Mystery of the Elusive Tusker
By Risidra Mendis
Every year they come in their herds in search of food and water to the historic and beautiful Kala Wewa Reservoir. Apart from the herds an unforgettable sight close to the Kala Wewa Reservoir is the majestic tuskers also known as loners that get attracted to the rich food sources close to the reservoir. As the rain ceases and the dry season begins, new tender shoots spring up, and attract herds of elephants.
It is during the dry season that the Kala Wewa Sanctuary in the Anuradhapura District becomes a hub of activity where the congregation of tuskers takes place. Under the scorching midday sun the herds and tuskers can be seen moving towards the water for a bath and to quench their thirst.
Seeing a tusker in the wild is very rare as the tusker population is only a small percentage in comparison to the rest of the elephants. However, the Kala Wewa area is a place where a large number of tuskers can be seen today.
History states that Kala Wewa, which was built by King Dhatusena in the 5th Century, is a twin reservoir complex (Kala Wewa and Balalu Wewa) which has a capacity of 123 million cubic meters. Water from this reservoir is used to feed thousands of acres of paddy lands and it ends at the historical capital Anuradhapura’s city tank Tissa Wewa which is another wonder of primeval hydraulic engineering in ancient Ceylon.
Kala Wewa and Balalu Wewa connected
According to historical records Tamil invaders who arrived from South India ruled the northern part of the country during the period from 429 to 455 CE. King Dhatusena defeated the invaders and united the country. The king wanted to rebuild the irrigation system by constructing several tanks and canals in and round the kingdom of Anuradhapura.
It is said that after the completion of Kala Wewa, the king built another tank called Balalu Wewa nearby and connected the two tanks together making it the biggest tank in Sri Lanka. King Mahinda II who ruled the country during 777 – 797 CE expanded the tank further. The reservoir served as one of the largest irrigation tanks in ancient times. While supplying water also for the small tanks in rural areas on the way, the canal Jaya Ganga carried water from Kala Wewa and stored enough water in the Tissa Wewa for the population of Anuradhapura. Over the years the tank was renovated by many kings and governors. Today, hundreds of visitors flock to the Kala Wewa area not to see agriculture and cultivations but to get a glimpse of those magnificent tusker population.
Today’s story is about a majestic tusker who roamed the Kala Wewa Sanctuary and Reservoir area and then suddenly went missing a few years ago. While many wildlife enthusiasts and wildlife officers believed the tusker named Diga Dhanthu had died, a carcass found in the vicinity some years back was believed to be that of the tusker.
Return of Diga
Explaining the history of Diga Dhanthu and the return of this majestic tusker to Kala Wewa Former Deputy Director Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Elephant Expert Dr. Nandana Atapattu said about three to four years ago Diga Dhanthu was freely seen around the Kala Oya Reservoir. “This tusker had a pair of huge tusks and was bigger than the other tuskers and elephants in the area. People were very interested in this animal. Diga Dhanthu and the other elephants used to migrate to other areas which were not easy for people to reach. The other elephant herds migrate from this area to another area annually,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
According to him when they migrate they stay in that location for a couple of months and return to their usual place. “A tusker or non-tusker migrates depending on the weather conditions and genetical influence. At times, they migrate together. In one herd behind them there could be a tusker then a male elephant and then another herd. A large number migrates. The location could be the same or different. But after three to four months they return to their original location. The migratory path can change from 20 km to 100 km. Some of the migratory paths are longer than 80 km. Elephant habitats are shrinking so their pathways could become smaller,” Dr. Atapattu said.
He added that there could be many barricades by humans but that doesn’t stop their migration. “Even large reservoirs won’t stop them from migrating. Sometimes you see elephants jumping into the sea and swimming towards the island. They don’t care about the natural barricade of seawater. You can see this specially towards Trincomalee. About two years ago Diga Dhanthu never returned back to Kala Wewa, so people thought he was shot for his tusks or something had happened to the tusker. Meanwhile a baby elephant’s body was found with one tusk. Since the tusk looked like Diga Dhanthu’s tusks, wildlife officers and other people who saw the tusk and body thought it was the tusker’s carcass. They thought one tusk had been removed and the other tusk was remaining,” Dr. Atapattu said.
Three tuskers seen
He says the story went on for some time and then people forgot about it like what happens usually in this country. “Meanwhile, the recent sight of three tuskers at Kala Wewa got people interested in these animals once again. The big tusker of the three was thought to be Diga Dhanthu. It is very unusual to see three tuskers together because tuskers are males and males don’t usually keep company together. For an elephant lover it is a memorable scene. The story has now changed that Diga Dhanthu was not killed and has returned to Kala Wewa. The tusker has one tusk and the other tusk is short. One tusk could have broken,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
He added that originally Diga Dhanthu had two tusks and no scientific research was done on these tuskers in the past. “But it is a marvellous sight to see that there are so many tuskers in this country, because the tusker population in the country is only 4 per cent. If there are 3,500 elephants and half are males, out of the 1,500 or 2,000 males only 4 per cent are tuskers.”
Meanwhile another tusker similar to Diga Dhanthu with tusks was seen in Kala Wewa. This elephant was named Diga Dhanthu II. For many years people believed that the tusker population was high at the Kaluwaragaswewa area in the Puttalam District as there were sightings there. Dr. Atapattu has seen baby tuskers and large numbers of tuskers at Handapangala and from time to time the tusker population changes its numbers according to the sightings. “The areas may change depending on where tuskers can be seen,” Dr. Atapattu said.
He added that the highest number of tuskers were recorded from different areas, but now it seems from recently that there are a large number of tuskers recorded from the Kala Wewa area. “Elephants and tuskers are found in areas where there is less human activity and a lot of food and water.
“They are usually found near a large reservoir because there is ample water, and the habitat round the reservoirs and the grasses are rich in protein and easy to digest. Females are more in number than males. Tuskers are males and males are loners. Tuskers get attracted to areas where females are in estrus and that smell spreads through the air for up to 2 km,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
Protected under FFPO
He said all females don’t come into heat at once, but when a number of females are in heat the males get attracted to that place and the many tuskers seen at Kala Wewa could also be because there are many herds and females in different age groups could be seen only in these herds. “The big animals and medium sized females come into estrus. The many herds at Kala Wewa sometimes get mixed up into a big group, and the elephant population in the area can go up to 300. The Kala Wewa area is now declared as a sanctuary. A group of people want to get it declared as a national park but illegal encroachers, fishermen, and a large number of politicians don’t want it declared as a national park,” Dr. Atapattu said.
He said the life span of all elephants is the same, but tuskers have a shorter lifespan because of their tusks and because they are a target to poachers. “Their life span is up to 85 to 90 years. By that time they lose their tusks. Tusks don’t aid in digestion. Digestion is done by their molar teeth with which they can grind their food. By the time they are 65 to 70 years they lose their grinding teeth. They die due to non-digesting of food. The tusks are useful for fighting. A long time ago elephants used their tusks to uproot trees. Now you seldom see this because such habitats have vanished in most places,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
He added that usually tuskers are taller than other elephants and the length of the tusk may vary, as some tusks are long and some short, some curved and some crossed.“Cross tusks could prevent the usage of the trunk. Water cannot be taken with the trunk to the mouth. Then they have to directly take water into their mouths without the use of the trunk. It is possible for a male elephant to be taller than a tusker but this is very rare,” Dr. Atapattu said.
Director General DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara told Ceylon Today that plans were underway to declare Kala Wewa as a national park but it hasn’t been done yet. He however said Kala Wewa is protected as a sanctuary under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and those violating the law are caught and legal action is taken against them by the Department.