GIANTS OF LANKA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Giants of Lanka. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. September- October 2007. Pages 72-75.
At Minneriya National Park to witness ’The Gathering’.
‘Would you’ll like to move on?’ I asked and receive a look from Ali as if she would want to kill me. Lewis chuckled as I observed that I will take that as a response in the negative. I had come with Lewis Borg-Cardona and Ali Chambers for The Gathering (of Elephants). It is the greatest concentration of Asian Elephants in the world and peaks in August and September at Minneriya National Park. We had pulled and stayed quietly watching a small group of elephants. We had been so quiet and so absorbed that time had flown and before long we were encircled by over a hundred elephants. Ali and Lewis were captivated. So much so, that Lewis almost forgot that he was making an audio program on The Gathering for the in-flight radio program for Sri Lankan. They were mesmerized and certainly did not want to move on to find any more than the hundred of ‘our elephants’ which were around our safari vehicle.
Elephants are special animals in many ways. Earlier in the day I had related one of my ‘elephant stories’ to Ali and Lewis. On one of my frequent game drives in Yala National Park, I had come across a lone bull elephant at a waterhole. As my driver began to pull away, I called out for him to stop. Something was not right. The elephant was not drinking, but standing motionless with its trunk submerged. Perhaps it had meant to drink, but something had stopped this tall male. I realized he was listening intently. But not the way we do. Oh no, this was in infrasound. The Giants of Lanka are special in many ways.
A small island with giants. Could this be the work of evolution or a piece of creative writing by Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s’ Travels fame. Fiction might be a better bet as according to classic bio-geographic theory small islands don’t have large animals. But Sri Lanka is not an ordinary small island. Or, did someone forget to tell the elephants that large animals are not found on small islands. The island is not content with defying conventional zoological wisdom. It goes further by being the best place in Asia for seeing the continent’s largest terrestrial animal.
Elephants are inextricably woven into the cultural fabric of the island. In ancient times they were used in war or as royal mounts for the King. For centuries they have featured prominently in cultural pageants such as the famous Esala Perahera held every year in the closing and first week of July and August respectively. In the nineteenth century elephants were the quarry of sport hunters. But it is not the killing for sport but the loss of habitat which has made the elephant endangered and pocketed, continually in conflict with the ever encroaching tide of humanity.
Despite the frightening decline, elephants are still relatively easy to see in Sri Lanka. In Uda Walawe National Park, to the south of the central mountains, sightings of elephants are virtually guaranteed. On an evening game drive, it would be impossible not to see elephants. But because they are so familiar to us, Perhaps we under-estimate their uniqueness. I remember a game drive in Yala with Kirsten Magasdi of BBC’s Fast Track program. The elephants were a tad over-shadowed by a pair of leopard cubs that performed for the cameras. I put things in perspective in a voice over I gave. “Imagine an animal which picks up food with its nose and also drinks with its nose” I said. “It even carries its own air conditioning unit with it, its ears. The ears have a large surface area through which warm blood flows and cools preventing it from overheating”.
Soon after the horrendous Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, there had been a barrage of questions on elephants from reporters and television crews. Was it true that elephants had panicked and run before the tsunami brought a wall of death and destruction to the shores of Yala? I found it hard to substantiate reports of panicking elephants. But my mind repeatedly went back to the lone elephant at the waterhole on the Uraniya Road. Perhaps the giants had received a warning in advance from the seismic waves created as the earth’s tectonic plates slipped and buckled under the earth. Perhaps as the Tsunami raced towards the shoreline, there was energy carried as infrasounds which alerted the elephants.
My lone elephant on the Uraniya Road waterhole was communicating with infrasounds. As I watched him listen and tense, I realized he was in infrasound communication with another bull. “Another bull elephant is coming” I hissed with urgency in my voice as I set up my 600mm lens on a tripod. The guide and driver were startled, perhaps amused at my newest foray into clairvoyance. They obliged with my request to re-position the jeep, although skeptical of my claims. After about ten minutes, the lone bull turned around and faced away into the surrounding scrub. Its ears slightly spread out. Another bull emerged.
Neither bull would give way and things became physical. A serious tussle began with trunks being grabbed and heads being butted. Sexual maturity and the establishment of a dominance hierarchy in bulls is no easy thing to bear. Males who reach puberty at around the age of fifteen are expelled from their family herd to lead a life of bachelorhood. Elephants usually co-exist in small family units of a mother and calf accompanied by elder sisters and aunts and sexually immature males. Mature bulls who are expelled roam the forests in small all male bachelor groups, or as they grow older as lone bulls.
The two tussling elephants took their battle into the scrub. Out of sight and for me out of hearing. But not out of hearing to any cows in heat or other aspirant males within infrasound hearing range. The feet of elephants have cells on the soles of their feet called Paccinian corpuscles, arranged like layers of an onion. These pick up seismic waves and transmit them to the brain where they are processed. The elephants literally listen with their feet, a sort of feeling the pulse of events. They stomp the ground with their feet to send seismic waves to communicate with other elephants. I once received quite a scare on a game ride with Lyn Hughes the Managing Editor of Wanderlust. We stopped the vehicle as a family of elephants crossed the road ahead of us. An anxious mother trumpeted. A loud crash was followed by heavy stomping feet and a huge male tusker approached the herd and reassuringly nuzzled the anxious females. The family continued the crossing.
As the wild elephants gather, co-incidentally, only a few hours drive away in the capital of Kandy the largest concentration of captive elephants also takes place. For a period of just over a week, over a hundred caparisoned elephants take part in the annual Esala Perahera. The pageant is grand. But for me nothing matches the sight of a hundred elephants gathered on the grassy plains of Minneriya. For two to three months, before the storm clouds of the North-east monsoon lash the plains with rain, the giants gather, still wild and still free.
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Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com) is a wildlife celebrity, writer and photographer and CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays.
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