The curious case of Rambo of Uda Walawe (Sri Lanka)
Srilal Miththapala, The Island
October 12, 2021
See link https://island.lk/the-curious-case-of-rambo-of-uda-walawe/ for
I first set eyes on Rambo, in the early 1990s, when I started visiting the
Uda Walawe National Park. He was a young male elephant at the time with a
very calm demeanour. He had a very unique identifiable feature; his right
ear was torn in several places towards the edge. He must have been around
20 to 25 years at that time and was just beginning to show the
characteristic pigmentation, along the front of his trunk and ears, of
Subsequently, Rambo discovered that coming up to the electric fence along
the Thanamalwila road and soliciting food from passers-by was a very
rewarding exercise. He was, in fact, one of the first elephants which
picked up this habit of coming near the electric fence. Many passing
vehicles used to stop and feed him juicy ‘tit bits’ such as watermelon,
bananas and sugarcane. He always paid respect to the electric fence and
never ever did try to break out.
As time went by, many other elephants ‘learnt’ this behaviour from Rambo.
Being intelligent animals, this type of behaviour is quite prevalent in
elephants. By early 2010, there were some 18 or more ‘regulars’ along the
electric fence. It was always the males who loitered around since females
in herds are wary of taking such risks.
Sri Lanka’s foremost elephant researcher, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, told me
that if the elephants were really looking for food, they would have
breached the electric fence long ago. His assessment was that they had
enough to eat inside the park, and came for their ‘dessert’ to the electric
fence! So, perhaps, the elephants knew that they had a good thing going,
and were very careful to maintain the status quo, without breaking down the
Many debates and controversies developed around this activity, and there
were even some suggestions that if it were properly controlled, this would
be a good tourist attraction. However, all this changed when Wildlife
authorities realised that they could not properly enforce the ‘no- feeding’
rule along the Thanamalwila road, and erected a second electric fence
behind the existing one. A large amount of money was spent on this second
deterrent barrier, which extends from the end of the reservoir bund, right
up to the corner of the park boundary on the Thanamalwila road, around the
25th kilometre post. This has proven to be quite successful, and today
there are no elephants along this stretch of the road.
However, authorities had not bargained for Rambo. Unable to indulge in his
favourite pastime, he started swimming across the edge of the reservoir and
got on to the steep embankment along the reservoir bund, to access the
roadway and solicit food from vehicles passing by.
Since then, Rambo continued to patrol this stretch of the bund. He seemed
to be content with life, watching the world go by, standing on the side of
the bund, offering passers-by a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experience of
seeing a wild elephant so up close. He has done his bit to create awareness
about Sri Lankan tourism as perhaps the most photographed wild elephant in
Sudden Change in Behaviour
Around 2018, there was a sudden and unexpected change in the behaviour of
Rambo. The elephant that placidly stood by the electric fence allowing
passersby to even hand feed him for over a decade, suddenly started to
break through the fence and wander into the villages on the other side.
(The electric fence is just a deterrent. Being intelligent animals,
elephants know that it can inflict quite a shock, and respect the boundary,
but if the situation warrants it, can easily break it down).
Eventually, he started raiding the food stocks and cultivations and a
decision was made to translocate him to the Horowpathana Elephant Holding
ground for ‘troublesome elephants’. (To many elephant enthusiasts this is,
of course, really a ‘Death Row’ for elephants. This monstrosity has been
much debated. Translocation has again and again proven totally ineffective
in resolving the problem of difficult elephants.)
Thankfully, due to pressure from several wildlife organisations and
interested individuals, the order to translocate was stayed. The DWC
attempted several times to chase him back into the confines of the park,
but he kept breaking out. After a few months, Rambo’s forays into the
villages slowly decreased and he is reportedly living inside the park now.
Even Dr. Vijitha, from the Elephant Transit Home, at Uda Walawe, who knows
Rambo quite well, is confused. He told me that although things were
relatively quiet now, he was not sure what Rambo would do next.
This sudden change of behaviour in Rambo is not typical and generally not
commonly observed in wild elephants. Unless there is some serious external
change in the environment, wild elephants always like to maintain the
So, what happened to Rambo? Many of us elephant enthusiasts have been
discussing this and expounding various ‘theories’. One of the more
plausible theories could be that with the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns
causing travel restrictions, Rambo may have found his source of ‘tit bits’
from people no longer forthcoming. So, perhaps he decided to ‘venture out’
and seek such food elsewhere.
Whatever the reasons may be, the DWC should keep a close watch on this icon
of Uda Walawe, and monitor his movements. Any unusual behaviour must be
quickly studied and mitigation measures taken to ensure that Rambo lives a
contented life inside the Uda Walawe National Park, which has been his home.