Photo courtesy of Maximus

Rambo, the mature male elephant that has become an icon of the Uda Walawe National Park, was doomed to be captured from within the park and imprisoned in a so-called Elephant Holding Ground at Horowpathana to live the remainder of his life deprived of freedom and, possibly, of food. Why? At political behest because Rambo had begun to venture out of the park and into adjacent cultivations in search of food.

The human conditioning of Rambo

Most have heard of Pavlov’s dogs and their classical conditioning using food and a bell. In Rambo’s case, food came with the sounds of humans passing, so he began to associate humans with food. A decade or more ago, Rambo was presented with food by someone going by when he was by the fence. He liked it, as did the humans watching and soon others joined in. Rambo learnt that if he stood by the fence, he would be gifted with tidbits from passers-by, high in nutrition in comparison to his natural diet. Although what he received was just a supplement to his daily needs and he still foraged in the park at night, it became a regular habit; a habit fed by humans.

Foreign visitors, too, joined the queue to feed Rambo, as some of the highest in the land. When double fences were placed to keep him and his growing number of acolytes from the road apart, he merely swam out to the bund at the centre of the Uda Walawe Dam where such a double fence was not possible to be fed there.

A failure of wildlife management

Rambo was not only conditioned by humans to depend on them for food, he was also a victim of the failure of conservation management. His picture is placed every 100 metres or so all along the electric fence that separates the park from the main Tanamalvila Road, cautioning passers-by not to feed the elephants with threats of prosecution if they did. This was never monitored or enforced and when even our political leaders have fed the elephants, how could it be? Had the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) monitored the fence for violators and strictly enforced its rules at the start, the gathering of the elephant opportunists of Uda Walawe could have been prevented. Instead, a whole business has evolved from them. These opportunists strategically place themselves opposite fruit and vegetable stalls so that people can easily purchase items for their feeding at profit to the vendor.

In the overall scheme of things, this had no great conservation impact. Separated from the people by another Pavlovian construct, the fragile lines of an electric fence, both humans and elephants were safe and only food was exchanged. In fact, these giants were extremely tolerant of the sometimes inebriated idiots who occasionally crossed this line, backing away rather than attacking them. It must be remembered that these are still wild animals.

The pandemic has hit Rambo too

Reliant as Rambo had become on a supplementary diet of human produced food, with the pandemic his regular supply suddenly dried up. No longer did vehicles stop on the dam so that visitors could take selfies with him and feed him with the fruits and leaves that the enterprising vendors always had available at whichever spot he chose to grace that day. In fact, Rambo is probably the most photographed Sri Lankan elephant in the world and contributes greatly to the local economy.

After a decade or more of conditioning for human grown food, Rambo had to rely on the fodder available in the park. With over 50 percent of the park taken over by Invasive Alien Species that are inedible to elephants and with thousands of domestic buffalo and cattle illegally grazing within the park – with political patronage – the available fodder has reduced over the years. Once again, Rambo and the other elephants of Uda Walawe suffer due to bad conservation management. This will now be exacerbated by the politically encouraged, unplanned development within the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor that will block elephants moving between the park and Bogahapelessa Forest Reserve, spelling their doom; without this movement, they will die for lack of food. This is a park that is globally renowned for being the one place in the world where a wild elephant can be seen on 24 hours of the day, 365 days of the year. For how much longer?

Imprisoning the victim

As human visitation and the resultant feeding stopped and as the months went by, Rambo craved human grown food so he went in search of it, breaking through the electric fence and wandering into adjacent cultivations. There is no record of him having hurt anyone or damaging any property, although this may be cold comfort to the farmer whose crop he raided.

So a political directive was given to the hierarchy of the DWC to capture him and imprison him in the holding ground at Horowpathana. Such a move would not only prove to be the first time that a wild elephant has been translocated from within a national park, a supposed sanctuary for wild animals, but it would also set another precedent as the holding ground is supposed to be only for those wild elephants who were habitual crop raiders and who had killed humans. And what of the more than 20 other elephants who have learned from Rambo and line the fences of Uda Walawe, especially at holiday time? Are they to be imprisoned too?  Is this why another elephant prison is being constructed within the Lunugamvehera National Park?

A suspended sentence or a delayed execution? 

The public outcry that resulted when it was known that Rambo was to be imprisoned has resulted in a reprieve. It is uncertain whether this is a suspended sentence or just a temporary stay of execution until the dust has settled.

If Rambo is moved to Horowpathana, he will die either by starvation or by trying to escape. It must be remembered that Horowpathana was chosen to be this monument to the failure of conservation because it was in the electorate of the Minister for Wildlife at the time, not because the habitat was suitable for elephants; in fact quite the opposite.

If Rambo remains at Uda Walawe, especially now as visitors are beginning to trickle into the country, he will continue to be an icon of the park and help the local economy.

If the DWC implemented its own National Policy for the Management of the Wild Elephant in Sri Lanka, as passed by Cabinet, and worked on the action plan submitted by a Presidential Committee, a report that still has to see the light of day, then much of the human-elephant conflict could be addressed, with the saving of both human and elephant lives, and the protection of this iconic species for generations to come to marvel at and co-exist with. However, with the DWC abrogating its principles of conservation in favour of politically encouraged wildlife control, the future for both species looks dim; for the survival of each is connected to the other.

This is the first part in a series on Abandoning Conservation For Control: The Political Destruction Of The Department Of Wildlife Conservation. Part 2 – Prisons In The Jungle – will be published tomorrow.