Death of the “Gentle Giant of Yala”

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Wildlife enthusiast Srilal Miththapala pays tribute to Tilak, the iconic and senior-most tusker of Yala National Park, who died yesterday.

Late last afternoon telephone lines of a few elephant enthusiasts were humming as the sad news of the sudden death of Tilak, the iconic senior tusker of Yala filtered through.

Initial reports indicated that the elephant had succumbed to injuries sustained in a fight with another tusker.

Unlike his erstwhile and notorious young “friend” Gemunu, Tilak never hogged the limelight. In fact, Tilak was the exact antithesis to Gemunu.

Tilak’s amiable and sedate temperament allowed thousands of visitors the wonderful opportunity to observe one of the largest tuskers in Sri Lanka, at close quarters, and his pictures are abundant, as seen in the many posts on Facebook after his death. There is not one incident on record of any hostile interaction with this gentle animal, to my knowledge.

Tilak seemed to have been around in Yala “forever,” as most of us regular visitors to Yala can remember. He must have been about 55 years old and was possibly the largest and oldest tusker in the park. His massive tusks were curved inwards, the right slightly more than the left. With advancing age, Tilak has been frequently sighted in the outer periphery entrance area of the park, close to the main road, possibly because he had less competition from other elephants in this area rather than inside the park.

The author’s last sighting of Tilak, about a year ago, just outside the park entrance by the side of the main road. Photo © Srilal Miththapala

Due to the elephant’s mild disposition, many of us who interact and study wild elephants are intrigued about this incident.

Firstly, it is rather rare for adult elephants to have serious altercations, given their high level of intelligence and well-developed social life. Secondly, given the usual respect for hierarchy in the wild elephant kingdom, it is very rare that another “junior” elephant will take on such a big tusker like Tilak. Thirdly, it must have been a brutal and swift attack for such a massive animal to succumb so quickly to his injuries.

He had been sighted by visitors going into the park in the early afternoon of yesterday (June 14, 2017), and was found dead when they were leaving the park around 6:30 pm.

Possibly the last picture taken of Tilak at about 3 pm on June 14, 2017, a few minutes before the incident. / Photo courtesy of Gayan from Cinnamon Wild

Reports indicate that the attacker could be a lesser-known, single-tusked elephant who has been sighted occasionally in the area outside the park habituated by Tilak. There were, I am told, about three deep wounds (single puncture marks which indicated it could be a single tusk that caused the damage, unlike the telltale double puncture holes of twin tusks), one or more which could have proved fatal.

One of the deep puncture wounds. / Photo courtesy of Gayan from Cinnamon Wild

After the post mortem, as is customary upon the a death of a tusker in a remote location, wildlife authorities severed the head of the elephant and took it to the main office for it to be buried in a secure place. If this were not done, unscrupulous persons would dig up the remains and steal the very valuable and unique tusks of Tilak. I believe the rest of Tilak’s body will be buried where the elephant died.

Post mortem in progress. / Photo courtesy of Roshan Jayamaha

Usually after about 6-8 months the grave can be excavated and the bones can be retrieved, from which the entire skeleton of the animal can be re-constructed.

There are already calls from many that some form of monument in memory of Tilak should be erected at the park entrance. I would think instead of mounting an unrecognizable skeleton, the authorities should attempt to re-create a large life-sized model of this magnificent elephant to be displayed at the park entrance in remembrance of him.

Maybe it would not be too late to urgently explore avenues to try have a proper taxidermist help to preserve the remains in a proper manner for future display.

So, the “Gentle Giant of Yala” is no more. The park will be lonely without him, and future visitors to the park will no doubt miss the opportunity of seeing this magnificent elephant, but the ways of nature are sometimes cruel and brutal. Life in the wild continues in its relentless cycle.

We can at least take solace that Tilak lived to a ripe old age (wild elephants live to about 60 years), and met his untimely death at the hands of another of his kind, and not from some poacher’s bullet.

Sleep peacefully our dear friend, and thank you for the wonderful times you have given us. May the soil of your home Yala rest lightly on you.

The author, Srilal Miththapala, extend his gratitude to Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, Gayan, Senior Naturalist at Cinnamon Wild; Chamara, Senior Naturalist at Jet Wing Yala; and Roshan Jayamaha for having provided information updates from the site as well as pictures.

PHOTO: Tilak succumbed to his injuries on July 14, 2017.