Saturday, 09 June 2018 06:52

Dealing with Wildlife

by Darshanie Ratnawalli
In Britain, a dog used to sleep in the same bed as a toddler. One day as the dog was sleeping, the toddler got into the bed and tried to hug the dog as she had done countless times before. Perhaps the dog was tired or disturbed by loud noises from the toddler’s birthday party that had been going on downstairs. He attacked. The baby was dead when the paramedics arrived.

1How the media should report a tragedy such as this was not the subject of ‘Dealing with Wildlife,’ a media workshop organized jointly by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Press Institute. I brought in the dog to demonstrate two diametrically different ways the media could portray this incident. One way, represented by such a headline as ‘Over familiarity turns beloved dog fatal to toddler’ could promote both pet dog welfare and human safety. The other way, encapsulated screamingly in ‘Beloved dog fatally savages toddler’ would neglect a valuable opportunity to educate and caution the public in the correct way to mingle toddlers and pet dogs.

When wild animals harm humans and their property, they are not breaking any ‘rules’ as domestic animals may be said to be doing, when threatening humans. Yet the media is quick to attribute malicious intent, culpability and enmity to instinctive wild animal behaviour in defending selves, territories and their young against perceived threats.

At the workshop Kumudini Hettiarachchi, an award winning senior journalist, shows the audience international headlines appearing in early May, about a filmmaker who had to meet his Maker after a fatal incident involving a giraffe. Hettiarachchi is scathing about the reportage. ‘Filmmaker killed by giraffe while working in South Africa’ shouts CNN. ‘Final photo of award-winning movie director minutes before he was killed by a GIRAFFE while shooting film in South Africa’ blares The Sun. "Is this reporting right?" asks Hettiarachchi passionately.

A thorough perusal of the stories, which she has thoughtfully printed out and distributed amongst the audience suggests to me fairer headline copy: ‘Film director dies after being head butted by giraffe.

‘Ignored safety briefing, went too close – Wildlife lodge’

Prescient

As all other relevant initiatives, this workshop was to prove strangely prescient in certain aspects. On May 17 at the workshop, to ‘better understand human interactions with elephants, leopards and primates’, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, a former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, talked about ‘translocation pressure’ i.e. pressure exerted by politicians to translocate wild elephants from their natural habitats to eliminate public risk.

"Let’s go back to Gemunu’s example [a tusker who is pestering visitors to Yala for human food after being irresponsibly introduced to human food at an early age by certain pseudo compassionate parties]. Due to articles written in media about that animal, everyone thinks translocation is the solution. Then pressure comes on the Wildlife Department- when I was DG, I also got that pressure, Tharaka, [Dr. Tharaka Prasad, Director (Wildlife Health) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, resource person at the workshop] knows that. To capture Gemunu and bundle him off to Horowpathana [a controversial elephant orphan age], that innocent animal! Who has more of a right inside a national wildlife park? The animal or umans? The animal of course. To bow to political pressure generated by public pressure, whipped up by media articles, to translocate Gemunu to Horowpathana would be a national crime."

A journalist participant who seems fairly senior and wildlife savvy gets up at this point and questions Dr. Pilapitiya. "While the scientific community and the media, continuously asserts that the policy of translocating is wrong, the Wildlife Department keeps on translocating elephants. Even recently they translocated a wild elephant who came to Teldeniya. That tusker ‘Thani Dalaya’ was also translocated. If the department is subjected to political pressure, the government officers should adapt themselves to withstand political pressure."

2This seems a bit too harsh. How ill adapted the government officers are, even those in the top echelons, to withstand political pressure, was demonstrated just six days after the workshop on national news. On May 23, Ada Derana midday TV news announced that Palitha Thewarapperuma, the Deputy Minister for Sustainable Development and Wildlife had decided to translocate the last two wild elephants remaining in the Sinha Raja forest reserve to the Horowpathana elephant orphanage.

The minister has announced this decision at a discussion in Pothupitiya, Rambuka, Ratnapura. The TV channel, showing footage of a funeral, said that Ulahin Arachchige Podimahattaya, 84, died on May 20 after being attacked by one of the two remaining wild elephants in the Sinha Raja reserve. Apart from Podimahattaya, around 15 villagers have died from wild elephant attacks, according to the villagers. The footage shows the deputy minister at the funeral paying his respects. Then the action moves to a discussion the deputy minister held with the villagers at the village school. At the discussion, the deputy minister is shown calling the present DG Wildlife on his mobile phone. With the DG on speakerphone, the deputy minister says, "Mr. DG, the majority of the villagers are telling to relocate these two elephants. So, how long will it take?"

He is not even asking the DG, at least nominally, if translocating would be a good idea. The DG says, "Well, we can camp there and as and when we capture the animals we can take them away." Then the deputy minister says, "Let’s do this soon." Applause from the villagers rings out.

How can a government officer stand up to this kind of pressure? Consider the emotionally loaded atmosphere right after the funeral. If the call was indeed spur of the moment, the DG, knowing that the exchange will be on national television, would be reluctant, purely for reasons of protocol, to reveal any disagreement with his political master in a public forum. The DG has to be extremely brave or extremely well connected - a close relation of the Head of State at least - to explain politely but firmly to the minister that according to scientific findings, translocations do not work; that the Horowpathana elephant orphanage is not that secure; that villagers in Horowpathana are agitating for its removal; that elephants have escaped from the orphanage and at least one villager in Horowpathana has died; that the department has promised the villagers of Horowpathana that the orphanage will be relocated; and that relocating these two elephants from their natural habitat, almost their traditional homelands, in Sinha Raja to an artificial holding place will be a national crime.

Judging by previous instances of ministers being challenged by government officers in live, televised exchanges, the DG could either be abused in public - like Minister Ranjan Ramanayaka once threatened a female officer - or judging by Minister Thewarapperuma’s past performance, he might decide to start ‘a fast unto death’ at the DG’s office, until the translocation was agreed to.

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, showing a more realistic assessment of the near impossibility of refusing a minister, deputy minister or a head of state in Sri Lanka answers the questioning journalist at ‘Dealing with Wildlife’. "Just like the government officer must adapt to withstand political pressure, we the conservationists and you the media must support the department to withstand pressure. The political pressure to translocate elephants comes mostly at DCC meetings. There, a minister orders an officer to capture and translocate an elephant. So, at that point the officer has a responsibility to highlight the problems of translocating. Likewise, if media builds awareness that translocations do not work, why translocate for show, then the task of the officer becomes easier. So, all of us should be partners in this. It’s not fair to put the entire responsibility on an officer."

As I watch the May 23 TV footage, six days after the workshop, I can’t help but see how right Dr. Pilapitiya was. If I had watched this footage before, without the benefit of the workshop, I would have turned from the TV thinking what a dynamic and energetic crusader the deputy minister was; going to the grassroots and giving instant solutions to their life and death problems. I would have retained a less than favourable impression of the Wildlife Department, thinking, what an incompetent department, do they have to wait for the ministers to do everything? Couldn’t they have translocated these elephants and ensured public safety, if there was such a haven for elephants in Horowpathana? It was only due to the workshop that I realised that with this footage of the minister’s intervention, the media should have included several voice cuts from conservationists and wildlife experts about the problems of translocating elephants in general and the problems plaguing Horowpathana in particular.

Kumudini Hettiarachhi has told the journalist participants at the workshop, "Translocations, are they the right thing that we are doing? But we [the media] are not the experts remember. Then what do we do? We have to find out what the truth is, whether translocations work. Let science do the talking; because there are people who are doing research."

Mainstream media though they have tended recently to show at least three experts opining variously about extradition treaties, the feasibility of dissolving Parliament post 19th amendment, etc. hardly shows the same readiness to ‘let science do the talking’ in news items about kneejerk translocations of wild animals. This too indicates that a main attitudinal shift is required in media’s treatment of wildlife.

According to renowned elephant expert Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, a key resource person at this workshop, animal human conflict is created by developmental activities of humans in the natural habitats of wild elephants. Therefore, the onus of preventing the conflict - by bearing the expenses for electric fences around cultivated land and human habitations - is on the developmental sector. Considering the budgets allocated to developmental projects (Central Expressway- Rs. 1,644 billion, Mahaweli Water Security Investment Project- Rs. 90 billion), the expenditure required for elephant human coexistence aiding constructions are negligible (expenditure for building electric fences around every field in an area developed by one project- Rs. 180 million). The sector could easily bear this. Whether they will, is another matter. Yet they will have to do it, if public attitudes and vision change in favour of co-existence with wildlife, against treating wildlife as a public menace. Such a shift can only be achieved through media. Hence the workshop.

Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, Dr. Tharaka Prasad, Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Ravi Algama - co-founder of Environmental Foundation Limited, reputed lawyer, environmentalist and elephant enthusiast - and Vidya Athreya, the most experienced leopard researcher in the world, according to the organizers, made fascinating presentations, together with other people I did not catch due to being late at the workshop. ‘Dealing with Wildlife’, was held on May 17 at the Sri Lanka Press Institute, supported by Nations Trust Bank’s corporate social responsibility initiative.