Where is Bhagiya?
By Risidra Mendis
Upon hearing the word Minneriya, the first thing that comes to minds of many is the Minneriya Tank built by King Mahasen the ruler of Anuradhapura hundreds of years ago. The popular Minneriya tank was built at the time to improve the agriculture in the area. However, today, this massive tank is used not only by those who depend on agriculture but also by large herds of elephants from the Minneriya National Park (MNP) and the Kaudulla National Park (KNP).
With its 8000 hectares of lush green forests the MNP comes alive every year when hundreds of elephants come in search of new fodder and water. Known as the famous ‘Elephant Gathering in Minneriya’, the herds can be seen grazing, roaming, and relaxing under large trees in the midday sun during the dry season from July to October with the peak period in August and September. In July 2020 two elephant calves were observed close to their mother by Former Director General Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Elephant Researcher Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya and were identified as twins. “The twins a male and a female were named Bhatiya and Bhagiya. Their mother Bernadine belongs to a herd that has been identified under the Cinnamon Elephant Project. The twins were accompanied by their mother’s previous offspring, a male who is about four years old. It is quite unique to see that the twins were very attached to each other and spent much more time together compared to how calves of the same age belonging to different mothers would behave,” Dr. Pilapitiya said at the time.
Father not known
He said one will never know who the father is in a wild population, as females could mate with more than one male, and all mating are not witnessed by DWC officials or researchers. But sadly one of the twins is now missing and is believed to have died. “The calves were observed since 2 July 2020 and I was able to confirm that they were twins through behavioral observations only on 6 July 2020. This is the first recorded instance of twin calves being born to a female elephant in the wild among Asian Elephants. Since July, DWC officers from MNP and I have been observing and recording the developmental progress of the twin calves.
The twin calves were observed and recorded regularly between July and December 2020 and we were pleased to note that they were progressing well,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained. He said the last recorded sighting of the twins was on December 21, 2020 on the grasslands of Palupitiya, in MNP and since then they were unable to sight the mother or the twins due to the increasing water levels in the Kiri Oya, and the levels being too high to enable a vehicle to cross the Kiri Oya to access the side of MNP that the herd was last observed. Dr. Pilapitiya observed that generally, during the months of December to April, the grasslands of Minneriya are submerged with water and the elephants move into the forest and tend to migrate to KNP, Hurulu Eco Park (HEP) and to the connecting forests between these three protected areas.
Twins not spotted
Although attempts were made to locate the herd with the twins in Minneriya, Kaudulla and HEP during the period of January to May, Dr. Pilapitiya was unable to locate them. “That was not surprising because during the period when the grasslands in Minneriya are submerged, elephants may either be in the three protected areas or within the forests connecting these protected areas. So sighting the herd could be difficult due to lack of access,” Dr. Pilapitiya said. He said once the grasslands of Minneriya and Kaudulla emerged in June 2021, DWC and he have been scouting Minneriya and Kaudulla on a regular basis since late June, looking for the twins, and during this period the twins’ mother, the twins or the herd (who have been individually identified) were not sighted in either Minneriya, Kaudulla or HEP. He observed the herd, including the twins’ mother in KNP grasslands for the very first time for 2021 on 12 August. “Based on observations and photographic evidence, and confirmation through comparison with the ID data, it could be confirmed that the twins’ mother was present with only the male calf. The male calf was also positively identified. The mother and the herd were observed on 12, 13, and 14 August 2021 for several hours in the hope that the female twin could be among the rest of the herd. But there was no trace of the female calf,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
First year crucial
He said based on the literature of twins born in the wild to African elephants, the first year after birth is very crucial for the survival of twins. “Since there are two calves seeking milk from the mother, there are recorded instances of one calf being more aggressive and dominating the suckling. In such situations, the other gets less milk and gradually becomes weaker and weaker and ultimately dies. Studies also show that male calves are more demanding in seeking suckling time, even in instances of single calves,” Dr. Pilapitiya said. He feared that in the case of the twins in the Minneriya/Kaudulla population, this seems to be what may have occurred. “For elephants in this population, the worst period for resources, based on body condition observations, are the months of January to April as the grasslands are submerged and it is a resource deficient period. This year the grasslands in both Minneriya and Kaudulla reservoirs did not emerge to any appreciable extent until June, much longer than usual, further constraining resources for the elephants,” Dr. Pilapitiya observed.
He said the mother’s body condition at present is worse than it was in December and it could be speculated that the mother’s ability to produce milk may have reduced during this period due to a lack of nutrition. “Based on my observations in 2020, while they suckled somewhat evenly, the male calf was a little more demanding in seeking more suckling time. It appears that the reduction in resources, due to the reservoir beds being submerged for a much longer period this year could have resulted in resource constraints for elephants, and hence, adversely affecting milk production in the mother. This along with the slightly greater dominance displayed by the male twin for suckling time, may have contributed to the female twin gradually getting weaker and dying,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
Female twin missing
He said the probability that the female calf would have left the mother to be with an allo mother is very unlikely at this age of the twins, as observations show that the herd has no calves of a similar size to the male calf. “All calves are much larger than the male calf, hence further emphasising that the female twin is not with another female in the herd,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained. Former Deputy Director of the DWC Dr. Nandana Atapattu sad this is could not be the first record of twin baby elephants born in the wild. “There could have been other incidents of twin births that we don’t know about in the wild because the birth of twins are very rare. Elephants are known to have given birth to triplets as well.
If three calves are born most often all three won’t survive because the mother doesn’t have enough milk to feed all three babies. In nature the weakling dies early and the mother will go ahead with the second baby. The second baby can suckle from another mother but still that baby cannot survive,” Dr. Atapattu said. Wildlife officials confirmed that one of the twins is missing, but said they have no proof to confirm that the baby has died. Meanwhile the birth of twin baby elephants to Surangi at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage reported recently, have more chances of survival as their milk is supplemented by their curators.
(Pix courtesy Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya)