Tuskers of Yala National ParkPhotographer : Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Avijja Fonseka (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)
“Tusker” is the name given to a male elephant that has tusks which are elongated incisors that grow out of the animal’s skull. They continue to grow throughout their lifetime. Tusks can be seen in both sexes of the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana). On the other hand only male Sri Lankan Elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) have tusks. The phenomenon of tusks is further reduced as only 6% of male Sri Lankan Elephants have tusks and this makes the Sighting of a “tusker” very special indeed. This is due to the gene for tusks being recessive.
Yala national park was not always known for its Leopards. There was a time when elephants ruled the park and with elephants, came some glorious tuskers. Over the years Yala has had many tuskers and some of them have a very special place in our hearts. They have shaped the park and made it what it is today.
There have been many special tuskers that have roamed the plains of Yala in the past and some of them have made a huge impact on how Sri Lanka’s wildlife community looks at elephants today. On a personal note, one tusker that stood out for me was “Kublai Khan”. This magnificent tusker had something about him that made you not want to take your eyes off him. The highlight of my many trips to Yala as a child was seeing Kublai; he was a treat to watch and a majestic specimen. Many of Yala’s frequent visitors will agree with me when I say that Kublai Khan had a commanding presence. Every time I saw him I was overcome with joy and happiness, until his demise in 2009.
Since then I have had many encounters with tuskers and now Yala has a few new stars!
If you visit Yala National Park today and inquire about its tuskers, you will hear a couple of names mentioned; names such as “Gemunu”, “Thilak”, “Anuradha”, “Nalaka” and “Short Tusker”. These tuskers are observed on a regular basis.
“Thilak” is probably the oldest and largest tusker in the park and spends most of his time towards the entrance of the park, where he can be seen feeding and roaming around. He is a large animal and does have pretty impressive tusks for an Asian Elephant.
“Nalaka” is another tusker that can be seen fairly regularly and he is seen most often in the northern section of block 1 towards Thalgasmankada and Koma wewa. He has thin tusks that curve in toward each other.
“Anuradha” is an elephant that is easily recognized by the immense size of his head. The size of his head coupled with his relatively short tusks and bad temper make him easy to identify and a treat to watch at a distance.
“Short Tusker” was a common sight in the park and was easily recognized by his height and short tusks; this ironically named tusker has not been seen recently.
The most talked about tusker and probably the most famous at the moment would have to be “Gemunu”. One might say that he is reminiscent of the great “Kublai Khan” as he too has a commanding presence. “Gemunu” however has made his claim to fame by begging for food from jeeps and sticking his trunk into jeeps, looking for food.
Additionally a few young tuskers can be seen roaming around, eager to reign over this beautiful park as their predecessors did many years ago and continue to do so even today.
These are just some of the gentle giants that are currently roaming Yala’s Plains. However there have been many stars in Yala’s history, so let’s take a walk down memory lane.
“Loku Puutuwa” and “Podi Puutuwa” are two tuskers that were very famous in the 70s; puutuwa is the Sinhala word for overlapping and these two tuskers were famous for their crossed-tusks. “Loku Puutuwa” translated into big cross tusker and “Podi Puutuwa” into small cross tusker. If you look at the logo of our country’s Wildlife Department you will see a tusker and this tusker is none other than the legendary “Podi Puutuwa”.
Some of the names that have been given to the icons of Yala over the years include “Genghis Khan”, “Roland”, “Rudy” and “Patch”.
Another tusker that cannot be ignored when we recall the past is “Raja”, who walked the length and breadth of the park in the late 1960’s and 1970s. The few images I have seen of this tusker show that he had immense tusks and some of the biggest wild tusks I have seen on a Sri Lankan Elephant.
Veteran wildlife enthusiast and conservation advocate Lal Anthonis describes Raja and his ultimate demise in an interesting article he wrote for Dilmah Conservation. I place here an extract from this article:
Perhaps, it would not be fitting to end this article without saying something about the finest of them all. He was known as Raja, by those who knew him and admired him, and also by those who were awed by him. Here was a majestic bull, big in body and large of head, with a pair of great tusks that curved symmetrically inwards and for a long time as the bard might say “bestrode the plains of Yala like a colossus”
The final chapter of Raja’s life story however is sad one. Some time ago the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the Hon. R Premadasa, a very keen wildlife enthusiast himself, observed for the first time a large wound that raja carried somewhere in the vicinity of his right arm pit. It was terribly infected and festering, a bullet wound perhaps. On the Prime Minister’s report the Department of Wildlife Conservation followed up and the present Director of wildlife Dr Shelton Atapattu, then Senior Assistant Director Veterinary was sent up to take necessary action. He together with Park Warden Kataragama, Mr. Zainudeen observed the great animal and directly administered an antibiotic using a ‘capture gun’.
Following this, the wound healed completely and Raja seemed to be content and happy. Then suddenly he was seen no more. For months Rangers wondered where he was. Then one day on the hillocks of Buttawa, one of them found his bones. He had been dead for some time, but strangely his skeleton and tusks were intact.
When last seen alive, Raja carried a slight wound on the upper regions of his trunk, which nobody thought was serious. But this was in fact the rent made by the bullet of an unscrupulous poacher received by Raja. It is believed, in the area near Banduwewa outside the western sector of the Park, to which he later succumbed, Raja’s final fall was fortunately within the Park and those massive tusks that he once carried on his great head were recovered and recently gifted to a temple by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, a sad reminder of a once proud beast and the mute testimony to a heinous crime.
Raja was perhaps at Yala, what Ahamed was to Marsabit – that great tusker of that great National Park in Africa.
I would like to thank Mr. Lal Anthonis for the work that he has done for the Tuskers of Yala. Without his documentation, many of the tuskers that lived in the 70s and 80s would have been forgotten.
The love affair I have with the tuskers of Sri Lanka and Yala National Park will continue and it is no surprise that the team at Leopard Trails share the same sentiments. When these special pachyderms are sighted in Yala National Park, frantic calls are made to any part of the team back in Colombo and our team in Wilpattu to discuss the sighting, location and health of the animal. They listen to our tales with envy, and look forward to observing these stunning creations of Mother Nature. My only hope is that we will be able to view these glorious tuskers in the wild, for many more years to come.