remains where he is, he is in danger of being killed by the farmers when he destroys their crops. “He breaks through the fence and if other elephants follow him there will be a big problem. He is used to breaking through the fence even when it is live. So he knows how to break through the fence. Environmentalists say he is not a killer but Rambo is a wild elephant and we cannot be sure he won’t become aggressive and try to harm somebody when he doesn’t get food,” Sooriyabandara explained.
He added that wildlife officers suggested that Rambo be relocated because they are concerned about his safety. “It is true the people encouraged Rambo by feeding him from the beginning. We tried to stop this by advising people to stop feeding the elephant. We conducted awareness programmes and warned people that action will be taken against them if they continue to feed the elephant, but visitors kept feeding Rambo and this is the result. Wildlife officers can’t always be behind Rambo to check if he is breaking through the fence. When other elephants break through the fence decisions are taken to relocate the animals and Rambo is no different,” Sooriyabandara said.
He said Horowpathana is not as bad as environmentalists make it out to be. “We have relocated two tuskers recently and they are both doing well at the Elephant Holding Ground. Wildlife officers have done check-ups on the body conditions of the animals and we found all animals at Horowpathana to be healthy. Then we stopped feeding them. No elephants have starved and died at Horowpathana.
However, some have escaped in the past. Environmentalists and animal welfare activists always criticise the DWC for not taking care of the elephants but none of them have come up with a proper solution on how to handle problematic elephants up to now. Because there were a lot of protests we have stopped the decision to relocate Rambo to Horowpathana,” Sooriyabandara explained.
(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)