On March 23 Hakka Patas, an explosive used by farmers on wild animals that damage crops, was recovered from the bank of Ma Oya hidden in a fruit on an Attikka tree. The discovery was made by mahout of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Ajith Wickramasinghe, when he had taken the elephants for their daily bath. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Deputy Director, Renuka Bandaranayake immediately alerted both the Rambukkana and Kegalle police stations. No other explosives were discovered in the hasty search operation conducted by police and the Special Task Force inside the orphanage, along Ma Oya and its banks.
Officials of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife allege that the explosives were targeted at elephants that have been entered as evidence in court cases related to elephant licensing, ownership and elephant smuggling. Ministry officials also fear a conspiracy to defame the Ministry, as it could reflect negatively on the Ministry if court evidence under their custody is in any manner tampered with.
Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife officials reveal that Pinnawala is home to 19 elephants that are entered as evidence in court cases related to elephant licensing, smuggling and ownership.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Deputy Director, Renuka Bandaranayake, further said that although it is not certain that the target were these elephants entered as evidence or other elephants, they suspect that this is a sabotage aimed at discrediting the Ministry internationally.
According to Media Secretary of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Pabasari Waleboda this is the first time Hakka Patas has been found in the orphanage and the matter has been forwarded to the CID for further investigation. The Minister has also issued a public notice offering a monetary reward to any person who can provide reliable information regarding the incident.
“There is enough evidence to say that this is sabotage. If something had happened to any elephant, entered as court evidence, it would have become an international issue. Then it would be easy for people to say that being an orphanage, we are unable to look after elephants,” said Waleboda. According to her, this was planned with the aim of marring the Ministry’s image.
“We believe it was done for political gains while others want to profit by it,” said Technical Advisor to the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Irosha Perera, while admitting that they are still a long way from getting to the bottom of the issue.
According to him apart from the 19 elephants related to court cases that are kept in Pinnawala, several other such elephants are kept at Eth Athuru Sewana at Udawalawa. “If something had happened to the elephants it would adversely affect the court cases making it an international issue,” reiterated Perera.
Hakka Patas is a mixture of explosive material, lead and iron made into the shape of a fire cracker. They are usually inserted into pumpkins or watermelon with the aim of killing wild animals that damage corps. Though farmers specially target wild boar, elephants have often become collateral damage.
According to Prof. Devaka Weerakoon of the Colombo University, Zoology Department an elephant usually consumes 150 kgs of food. When the Hakka Patas explodes in an elephant’s mouth its jaws get damaged and the animal starves to death. “As Hakka Patas usually causes severe injuries it is difficult to cure them. It is necessary to undertake a major surgery and yet there are not enough facilities in Sri Lanka,” said Prof. Devaka.
The Runakanda Rain Forest Conservation Centre, Friends of Biodiversity, president Udaya Chanaka explained that such victim elephants suffer for a long period before they die out of starvation as they are unable to eat. They far outnumber the number of elephants that recover from such injuries.
“When the Hakka Patas explodes in the mouth the jaw explodes into pieces. We can’t do anything other than treat them with antibiotics and disinfect the wound to keep worms away. The elephant can only be helped if it’s discovered at the basic stage of injury,” Chanaka explained.
“There are not enough veterinarians in the wildlife department and the facilities provided by the government are insufficient. It is difficult to provide a solution unless these issues are resolved. It will take a number of days to reach an injured animal,” said Chanaka who maintained that a new system is imperative.
“The main reason for the human-elephant conflict is that the elephants have lost their natural habitat. We can’t remove people as they are settled there,” said Chanaka who explained that elephants use paths that are genetically programmed into their memory, in their search for food and water. “Unfortunately humans have invaded their native habitats,” Chanaka declared.
He also pointed out that the crops that elephants prefer are often cultivated along the buffer zones of national parks. This causes elephants to cross through electric fences and Chanaka suggested establishing elephant corridors between national parks. The problem of human-elephant conflict arises when the elephants are restricted in their habitat.
He further emphasized that elephants should be allowed to roam free. “It would be better if home gardens could be fenced in, rather than restricting the freedom of elephants,” concluded Chanaka.