youtube instagram twitter facebook

Monday, 17 September 2018 09:32

This land belongs to both people and elephants

  • Rash decisions without considering science will end in disaster
  • ‘Proper’ fencing the answer and not restricting elephants to Protected Areas where they will starve to death
  • People and elephants can co-exist, environ mentalists urge

Serious concerns are being expressed in environmental circles and by the public about the decision to arm wildlife officials with sophisticated weaponry while fencing-in all the wild elephants.

This is not the answer to the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), was the strong view of environmentalists who urged that the government needs to consider the long and exhausting research work carried out before taking rash decisions.

What the authorities have forgotten is that all wild animals including elephants are a crucial part of the eco-system and any change in the balance will be severely detrimental to humans, sources stressed.

The Cabinet of Ministers, following the submission of a memorandum titled, ‘Proposed new plan for resolving the Elephant–Human Conflict’ dated July 18 by Sustainable Development, Wildlife and Regional Development Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, approved Cabinet Paper No. 18/1604/844/002. It dealt with the construction of an additional 2,651km of electric fencing to make the total length of fencing in the country 7,000km and with the purchase of 2,567 AK-47s.

“We need to think rationally about the whole issue, as the wild elephants’ voice is not being heard in this scenario,” said one source, a sentiment echoed by many, pointing out that in the memorandum the title itself was misleading – it has always been the human-elephant conflict rather than the ‘elephant-human conflict’. This is an indication that we are looking at the conflict with a predisposed view that the trouble is being created by elephants.

Why is it that no one is questioning human conduct? We have gone into the wilds, the home of the wild elephants and thrown fire-crackers at them; shot at them pumping slugs into them which would fester and cause agony; poisoned them; laid nooses for them resulting in their legs and in the case of baby elephants their trunks getting cut; and also hidden hakka-patas in pumpkins to blow their jaws off, reiterated the sources.

“We, the humans, have gone into elephant habitat in unplanned development, built homes and begun cultivations, but now we blame the elephants for what they do when faced with danger,” they said, pointing out that people have also illegally encroached into Protected Areas (PAs) meant for wild animals.

Currently 3,000-4,000 elephants live in areas with people not because elephants have encroached into areas with people but because people have settled and cultivated in areas with elephants, they said.

Looking closely at the “crazy fencing” being proposed currently, many were of the view that it revolved around the thinking that people and elephants cannot co-exist in the same landscape and that elephants need to be eliminated from areas with people. But is this the mandate of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) whose primary goal should be to safeguard wildlife, they asked.

‘Properly’ placed electric fencing has provided an answer, in fact, a win-win situation for both humans and elephants. Over the years, the Sunday Times has visited the hotspots of the HEC where “strategically” put up fences have worked wonders, where science has shown the way through evidence-based findings enabling human-elephant co-existence.

Other sources said that the thinking behind the memorandum is that protecting villages and paddy fields with fences will not work because people cannot go out from the village and people cannot guard the fences all night after working in the paddy field the whole day. However, these ideas have been proven to be wrong.

Taking up the so-called “solution” of driving elephants from people-inhabited places to PAs which have no people, sources stressed that it has been tried for 75 years by the DWC but “failed and failed miserably” because problem-causing males cannot be driven out, only some herds can be. Attempts to drive them, make these males as well as other remaining elephants much more aggressive towards people than before, leading to severe escalation of the conflict.

“Herds consisting of females and young usually do not raid crops, come into villages or kill and injure people. But they will be the ones who will be driven into fenced in PAs and starved to death,” the sources said.

The irrefutable findings that such “drives” cause herds and other roaming males to become more aggressive and results in the death by starvation of elephants driven in, paved the way for the National Elephant Management Policy introduced in 2006.

This policy is crystal clear — elephants should be managed where they are and not driven out of areas they occupy, another source pointed out, adding that people have been living and cultivating in areas with elephants for hundreds of years.

Taking up fencing, the sources also said that there are more than 50 villages and 30 paddy fields which people have protected by constructing community based fences, maintained by the communities.

The latest thinking will exacerbate the HEC and take elephant management and conservation 50 years back, the sources lamented.

The 124-year-old Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), the third oldest non-governmental organization of its kind in the world, states: “Electric fences are most effective on ecological boundaries, as the elephant range is based on ecological needs. A map of the existing electric fences shows many that are haphazardly placed and others, most dangerously, placed between DWC land and Forest Department land, traditional homes of the elephant. The movement between these lands is vital for the long-term survival of elephants.

“Invariably, these fences have been erected for political expediency rather than on the results of scientific research and conservation necessity. This is why, despite there already being 4,000km of electric fencing, the HEC is showing no signs of decline. Cut off from food and water, elephants will search for them to stay alive.

Often, deprived of their traditional routes due to such fencing, they will make new paths through villages.”

Regarding a “policy” that can save lives, the WNPS states that strategic fencing is just one of many proposals in ‘The National Policy for the Conservation and Management of the Wild Elephant in Sri Lanka’. This was developed in 2006 and updated in 2017 by the DWC with the assistance of the relevant stakeholders including elephant researchers. Yet, it has been on a shelf in the relevant ministry.

Instead, now under this new memorandum, elephants which have co-existed with humans for centuries will be driven into PAs — from more than 40% of Sri Lanka into just 18% of Sri Lanka which already carries the number of elephants that can live there, the WNPS points out.

The WNPS warns that elephants from outside driven into these PAs will then either starve to death or be shot trying to break out to find food and water. There will then be a wanton spilling of not only their blood but also those of the additional humans who may die due to the inevitable escalation of the HEC.

The “only” way forward, the WNPS is categorical, is to implement the National Policy for the Conservation and Management of the Wild Elephant, without further amendment.

Meanwhile, in an article headlined ‘Living next door to elephants’ on September 18, 2016, the Sunday Times highlighted success stories in the very heartland of the HEC in Galgamuwa in Wayamba (North Western Province).

Here strategic fencing has been tried and tested by the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) and the DWC, proving that humans and elephants can co-exist in the same landscape without conflict.

In Ehetuwewa and Galgamuwa, to cite a few examples, people protect their crops and their homes in a non-confrontational manner, allowing them to co-habit with the elephants, by the proper use of electric fencing. Such fencing has also been tried out and found to be effective in the Anuradhapura, Trincomalee and Hambanthota districts.

The electric fences protecting the villages are permanent, while those around the extensive paddy fields, large and small holdings, are ‘seasonal’, removed once the harvests are gathered, leaving some food for the wild elephants.

W.M. Anulawathi Kumari, was among many villagers who was eager to talk then to the Sunday Times. Earlier, she had lost her Bappa (uncle) when an elephant killed him and a youth had escaped with his life but broken his leg in a similar attack. Now no more……..the village and paddy-field electric fences have saved the day.

“This land belongs to us and elephants,” says Kumari, as other villagers vigorously nodded in agreement.