Story Of The Month

Elephants and wildlife escape Tsunami

- Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, CEO, Jetwing Eco Holidays (www.jetwingeco.com)

6 January 2005

The scale of the human tragedy is so vast, the impact on the wildlife, almost does not warrant concern. Certainly it seems of almost little consequence in a tragedy which saw so many lives lost. A little comfort in the tragedy is that the Yala National Park and its animals have survived the Tsunami almost unscathed. There was some confusion in the minds of the public that there was heavy damage to the park because there was a terrible death toll of humans. However, during the four days (26 - 29 December) I spent looking for survivors and the dead, I did not see any dead animals, except for a dead fish. The park officials I spoke to also confirmed the absence of dead animals. Why this maybe so, I will answer later.

Within the park, tragedy struck at Patanangala, a bowl shaped depression where the Patanangala ridge, slopes down into the sea. This is a popular picnic site where people come to stretch their legs after a morning game drive. From around 8.30 am , people who have finished their morning game drive start to arrive at Patanangala, to enjoy the beach. Patanangala and another site besides the Menik River are two designated places where people are allowed to alight from vehicles in Block 1 of Yala National Park.

Before 9.00 am , Wicky Wickremesekera, arrived at Patanangala with his client, a lady on a Leopard Safari. Wicky is one of the top Naturalist Chauffeur Guides with Jetwing Eco Holidays. He has accompanied me on many a wildlife quest from photographing the endemic Red-faced Malkoha in our rainforests to searching for rare migrants on the island of Mannar . At the wheel was Kalu (one of two Kalu's), one of my favourite jeep drivers, who is well versed in my idiosyncrasies as a wildlife photographer. The client photographed fishing boats and enquired as to whether the sea was always this calm? Wicky says the thought of taking a swim may have even crossed her mind.

Wicky declined a cup of tea and Kalu took only one sip. Around 9.10am , they began to drive up the slope. Wicky heard a roar and looked back to see a wall of water, wall of death thundering down onto the beach. He heard a group of seventeen Japanese, simultaneously scream. Another forty or so, Sri Lankans were also on the beach. Wicky yelled at Kalu to pull away and as they did, he saw the water go over the roof of a restaurant being constructed at the site. The restaurant roof is an estimated 60 feet in height. A 'funnel effect' by the bowl shaped depression may have resulted in the waves reaching this height as it swept over the restaurant which is at least 50 meters from the shore line. The timing could not have been worse for those at Patanangala. Two hours later and no one would have been there. For Wicky and Kalu, one more sip of tea, would have been fatal. Wicky could only look in horror as the waves engulfed the people on the beach.

Sea water surged into the park through low lying areas especially where there was a lagoon mouth to the sea. As Wicky and Kalu sped away, they warned away other jeeps heading to Patanangala. After the waters subsided, they returned with others to Patanangala and found only four survivors. Subsequently, with his client safely sent to Colombo , Wicky bravely stayed on with me and my colleagues for the next four days assisting in the search for survivors and the dead. Miraculously, on the 28th December, a 13 year old boy was found, still alive, by a search team. By the 29th December, the park warden told me that over 50 bodies had been recovered.

At the same time, the wave hit Patanangala, a forty foot high wall of water slammed into the Yala Safari Game Lodge, exacting a terrible death toll. Two 'funnel effects' seemed to happen in parallel, with water coming from the cove near Browns Beach Safari Motel and the Goda Kalapuwa lagoon-mouth creating two high velocity jets of water. Uditha Hettige is one of the Master Naturalists of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He was in the restaurant and says he ran about 50 meters before he was hit by the water which felt like it was travelling at 40 plus km per hour. In his description of events he says "........then I was submerged about 5 feet below water and my sandal snagged on a tree. I managed to hold my breath while struggling to release my leg. Somehow I removed the sandal, but the pressure of the water was so great that I could barely move my hands. It felt like 10 to 15 people were pushing me down. It was like I was glued to the tree. I remember seeing figures of all my family members. I used all my strength to release myself from the tree by pushing with my legs. The water carried me off again .........".

Six of the eight rooms at the nearby Browns Beach were booked by a single group who thankfully escaped by being in the park. I heard a rumour of one staff member surviving by using a can as a flotation device. At the Game Lodge, out of a total of 229 people known to have been at the Yala Safari Game Lodge on that morning, 174 people (75%) are confirmed to be alive. Some guests survived the Tsunami because they were in the park or had checked out. 9 staff (and three family members of staff died), out of a total of 80 staff members. We are devastated at the loss of lives, but thankful that many lives were also spared. I went down with senior colleagues as soon as we heard of the tragedy and spent four days working with search teams. Many Game Lodge staff joined the search and despite Tsunami warnings on the 26th, kept searching under risk. The Yala Village , another hotel, few kilometers away was protected by sand dunes and suffered damage to three chalets. Thankfully, there were no casualties or injuries. Within the park, the Patanangala Bungalow was badly damaged and two members of staff are believed to have lost their lives.

Despite the heavy loss of lives, the park's fauna and flora suffered very little physical damage. As expected the coastline has been re-shaped. I found entire banks of sand have moved around, rivulets were running where there were none before. But the few hundreds of meters of coastline that were affected, is a minuscule percentage of the square area of the Yala protected area complex. Many of the larger trees have survived. A few smaller ones had snapped. The lagoons have many broken branches, but otherwise the untrained eye will not see much damage.

The coastline is an important habitat for invertebrates. However, very few vertebrates (e.g Mammals) are found on it. Certain species such as the Sand Lizard (Sitana ponticeriana ) may have suffered losses in certain places, but would have survived in other places.

So how did the wildlife survive? Read on in our next issue


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