(eTN) – The Uda Walawe National Park (UWNP), situated in the southeastern region on Sri Lanka, encompasses an area of 30,812 h.a. and spills over two provinces, Sabaragamuwa and Uva, and was declared a national park in June 1972. Over time, the elephant population grew into a stable adn healthy one, which was estimated to be around 400 individuals in the early days (Miththapala.S. 2003). However, more recent research (Silva.S. & Ranjeeva.A 2007 ongoing) indicates that there could be up to 1,000 elephants in UWNP. Of course, a good proportion of these numbers could be transient visitors who use the northern corridors to move out of the park periodically.
Today UWNP has grown in popularity, both among Sri Lankans and tourists, and is without doubt the easiest and most convenient location in Sri Lanka to view wild elephants all year around.
The icon of UWNP
“Walawe Raja” is a majestic tusker in the prime of his life, who frequents the park annually. Raja is usually sighted during the drought period, from around June to September each year, when he appears suddenly, to spend about 3-4 months in the park. Often he is in musth, and spends most of his time searching out receptive females in herds. During the balance period of the year, no one really knows where he disappears to. In all probability, he wanders out of the northern side of the park towards the Balangoda and Hambegamuwa regions.
He was the star of a film shot by the BBC/Discovery by Mike Birkhead and Toby Sinclair in early 2000, entitled “The Last Tusker.”
However, there is a growing concern that Raja has not been sighted so far this year. This fear is compounded by the fact that when he was last sighted almost 8-9 months ago, he was carrying a bad wound on his trunk, which has developed into a tear. He was finding it difficult to drink water, due to the water leaking out of the perforated trunk. The veterinary team at UWNP had been treating him for a while.
This is not the first time that Raja has been injured. On several earlier occasions, he was sighted in the park carrying wounds possibly from gunshot injuries received during his periodic sojourns outside the park. However, always the park veterinary surgeons have been able to treat him, and there was some jocular talk among the trackers that Raja comes back into the park to get his injuries attended to!
However, this time the injury is much more serious in nature, and there is now mounting concern that something untoward has happened to this icon of UWNP. No one seems to know, and a few elephant enthusiasts and avid “Raja” fans, now hope to undertake a quick basic search to try and ascertain what has happened to Walawe Raja.
A quick, one month, concerted, but simple action plan has been mapped out to try and locate Raja with the following objectives:
• To undertake a quick search and investigation in the surrounding regions of the northeastern and northwestern side of UWNP to try and ascertain whether there have been any recent sightings of Raja, and thereby try to locate him.
• The progress of the work will be publicized and highlighted on an ongoing basis. In doing so, it is hoped that more focus and attention will be drawn about the plight of wild elephants in Sri Lanka today and the urgent need to take some cohesive action immediately to halt the demise of these animals in the wild.
• Find Raja hale and hearty (best outcome)
• Find Raja injured (launch rescue mission with the help of the DWLC)
• Find Raja dead (worst outcome)
• Not find any trace of Raja, dead or alive at least we tried)
• Raja suddenly turns up in the park (Hurray! But project will have to be abandoned)
The study area
The area northeast and northwest of the UWNP is surrounded by village hamlets and dense forests. It is presumed that Raja’s home range extends to this area, because he is always sighted for the first time during his periodic visits, in this area, which leads many to believe that he uses these corridors to move in and out of the park.
Research has indicated that home ranges for Sri Lankan male elephants can be in the order of 100-200 sq km (Fernando. P; Wickramanayake. E; et al 2007). However, it must be kept in mind that home range fidelity is dependent on varied factors such weather, food resources, and most importantly in this case, sexual condition. Raja is a fully grown male in the prime of his life and regularly comes into musth. Hence there is a fair amount of “guess-timation” in deciding on the study area.
Since a considerable quantum of the study area will be forest, it will be difficult to really embark on a physical track-and-search operation. Therefore, it is hoped to initially try and hear of some sightings of Raja by villagers of the area. Daily visits will be made to the different village hamlets on a systematic basis to cover the whole study area. Villagers will be asked about any possible recent sightings of Raja (supported by good photos for identification). The field team will have considerable IT facilities (Internet, GPS, notebook computer, etc.) for real-time connectivity.
The project will be coordinated and directed by Srilal Miththapala, who indicated:
• They hope to begin the project by late-October once the logistics and funding is in place.
• The search will continue for a limited period of 1 month.
• Support is being solicited from interested individuals and organizations, who support environment and wild life, as well as help in kind for the basic equipment that will be needed.
• Already there are pledges of funds from some foreign donors.
Capital costs include:
• Notebook computer
• Wireless Internet connectivity
• Mobile phone
• GPS system
• Digital camera
A web site has been launched, “findraja.srilankaelephant.com,” and a daily blog will be operative. The field team will be equipped with a GPS and notebook with 3G connectivity. They will upload their daily movements, findings, track logs, and pictures, which will be posted on the blog (daily) and also the web page (periodically).
It is hoped to get sponsorships and newspaper/radio coverage so that interest is created among the general public.
More information can be obtained from the web site www.findraja.srilankaelephant.com .