Is Rambo the famous elephant of Uda Walawe National Park dead?

It was about 10-15 years ago that a big bull elephant was sighted regularly along the electric fence bordering the Thanamalwila Road that runs adjacent to the Uda Walawe National Park ( UWNP) and he w

Is Rambo the famous elephant of Uda Walawe National Park dead?

It was about 10-15 years ago that a big bull elephant was sighted regularly along the electric fence bordering the Thanamalwila Road that runs adjacent to the Uda Walawe National Park ( UWNP) and he was named Rambo. His demeanor was far from the real life movie Rambo, in that he was quite a calm character, who just wandered up and down the fence peering at the passers-by, who often stopped their vehicle to watch this magnificent and unique sight. Of course, given our typical Sri Lankan mentality of curiosity, it was only a matter of time before people started feeding Rambo with sugar cane and fruits procured from the street vendors along the road.

In fact very soon, many other male elephants started emulating Rambo and started frequenting the fence, and it resulted in some 15-25 elephants at any given time staying close to the fence, with the hope of getting some tasty tit-bit, from people passing in vehicles along the road. No amount of efforts to prevent passers feeding the elephants was successful, and eventually it became a major attraction, providing unique photo opportunities with wild elephants in such close proximity.

There were many debates and controversies about this activity, and there were even some suggestions, that if it were properly controlled, this would be a good tourist attraction. However, all this changed about a year and half ago, when the Department of Wildlife Conservation n(DWC) realized that they could not properly enforce the no- feeding rule along the Thanamalwila roadside, and erected a second electric fence behind the existing one. A large amount of money was spent on this second deterrent barrier, which extends from the end of the reservoir bund, right up to the corner of the park boundary on the Thanamalwila road up to the 25th Km post. This has proven to be quite successful, and today there are no elephants along this stretch of the road.

However, the authorities had not bargained for Rambo. Unable to indulge in his favorite past time, he now started swimming across the edge of the reservoir and got on to the steep embankment along the reservoir bund, to access the roadway ( where there was only a single fence) to solicit food from vehicles passing by.

While this is quite an amusing and intriguing sight, which attracted lot of attention, there was concern that Rambo was getting too dependent on this type of food. He seemed to be quite content to stay along the bund, eating whatever little vegetation is there was and looking out for the additional favorite ‘tit bits given by passers-by’.

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Dr. Vijitha Perera, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian, DWC told me that Rambo more or less spends most of his time on the bund, which means that he may not be getting adequate nutrition from anywhere else. In fact, a closer look at Rambo revealed that his body condition was not that great. No doubt, he was advancing in age (he would be about 40 years now), but I still felt that the deterioration could be because he is not getting enough proper food. The DWC had tried on several occasions to chase him back into the park, by lighting elephant deterrent fire crackers (ali wedi), but apparently, he swims back across after the authorities have left.

Last week Dr. Vijitha told me that he had noticed another very disturbing observation where Rambo’s legs and belly were swollen and distended. He felt this was because Rambo was not getting any sleep, or proper exercise by staying on the bund continuously, and that his body weight was causing fluid to collect in his lower extremities.

Immediately Dr. Vijitha had begun treating him, and also had tried feeding him more nutritious food.

However last Saturday I received a call from him that Rambo was missing from the bund. Efforts to locate him have been so far futile. If he has gone back into the park, then on the one hand it may be a good sign but the veterinary surgeon needs to monitor him and continue the treatment. On the other hand, he may have gone back into the park and collapsed somewhere.

The search continues, with all the trackers having been alerted to keep a look out for Rambo. But given his demeanor and the behavior he has learned over many years, it is difficult to imagine that he will suddenly stay away from his favorite haunt for so long, unless he is badly ill, or something more serious has happened to him.

While certainly everyone will hope and pray that we are all proved wrong, the prognosis is not good, and all logical evidence indicates that Rambo may be no more in the land of the living.

It is indeed, sad that we do not pay enough attention to such iconic individuals and make special efforts to safeguard them. They are the ones who create the human interest stories with their charismatic personalities. This in turn fuels public interest and opinion, and helps publicize and drawn attention to the plight that is befalling these gentle giants, who roam this island of ours.

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