by Samya Senaratne
“Hakka Patas” (a cynical Sinhala term which translates as “jaw breaker”) are small improvised explosive devices which consist of gun powder, stones, lead, and iron shaped into a ball. They are made among the rural agrarian villages in the Northern and North-Eastern part of Sri Lanka for the main purpose of keeping wild animals, including elephants, away from the crops.
These explosives are also used by villagers to hunt small animals like boars, and by illegal poachers to hunt around the forests, tank bunds, and even in Sanctuaries. But the constant victims of these explosives are most often small elephant calves and sometimes adult elephants, cattle, and domesticated animals like dogs.
The Painful and Deadly Effects of “Hakka Patas”
“Hakka Patas” are strategically inserted into a cucumber, pumpkin, or melon, which are delicacies for wild animals, and explode in their mouths once they are swallowed. The consequence is a destroyed mouth cavity and painful slow death which can take up to two weeks as the animal becomes emaciated from its inability to chew and swallow food.
The comparatively lesser number of adult elephant victims is owing to them being intelligent enough to often identify the masked fruit as a deadly meal. But the same cannot be said about elephant calves. It is tragic and inhumane how calves who do not know any better are beguiled by the juicy vegetables. They consume the explosives and suffer without food before succumbing to a painful death.
Reported Elephant Victims of “Hakka Patas”
The most recently reported incident was on 24th October 2018, when a two-year old baby elephant became prey to a “Hakka Patas” laid down by poachers as it came to drink from the Mahaillupallama Tank in Anuradhapura. But this is not an isolated occurrence, as the use of “Hakka Patas” can be traced back at least a decade. Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) records show that “Hakka Patas” have been in regular use since 2010. According to the Wildlife Department, at least three adult elephants and seven baby elephants have been killed in the Anuradhapura, Mannar, Vavuniya and Puttalam districts in 2010.
It was reported by the DWC that in 2012 alone, 35 wild elephants, most of them baby elephants, died due to mouth injuries caused by the explosions of “Hakka Patas”.
In 2017, at least seven elephant calves were killed by “Hakka Patas” traps in the Anuradhapura district in the village of Horowpathana. The Horowpathana Wildlife Conservation unit has reported that all seven deceased elephant calves were between the age of five to ten years. And on August 14th of the same year, the harrowing find of an elephant calf wounded by a “Hakka Patas” in the Hambantota Port premises was reported. It was noted that the mouth of the elephant was seriously injured while it also bore a gunshot wound on its head. It had lost part of its trunk due to a previous injury and was in extreme pain. Furthermore, two young elephants released from the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe have also fallen victim to “Hakka Patas”. The first animal died, but the second, a female named “Neela,” was located and attended to by veterinary surgeons before her wounds became infected.
Elephants are not the only ones affected by these explosives. In 2016, Tasindu Kaveesha, a nine-year-old boy from Hambegamuwa, died after accidentally biting off a suspected “Hakka Patas” while playing in the garden with a friend. Thus, this unregulated explosive in the rural agrarian areas has become the bane not only of wild animals like elephants but also of humans.
The Urgent Need for Effective Enforcement of the Law
The Explosives Act No. 21 of 1956 provides that a license is required to manufacture explosives, as well as a permit to authorize a permittee to acquire, possess, transport, and use explosives, subject to the provisions of this Act and regulations made thereunder (S. 37 of the Act includes gunpowder under the definition of “explosives”).
Therefore, the requirements to be abided by in acquiring, possessing, and using gun powder, which is the main ingredient of “Hakka Patas”, are explicitly mentioned in this Act. These requirements by implication render all actions not conforming to the law illegal. But even though the use of “Hakka Patas” by poachers is illegal under Sri Lankan law, there are serious gaps in its enforcement.
In an attempt to address the threat to wildlife from the use of “Hakka Patas”, the Wildlife Department (DWC) has throughout the past urged the public to complain or send information about those who are setting “Hakka Patas” traps for wild elephants. Due to the lack of stringent legal regulations and proper implementation mechanisms, the problem persists, and large number of elephants and other unintended victims are still maimed and harmed by these crude explosives. Many villagers with information regarding poachers have given up hope of the DWC taking effective steps to conduct raids even after being informed. Such informants have also been threatened and coerced by poachers.
One of the main lacunas in the law is the lack of effective control mechanisms. For example, under the above Act, an offender is liable only to a fine not exceeding Rs. 2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both. In a recently reported incident where poachers were arrested for use or possession of “Hakka Patas,” the offenders were released for as little as Rs. 5,000 bail. Such amounts need to be adjusted to current inflation rates to effectively penalize poachers and be an effective deterrent for future offences.
Challenges in Regulating “Hakka Patas”
However, pragmatic enforcement of the law against “Hakka Patas” will be challenging due to the fact that the explosive itself and its component ingredients are widely and easily available. “Hakka Patas” are reportedly sold openly for just Rs. 400. Poachers are also able to manufacture them by mixing stones with gunpowder taken from “Cheena Patas” (Chinese crackers), firecrackers that are readily available on the market.
Therefore, the use of these explosives will have to be curbed through constant monitoring by police and wildlife officials in the remote agrarian areas, and frequent raids, which raise practical concerns of access.
Even though the access to gun powder is sought to be regulated by the Explosives Act, in reality, insufficient enforcement enables the production and dispersal of these home-made explosives. However, farmers’ concerns about crop-raiding wild animals cannot be overlooked. The interests of farmers and the protection of wild animals against inhumane methods of control are difficult to balance. It is necessary to use alternative means rather than crude explosives to address the legitimate issues of farmers.
There are no easy answers to this perennial problem and all stakeholders, including the farming community, law enforcement, legislators, and educators, must cooperate and formulate a feasible strategy that protects both animals and farmers.
- Explosives Act No. 21 of 1956
- Romesh Madushanka, ‘Baby Elephant Found Killed By Hakka Patas’, Daily Mirror, October 24, 2018.
- ‘Dealing with “Hakka Patas”’, Daily News Editorial, August 20, 2016.
- Nimal Wijesinghe, ‘Hakka patas taking a heavy toll on elephants’, Daily News, July 14, 2013.
- Athula Bandara, ‘Hakka patas inserted in vegetables brings slow, painful death to elephants’, The Sunday Times, December 26, 2010.
- Harshi Gunawardana, ‘‘Hakka Patas’: The killer trap’, Daily Mirror, August 22, 2016.
- Dr Rohan H Wickramasinghe , ‘‘Hakka patas’: Animal rights and related matters’, The Island, August 21, 2017.
- Fined for keeping Hakkapatas, accessed on http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=police-legal/fined-keeping-hakkapatas.
- Malaka Rodrigo, ‘Hakka Patas set to become Elephant Killer No. 1’, The Sunday Times, February 3, 2013.