Forgotten Black Panther and President Gotabaya’s blind eye on the tragedy of the wildlife

We live in an extraordinary world, where a diverse array of weird and wonderful species come together to create complex ecosystems that make life on Earth both possible and enjoyable.Yet this is also a planet in peril. Our natural world is under great pressure from human activities that threaten to destroy the very ecosystems we depend on.’

by Rajasinghe Bandara
Writing from London

Since the election campaigns began playing to the gallery always hits media headlines. Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s national priorities have become upside down. It seems to me the government ultimate priority has become eliminating the drug cartels from Sri Lankan soil, before eliminating poverty in the country. He has to remember that poverty is the breeding ground for drugs, crimes, prostitution and corruptions. Voters in the last presidential election gave biggest ever mandate to Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with 69 million votes, with the hope he was the right man to rebuild the nation and to address the critical national issues including poverty and the security.

The last black leopard in Sri Lanka has died in last May
Now Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa demands 2/3 majority in the parliament from voters to amend the 19th amendment and to support President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Does he need 2/3 majority to support the President? Our history is written in blood, since the Sirima BandaranaikeGovernment (1970-1977), teaches us 2/3 majority to a single political party only led to dictatorship governments. Are eliminating drug cartels and amending 19thamendment truly national priorities? People in Sri Lanka have been enjoying democracy, after nearly 4 decades of dictatorship, since the 19thamendment to the constitution. Voters in 1977 elected J.R. (Junius Richard) Jayewardene with 5/6 majority in the parliament as he promised to give 8kilos of grain to the poor and amend the constitution to establish democracy and to create ‘Fair and Just society’(Dharmistha Samajaya). He amended the constitution to become the worse dictator in the country and created two civil wars: one in the North and one in the South. With the understanding, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa should review his priorities and one of them must be addressing ‘Elephant-Human conflict’.

On 29th May this year, Sri Lanka lost extremely rare Black Panther, one of the most beautiful animals in the world, after being caught in a human trap/snare. Had the authorities including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa taken necessary precautions to protect him, the magnificent beast would have been a pride and glamour of our mother nature. The rare leopard was detected on the cameras last year in October and the authorities had enough time to plan and protect the animal from the selfish people who are worse than animals and have no sense of dynamics of our mother nature.

I watched the videos of trapped black panther crying in pain and the careless handling of wildlife officers. He was very young and strong, so his roaring was very powerful. One of the men from the vets’ team inserted his naked finger into the wound without following medical procedures while the leopard was crying in pain. After using tranquilisers others were dragging the leopard carelessly. Then he was transported from cold Nallathanniya mountain range to hot Udawalawe lowlands for treatment, more than 180 miles long risky journey. Could it be the cause of his death because earlier it was reported he had minor injuries?

The tragic death of the black leopard was a wake-up call to our authorities about the tragedy of Sri Lankan wildlife. Sadly, even after the incident many beautiful leopards, elephants including baby elephants became victims of the human traps, snares and poisoning. Last year in September seven elephants found dead of suspected poisoning. Numerous researches show, every year, nearly 300 elephants get killed by gunshot wounds or trapped guns or Jaw Exploders notoriously known as ‘Hakka Patas’. On the other hand, every year around 100 people from the farming villages get killed by elephants’ attacks and wild elephants destroy their livelihood as the villagers and the government increasingly destroy their natural habitats. This is not a story about numbers but the story about how they die and why they die.

I remember those stories from my childhood specially when some villagers by the jungles poisoned the carcases of the leopard’s prey aiming to get beautiful skins of the leopards without knowing that skins become unusable and fur could not be retained because of poisoning. The ignorant villagers had killed hundreds of leopards in this horrific way and they died in extreme pain.

In a horrific incident in Murungan, in the North in Sri Lanka, some villagers had hidden explosives inside a pumpkin (Hakka Patas) and left it for a wild elephant to consume it. A mother elephant searching for food along with her calf had tried to eat it. The pumpkin suddenly exploded in her mouth injuring her severely. Since then she could not eat anything and died of starvation. Wildlife officials in Madhu area found a malnourished baby elephant beside the carcass of its dead mother, which was lying by the side of the road in the village of Kattankudy Kulam in Murungan. The calf had remained by her side nearly two weeks, too young to forage for food on its own, and was extremely malnourished, with its bones sticking out through its skin.

According to the reports: Hakka Patas (Jaw Exploders) concealed in baits for bushmeat hunting have overtaken gunshot injuries as the primary cause of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka in recent years. Jaw exploders are a combination of gunpowder and fragments of metal or rock packed tightly together. When bitten they explode in the animal’s mouth.
  • The explosives cause horrific injuries, shattering the jaw and destroying soft tissue inside the mouth, leading ultimately to a slow and painful death from infection.
  • One in five recorded elephant deaths last year were due to these devices, with most of the victims were juvenile elephants under the age of 10. They died in extreme pain and of starvation as they could not eat anything with the blasted mouths.

On 27 May, in Kerala, in India, a pregnant elephant was severely injured (by a jaw exploder}when she consumed a pineapple filled with explosives. As the pain was unbearable, she jumped into the nearby river, she was possibly getting some relief from immersing her trunk and mouth into the water. She continued to do this until she died. The whole world was shocked when they watched the news on television channels and the public in India were outraged having seen the tragedy of the pregnant hungry elephant. Island-wide protests erupted throughout the country. Millions of people protested against the government and signed a petition demanding justice and tougher actions against the culprits: People from all sections of the community including celebrities, Animal lovers, politicians joined the mass protests and filed a case in the Kerala supreme court to force the government to introduce tougher laws and bring the culprits to justice But in Sri Lanka soon after the death of Black Panther media was silence.

Due to the human-elephant conflict, tragic deaths of wild elephants and the poor farmers are constant reminder of the tragedy of the wildlife in Sri Lanka. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continues to keep a blind eye on that news. His environment minister S.M. Chandrasena has done almost nothing to address the issue. During the last presidential campaign, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to the nation to bring economic prosperity by giving utmost priority to agriculture and tourism. There is no way to achieve his objectives unless he takes immediate action to address those issues. It is not too late if he is genuinely interested to bring effective solutions.

Mr President, you are the man of high calibre, you have demonstrated this with your commands since you were elected as the president. So, I humbly suggest taking over the environment ministry under your control and set up a task force committed to bring effective solutions to the conflict and the devastated ecosystem.

Millions of tourists every year come to Sri Lanka to see elephants and wildlife. According the credible researchers remaining forest cover in Sri Lanka is less than 16% and every more than 66,000 acres of forests, including virgin forests, are destroyed. With the magnitude of destruction of forests and killing of wild elephants and other beautiful animals, how could President Gotabaya expect to thrive in the tourism industry and agriculture? When President Maithripala Sirisena was in power, he was also the minister of environment, I pointed out on numerous occasions, with the magnitude of destruction of forests, if the government did not take immediate action Sri Lanka could be a desert well before the end of 21Century. Although he boasted ‘I wake up early morning to read the newspapers but MPs and ministers of my government sleep until late morning having drunk in the previous night (Un beela hondata budi). But he did almost nothing to address the disaster. This is not what we expect from a responsible President.

Animal cruelty was one of the horrific practice among bullock cart drivers (bullockies), especially in the North and East in which testicles of young bulls are crushed by a wooden tool(apparently the tradition came from India) to prevent ejaculation believing young bulls lose their strength to pull out bull carts when they have sexual intercourse. This causes unimaginable pain on bulls and they cannot walk for nearly two months. But the truth is the opposite, bulls are stronger when they have sex with cows. They become weaker when their testicles were crushed or removed. So, cruel practice must be banned.

Coronavirus pandemic or COVID-19 has given a new vision to the whole world to re-think about the power of mother nature, Upto now disease has killed more than 587,835 people and infected nearly14 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the USA. People have forgotten Box-in-Day Tsunami in 2004 which killed more than 230,000 people within hours in Asia, including more than 40,000 people in Sri Lanka, It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with Spanish Flu in 1918. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

When nature strikes even the most powerful nations in the world such as USA, Russia, China and Japan, with enormous technological advances, become helpless to stop them. Tornados are a regular occurrence in the USA. Hurricane Katrina made landfall off the coast of Louisiana on August 29, 2005. It hit land as a Category 3 storm with winds reaching speeds as high as 120 miles per hour. Because of the ensuing destruction and loss of life, the storm is often considered one of the worst in U.S. history. An estimated 1,200 people died as a direct result of the storm, which also cost an estimated $108 billion in property damage, making it the costliest storm on record.

When people destroy the balance of nature, our mother nature can even wipe out the whole human race from the planet. There is a sensible story in the Bible about the Great Flood created by God to wipe out sinners from the planet who caused great damage to the balance of nature. The flood wiped out the whole human race from the planet except blessed Noah’s family in the Arch(ship)

It is evident all efforts of the current and previous governments failed to bring effective solutions to human-elephant conflict because they did not try to treat the root cause. The root cause is the shrinking wildlife habitats with human activities including government development projects and settlement schemes such as ‘Gam Udava’.There are straight forward solutions.
  • President Gotabaya should set up a taskforce and consult experts in the field, representatives of the villagers and the interested parties such as Ven Ananda Sagaraand VenAthuraliye Rathana who have passion and vision about the solutions.
  • With immediate effect, the president should ban any form of further destruction of jungles and forests.
  • Jungles grown freely during the 30-year long civil war must be protected from the villagers and the farmers.
  • The farmers and the villagers, by the habitats of wild animals including elephants, should be resettled where they are safe and able to make living.
  • From now on solutions to homelessness or housing for the ever-increasing population should be building Chinese and European style apartment buildings even at village level to save the lands and forests for future generations. Any project similar to ‘Gam Udava’ must not be the solution.
  • Any people who have had encroached the catchment areas of the lakes and reservoirs such as Kala Veva should be removed and resettled for the benefit of the agriculture, wildlife and the future generations.
  • Tougher laws should be introduced to punish those who destroy nature and wildlife.

Mr President, I wish you all success with your efforts to rebuild the nation, you will have a supportive parliament in the election.