The Elephant Health Monitoring Project

13 Elephant

In Wasgamuwa, one of the main threats to wild elephants is trap guns and steel wire snares.

Wounded Tusker

This magnificent tusker died as result of a trap gun shattering its right wrist bones

 

Chandima Fernando
Ecologist/GIS Specialist
SLWCS

Camera trapping is one of the most effective field research methods with potential for multiple field applications. Our remote camera trapping program was first initiated for the sole purpose of studying carnivores. As time went by we realized that the camera traps were useful not only to study carnivores but also to gather information on elephants and various other fauna as well. The cameras can be used very effectively to collect information on the health of elephants, especially to identify elephants that have been seriously wounded or injured or in poor overall physical condition.

In Wasgamuwa, one of the main threats to wild elephants is trap guns and steel wire snares. There is a very interesting reason for how and why this is so. Elephants are landscape architects similar to humans in many aspects. They are truly the only other species next to humans who can alter their environment very drastically. Elephants are the road makers of the wild—they are bulldozers that create the main pathways in the forests and even in human-dominated landscapes. These paths made by elephants eventually become the main roads for practically all the other animals such as Sambhur, Axis deer, wild boar, leopard, sloth bear and even smaller animals such as civets, mongooses and mouse deer. Poachers use these paths as well to set their guns and traps and this is how elephants get injured by trap guns and snares.

 

12 Elephant

Elephants create the roads in the jungle

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All animals use the paths made by elephants…

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1 Wild boar
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2 Small Indian Civet
9 Mouse Deer
3 Indian Procupine
8 Pangolin
17 Sloth Bear
Fishing Cat 2

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…including poachers.

 

Poaching is epidemic in Sri Lanka and Wasgamuwa is no exception. Steel snares and trap guns are frequently set along forest paths to kill game such as sambhur, Axis deer, and wild boar. The height at which these guns are set depends on the chest height of the animal (for a lung or heart shot) the poachers are attempting to kill. So almost all of these guns are set up at 3 feet or lesser height with the lowest been for wild boar. Unfortunately elephants become collateral casualties of these traps.

Trap guns typically inflict wounds on the lower extremities of elephants’ generally on their limbs from the elbow and knee downwards unless a small calf triggers the gun. Then it could be lethal for the calf. If the home made slug goes into muscle then there is a good chance the wound will heal. But if the slug hits an artery or shatters bone then the elephant is definitely doomed. A fracture means a protracted death from infection and gangrene. Once an elephant breaks a major bone there is no chance of it ever healing. Elephants with shattered femurs, knees, ankles and wrists basically rot to their deaths, especially during the wet season, when they are highly susceptible to infection.

 

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This elephant died from an agonizing and prolonged death from a trap gun shattering its right femur

 

Steel snares again are set for game such as sambhur, Axis deer and wild boar and also to catch smaller game such as mouse deer, pangolin and porcupine. These snares get entangled in the feet and trunks of elephants. As it is for other animals, the snares are not life threatening to elephants. When elephants get entangled in snares they snap the cable from its anchor and drag the cable along or sometimes manage to break it off at the knot. We have encountered several elephants inside and outside the national park dragging cables that were attached to their legs. Although they are free the cable causes a ligature that eventually cuts into the flesh and becomes embedded in the bone.

If these elephants are treated as soon they are encountered many of them can be easily saved before the snares cause mutilating injuries such as severed trunks and rupturing wounds in their limbs. Elephants with such injuries when spotted should be treated swiftly to ensure they will not suffer unnecessarily. However, the challenge is the lack of field veterinary facilities to mobilize immediately when such elephants are encountered. So tragically most of these elephants go untreated. For some with grievous injuries by the time an effort is made to treat them it is too late.

We have set up remote cameras along several major elephant paths to identify and monitor elephants injured from trap guns and snares. This information we provide the veterinarians of the Department of Wildlife Conservation immediately. Through this process we have managed to treat a number of injured elephants in Wasgamuwa.

 

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This male elephant has sustained a trap gun wound to its left wrist

 

Kalum (M092YAD)

Kalum is a young male, very well built with good body condition. Unfortunately, his trunk had got trapped in a snare. While attempting to break the metal snare, it had made a deep cut and a small hole in his trunk. He is fortunate that the wound had not got infected and the lower end of the trunk below the snare did not suffer from necrosis and fall off. He has though lost the flexibility of his trunk. Further strain or injury might cause the lower end of the trunk to break off completely. We have been monitoring him very carefully. For the last two months we had not encountered him in the field, which we were concerned about. However, recently our cameras had taken videos of him in the company of several other males in the forest reserve.

 

Kalu 03

Kalum with his scarred trunk

Kalu 02
Kalu 01

 

Wanni

Wanni is another young snare injured male that was captured by one of our remote cameras. He was first recorded in 2017 with his injuries. His wound is in a very bad condition. It is a gaping and infected wound. After our first encounter we tried to track him to monitor his condition and also to get an idea where he is most likely to be – but unfortunately we did not encounter him in the field that often. Once when we came across him we immediately informed the Department of Wildlife Conservation and they were able to treat him. Since then, we have not encountered him in nearly two years, and we suspect that he had succumbed to his injuries.

 

Wanni 01

Wanni with its infected wound

Wanni 02

 

Juvenile – unnamed

This class five juvenile we had not encountered before in the field. We observed it for the first time in 2017, and it already had its’ trunk tightly caught in a noose. The snare had got caught tightly around the middle part of the trunk. In the camera picture, the wound appeared to be very fresh. Unfortunately we have not seen him again. We are hoping we will encounter him again and the wound would’ve healed. If not we will alert the wildlife department vets to treat him.

 

Juvenile class 5 -01
Juvenile class 5 -02

 

Adult male – unidentified

This adult male was captured in one of our cameras while entering a border village. It can be clearly seen in the pictures, that the bottom part of his trunk is about to fall off. These types of injures often result in the elephant losing a part of its trunk. However, if the wound heals and infection does not set in, he would survive. We haven’t encountered him for some time now and hope our cameras will capture him sooner than later.

 

Male unidentified 01

 

Kuveni – Female (FM016)

Kuveni is one of the oldest females in our area. She was spotted with this gunshot wound just above the elbow. The wildlife department veterinarians were informed and they were able to treat her. The treatment was successful in healing her wound and we encounter her on and off roaming around our research area with her family group.

 

Kuveni

Kuveni with a trap gun wound just above her right elbow

 

What we have learned from monitoring elephants using remote cameras is the terrible impact snares and trap guns have on elephants and other wildlife. Our cameras have so far not recorded nor have we encountered an injured sambhur, Axis deer or wild boar it can be assumed that these animals are either killed immediately or do not live for long from injuries sustained by trap guns and snares. Our remote cameras have become a very important tool for our elephant conservation efforts. We kindly request you to continue supporting our research and conservation efforts. We need to deploy more cameras and expand the areas we monitor to provide veterinary care for elephants that suffer from trap guns and snare injuries.

To support these efforts you can email us at: info@slwcs.org or make a donation through our website: https://www.slwcs.org/donate

 

Male unidentified 02

The lower end of the trunk of this elephant is just about to fall off from a snare wound

 

Big, rumbling thanks to our Corporate Partners for their kind support and to everyone who has donated and supported our wildlife conservation efforts!
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Photo Credits:

Carnivore Project/SLWCS/S.P.E.C.I.E.S.E.
Chandima Fernando/SLWCS
Greener Media
Raiv Corea/SLWCS

 

 

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