de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Encounter in Elephant Colony. LMD. December 2004. Page 236. Volume 11, Issue 05, ISSN 1391-135X.
The pasture rich shores of the Kala Wewa make an ideal setting to observe some magnificent tuskers.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discovers the elephants of Kala Wewa
In the distance, across the waters of the Kala Wewa, a mist shrouded Ritigala jutted against the sky line. Ritigala never fails to arouse an air of mystique and intrigue about it. It is an island eco-system surrounded by a sea of drier vegetation. The presence of some species of plants found nowhere else in the world but on its small range of hills, testifies to its uniqueness. There may well even be small species of animals on it, yet to be discovered by science. Our search today had brought us to the shores of the gigantic Kala Wewa, a man made lake, in search of something more visible. Elephants.
Chanaka Ellawala, my host, carefully guided his four wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser around jeep tracks on the margins of the lake. We were staying at the nearby Kaladiya Bungalow, recently restored to reflect the renaissance in wallawa style architecture fused with modern aesthetics and under stated style. Set within one hundred and forty acres of plantation, it is bordered by village farmlands and elephant country. We had arrived on a Saturday afternoon in the last week of September, anticipating dry weather. But it was not to be. The North-east Monsoon seemed to have arrived early this year and the skies were ominously dark. Two days of rain had preceded us and Chanaka was worried that the elephant herds would now begin to disperse. The elephants which had gravitated from the dry scrublands around the Kala Wewa, would use the rain as a signal to head back to their usual feeding ground.
When the Ellwala family first began to farm the land under a lease from the Mahaveli Authority, they soon understood the realities faced by villagers with human elephant conflict. In the first year they lost almost all of their agricultural crops to raiding elephants. They commissioned a private study on the elephants with a former employee of the Department of Wildlife Conservation Department as a member of the study team. The study showed regular incursions to the farmlands from elephants in the surrounding scrub jungles. The study also showed that some of the crop raiders, gathering seasonally around the Kala Wewa, were groups of elephants that came from as far away as Rasvehera, famous for a sculpture of the Buddha, similar to the statue at Aukana. The Ellwalas soon realized that the only solution was to construct an expensive electric fence around their farm to keep out the elephants. The bananas and mangos and other crops nevertheless remained attractive to a host of birds and bats, a loss which was acceptable. A small lake they excavated also attracted wildlife, but not elephants who were fenced out. Before long the village framers followed suit and constructed a long electric fence, a few kilometers long to separate their farmlands from the reservation, beyond which was elephant country. The village electric fence had been a collaborative effort with the villages providing the concrete posts and the DWLC providing the wiring and other technology.
Fortunately, the pasture rich shores of the Kala Wewa and its water was still not out of bounds for the elephants. Janaka, the manager of the farm had been dispatched to locate any elephants. A message had come from him that small group was present. Janka who was on his way back gave us directions and we paused to ask a cattle herder whether he had seen any elephants. No, he said shaking his head. But, ironically he seemed to think that the vehicles which had come to undertake a census of elephants may have spooked them. We paused and pondered what step to take next. A flight of Cattle Egrets flew past, blotches of white weaving against a green tapestry. A lone Grey-headed Fish Eagle flew away in a laboured fashion. Far beyond the cattle, a large dark shape slowly emerged from the tree line and emerged out into the open.
It was a sizeable bull and in musth judging from the pungent aroma which wafted towards us. He did not seem interested in us and purposefully strode over to the lake, with Ritigala in the background. The sky grew darker and more ominous. “Over there” gestured Chanaka having spotted the rest of the herd. About ten elephants were present including a small tusker and a large tusker with a single tusk. Only around five to six percent of Asian Elephant males bear tusks. Having two in a clan of ten was pretty good. But we had heard that only a few days ago, a famous elephant watcher prominent in politics had seen no less than six tuskers, within several hundred meters of each other on the shores of the Kala Wewa.
The breeze turned moist and flashes of light filled the sky. Rain drops splattered across the windscreen and the North-east Monsoon began to unleash it precious cargo of rain for the third successive day. We turned back as the monsoon set about earnestly depositing some of the hundred inches of rain it brings to the dry zone every year, in the space of a few months.
Three continuous hours of rain soaked the parched soil of the Cultural Triangle. We returned to the Kaldiya, grateful for a hot drink before taking hot showers in spacious bathrooms. The bungalow had been virtually re-built on the old foundations and furnished with period furniture using a combination of antiques and reproduction furniture. The four poster beds in spacious rooms gave an air of colonial luxury. The décor was unfussy, but elegant with carefully positioned pieces of period furniture. It was all in the new style, Sri Lankan style.
Even before the rain abated, a deafening chorus of amphibian calls swelled up. I presumed the shrieks, yelps, barks, pops and belling calls were mainly from frantic males desperate to attract a mate. The rain would have triggered many from a period of aestivation, during a prolonged dry spell. Chanaka and I decide to go for a night drive on the farm. We had not gone far before a rodent foraging on the road caught our attention. Not being up to speed with the field identification of mice, we gave up on its identity. The next mammal, a Black-naped Hare, proved easier to identify. A fruit bat took off from some ripening mangos. A Short-nosed Fruit Bat we thought as it was too small to be a Flying Fox. Coming to the edge of the farm, the headlights shone across to the village farmlands. Two elephants walked way, in a somewhat hurried manner. I gathered that at times the personal interest of a few clashed with the common good with the result that at times sections of the village electric fence did not work. An intelligent animal like an Elephant is not slow to seize advantage, sometimes at a terrible cost for human and animal. The two elephants we saw stealing away had exploited a gap in the fence and were now retreating back into the forest. I wondered whether they would have a more secure future if some of the adjoining lands could be converted into private game reserves. Eco dollars from Big Game watching may in some cases be a viable alternative to traditional farming on marginal lands.
The writer, the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company, has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of Sri Lanka’s most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.