Let him be

In the light of a campaign to move Bandula, one of the oldest elephants in the Dehiwela Zoological Gardens, expert Vasantha Nugegoda shares his views

The eyes said it all – yes, they were very sad, but this is absolutely not the time to move Bandula from his home of long years to a strange abode. Sri Lanka needs to do what is best for Bandula, the zoo elephant.

This is the heartfelt plea of top-notch international expert on elephants, Vasantha Nugegoda based in Australia.

When he was in Sri Lanka last year (August to be exact) and heard that Bandula had fallen, Vasantha felt compelled to visit him. For, the bond between Bandula and Vasantha go a long way back – Bandula was a young elephant and Vasantha a boy when they forged a friendship.

Do you know that Bandula is a very handsome and, in my view, the most good looking elephant in Sri Lanka, for his pigmentation is perfectly placed, says Vasantha, giving a little background about Bandula in the light of a campaign to collect signatures to ‘Free Bandula and move him from the Dehiwela Zoological Gardens to the Ridiyagama Safari Park in Hambantota’.

Bandula being taken for a walk on the persuasion of Vasantha (third from right) last year.

“Bandula, to my knowledge, was brought from Somawathiya as a baby. The stories that at the zoo he was unhappy are a misconception,” says Vasantha, reiterating that Major Aubrey Weinman, who was the second Superintendent of the zoo and also its first Director, serving from 1947 to 1962 ensured that all animals were looked after very well.

Bandula became a happy-go-lucky gentle giant, Vasantha reminisces. He never harmed anyone and was seen around the zoo carrying kitul fronds, while also playing a starring role in the elephant performances. It was only during musth that he was kept away from the performance. He was chained for a minimum period of time. He was happy and had a good, dignified life.

However, when Vasantha went to see him last year, Bandula’s eyes were unhappy. Why? Bandula had not been taken for walks in months and had not been in water for a long time.

“Even though Bandula is old and could fall, I gently took him for a walk and to water and he played in the water. I went right up to him and he recognized me,” adds Vasantha with emotion.
“Foolish” to move him
What is best for Bandula?Don’t move Bandula to the Ridiyagama Safari Park, is the strong urging of expert Vasantha Nugegoda, who underlines that it would be the “most foolish” thing to do.Bandula should not be moved, says Vasantha, explaining that the plight of this majestic pachyderm is “a management problem”. Now, Bandula has to be treated like we would an old person, looked after in his own environment and not uprooted and taken to unfamiliar surroundings. He will die when being transported to Ridiyagama.Valuable advice comes from Vasantha — food should not be thrown in bulk at Bandula, but should be cut up into small pieces. He should have at least two keepers who will provide day-and-night care.What Vasantha sees as the biggest problem is that there are no trained keepers and the new ones are scared to go near Bandula.

Vasantha knows what he is talking about – currently he is working as a zoological consultant with designforlife.com.sg for the Chimelong group safari parks that has the only herd of Borneo pygmy elephants in the world, as well as for the Guangdong Chimelong Flora and Fauna Conservation Foundation in China.

“It is a blessing that Bandula has lived to be this old, when in many western zoos elephants die at 40-45 years. Bandula should be taken to a familiar but small corner of the zoo during daytime, a place he is fond of, may be near a pond, with an athinna (cow elephant) that he loves to keep him company, without isolating him. They should be free of chains and have good food,” he says.

The area should be small because Bandula’s eyesight is poor and he is feeble now. Otherwise, he will fall. However, as Bandula’s life draws to a close, he will fall…..“Please don’t prop him up with a crane, like I’ve seen dasa wada (torture) being given to other majestic elephants in a bid to prolong their life. Give Bandula, the love and care, the food and comfort he needs in his sunset years and let him go peacefully,” adds Vasantha.

Chained and neglected

Elephant area: A sorry sight

A visit to the zoo, particularly the elephant area, on Thursday was an eye-opener. Neglect and mismanagement of five elephants accommodated in a large shed were obvious to the Sunday Times.

Two metal chains bound each elephant’s front leg and opposite back leg to the pillars of the shed. No cuffs or protective material was wound around their legs. Their movements were extremely restricted and they were barely able to take one step back or forth. However, there were no wounds visible.

Bandula was the only elephant given a snack of grass and a small trough of water, but even that was not easily accessible.

Madavi born in 2005 and the youngest among the elephants was visibly agitated, rocking back and forth, lifting and shaking her bound legs and scraping her trunk against the floor.

Although the shed was not dirty except for fresh droppings which suggest the keepers do intermittent clean-ups, no keepers or officials were seen during the hour that the Sunday Times spent at the elephant shed.

We too left with the question that little children asked their parents: Why are the elephants chained?

Should not the Dehiwela Zoo which keeps boasting that it is the oldest in Asia and exhibits a remarkable collection of exotic and indigenous animals be re-hauled with the alleged mismanagement put right immediately?

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Sashini Rodrigo
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