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From the name itself, you can feel the macho vibe in the air…

 

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Been seeing this video going viral on social media last week, where Sando the Tusker is harassed by a group of Jeeps in Yala Block 1.

Who’s at fault for this? Let’s understand the three elements of this story, Sando, Jeeps & The Incident.

 

1. Sando the tusker.

Migration

Sando is a very dominant (from the Tuskers I’ve seen, probably the most macho) tusker who has an annual migration path across Yala and Kumana National Parks from the places we’ve encountered him. We have reasons to believe that he covers Yala Strict Nature Reserve (the restricted 6th block of Yala) as well in his range. 

For the past almost a decade, we have been spotting him annually, coming to Yala block 1 thru block 3 and 5 generally during the months of January & February. And when he comes, he comes in musth!

We first encountered him back in 2016 on Buttala Road (The Road that Separates Block 5 and 3 of Yala) and we hadn’t even profiled him yet.

 

Wildlife expert Mr. Namal Kamalgoda believes that he is a relocated bull from the North Central Part of the country back in 2006 to Udawalawe, however, even Namal has no record of young Sando prior to this.

Approximate Migration path and the home range of Sando Based on our encounters are marked with a dashed line.

Musth

Musth is a period when a male elephant gets into ‘sexual heat’ and his testosterone levels are off the charts! Even more than 60 times more than a normal male elephant. This helps them to demonstrate their strengths when it comes to getting attention from female elephants (cows) over other bulls.

In Sinhala, we call it මද කිපීම (Madha Kipeema)’.
The word musth comes from several words in multiple middle eastern languages meaning intoxicated. 

I will explain the process of musth and the science behind it in another post later.

Imagine a man getting all macho after a drink with a little bit of testosterone than a normal man against one with 60 times of that. You get the idea.

Sando in Musth - Yala Block 1
Sando in Musth in 2017 – Yala Block 1

Avoid Trouble

When we personally get to know about Sando or any male elephant in musth, we try not to crosspath with them intentionally. If we accidentally run into them, we would always make sure that we have a clear escape path to retreat immediately, or if/when required.

However certain elephants in musth could be completely harmless towards you as long as you do not provoke them.


Aggressive Behaviour

Sando however is a completely different case. Generally he can’t stand anything on his way. Quite possibly due to how he was treated by humans and safari jeeps in the past. If you look carefully, you can see multiple scars of gunshot wounds on his body.

Several jeeps in Yala and Kumana have been attacked by Sando throughout the time, just for running into him accidentally. 

A good example of Sando’s strength is, the infamous ‘bully’ tusker Gemunu was made half a tusker by Sando a few years ago. Eventually, Gemunu was made a tuskless tusker by another tusker once the animals in Yala realized Gemunu was just a bully not really an alpha, by how he was dominated by Sando.

Therefore what should have ideally happened is, when you realize sando is in the neighborhood and if you know the nature of Sando, the parade of jeeps shouldn’t have approached Sando and avoided instead. 

Also watching multiple videos of the above instance and recent sightings of Sando, he seemed to have been in his best behavior this time though he’s in musth.

 

2. The Jeeps 

An Ethical Safari

We have been harping on the term ‘an ethical safari’ since the inception of Camp Leopard and the very reason we started Camp Leopard was to carry out an ethical safari while only a few professional operators were practicing such methods in Ssr 

Safaris are to explore and witness wild animals in their natural behavior. With the new social media trends, everybody wants to go to Yala, take and post pictures to show off their experience.


Sando Gently Trailing our Jeep in April 2020.
When he’s not in musth, he’s not as aggressive as he’s renowned for
– however, as long as you don’t provoke him only.
Video Credit: Marlon Buultjens. Safari Ranger at Camp Leopard.

The ‘wildlife photographers’

I have personally seen videos and sometimes in person, commercial photographers and amateurs with big lenses provoking animals to just take a particular picture they have in their mind. I do have to mention not all wildlife photographers are like this. But the lack of education on the subject matter for amateur photographers and some jeep drivers are the reason behind it.

Maybe they should be reminded of the story of Eric Swan.

 

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Guests & The Unforgettable Experience

All service providers want to give their guests an unforgettable experience to leave something to tell a story about even long after the safari. 

Everyone would like to start a story with the line ‘We were chased by an animal when we went to Yala’ when they talk about their last holiday.

But that unforgettable experience does not need to provoke an animal to get it. Every little bit of the safari experience could be unforgettable if you make the guests understand the importance of everything from the tiniest flower you see to giant rocky outcrops. There’s a story to tell on every little thing in this wilderness.

 

 3. The Incident

Was it wrong to toot and light the cracker?

Yes! Definitely. It’s against every park-rule that relates to interference with the wildlife by visitors.

But..,

Knowing what the possible outcome would be, and considering the safety of their guests, the jeep drivers “MAY” have taken precautionary defensive actions. (I wasn’t there, so I do not know)

There would have been a chance that Sando would not just pass by a line of jeeps on the side of the road even if there was room for him to go on the road. Especially given the circumstances that his path was blocked, he was provoked and him being in musth.

But the video looks like Sando is just taking a stroll down the road until the jeeps started picnicking, tooting horns to make room to back up, and speeding to get away from him.

 

So what should we do now?

Now we all can go to town with being activists on social media and start condemning the incident. Yet again play opposite when you go on a safari yourself, and encourage your driver to take you to see Sando. 

Visitors and drivers need to be given a proper understanding of professional and ethical safari prior to entering.

I’ve noticed, veterans in the safari jeep industry tend to be respectful towards the wild.

Meantime the young (to safari driving) drivers have become safari drivers just because they are from the local area with a driver’s license and they can get a hold of a single cab modified for a safari.

That should NOT be the case. Sometime back there was a practice for the drivers to be registered with Park Gates and DWC (Dept of Wildlife Conservation).

Also, FEO, SLAITO along with SLTDA, DWC, and some other organizations carried out a safari driver training, certificate program called Nature Interpretation Program (NIP). Only such drivers who completed the program were recommended to be hired by travel agents and guests, in Wilpattu, Minneriya, Kaudulla, and several other national parks too (if I’m not mistaken).
However, this program overlooked Yala for different reasons. (Please don’t ask me why) 

For the future,

Instead of condemning the incident on social media, we should push the authorities to carry out practical solutions to avoid such incidents.

A couple of ideas I’m thinking of out loud;

For Visitors;

  • Request your jeep driver/guide/ranger to void crowded sightings
  • Avoid Crowded National Parks overall.
  • Follow thru guidelines and rules of the park.
  • Boycott unethical safari jeeps and operators.
  • Report (with evidence if possible) anything abusive and illegal actions you notice in the park by jeeps and visitors.
  • Share and circulate these posts for others to be educated.

For authorities;

  • Maybe see if the NIP program can be conducted in all National Parks prioritizing Yala and registering the drivers with DWC after proper training.
  • Review and rating scores can be carried out for jeep drivers at the park gates where the driver disciplines can be enforced.
  • A GPS Tracker with each park entry permit could be given to each vehicle entering the park where all movements can be monitored inside the park.

There is a protocol that drivers and vehicles violating the park rules are penalized including entry bans imposed by the DWC park warden or officer in charge at the particular gate.

But let’s not make it only the penalty, but the rewards as well for good behavior.

Training and rating system on drivers where we can hopefully sink the idea of professionalism and ethics of wildlife tourism could go a long way in the commercial aspect of Sustainable Wildlife Tourism Development as well.

So the bottom line…

What should have been the right move in the above incident?

Looking at the number of jeeps in the video, it does not look like a surprise encounter. They seem to have come to see Sando.

So the answer is simple. They could have completely avoided the incident.

If the drivers and the guests still chose to go, they should have had the discipline and knowledge to keep enough space and distance for the animal to pass through and also enough for themselves to move the vehicle if the requirement arises.

Situation awareness and adaptability are a must when you go to the wild.
That’s why we always encourage travelers to go with professional and expereinced safari operators and rangers to guide them on safaris.

They went there and They asked for it. Now the animal is at fault for THEM crossing HIS PATH and harassing!

Would you ever go to someone else’s house, provoke them into a fight and still complain about them?

Animals are the true owners of the jungle… We are just visitors!

That should be sunk in before anyone ever step into nature…

Marc @leopardtrackingwithmarc

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