Photo courtesy of Daily News

Part 1 dealt with how that icon of Uda Walawe, Rambo the mature bull elephant who has been conditioned to accept food from those passing the national park, now faces the prospect of imprisonment in an Elephant Holding Ground. What are these holding grounds? Do they have any conservation purpose?

The dictate of politics not conservation

Elephant Holding Grounds (EHGs) are there to appease politicians who seek a quick fix to please the immediate needs of their voter base, irrespective of whether it is the right thing to do. Rather than follow the evidence of research and the understandings of science in seeking a long term solution to the problem of Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC), building elephant prisons is what they want.

At a public consultation meeting hosted on November 27, 2018 to discuss the proposed Lunugamwehera EHG even the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) accepted that an EHG has no conservation benefit but is needed to satisfy political and social pressures.  Sadly, for many decades, the hierarchy of the DWC has bowed to political whim and assumed the role of wildlife controllers rather than that of wildlife conservationists, contrary to the fundamental mandate of their being.

The first EHG was constructed at Horowpathana. It was the electorate of the then Minister for Wildlife. A former Director General of the DWC said, “…If an EHG is to be established…it has to be designed…to support a high density of elephants…the site for the EHG should be predominantly grasslands and scrub jungle with some sections of primary/secondary forest for shade. However, the EHG at Horowpathana comprises predominantly primary and secondary forest.”

Elephants, especially mature bulls who are the targets for these penal enclosures, need large amounts of fodder for a day, which they obtain by foraging over extensive areas, thereby not denuding a particular area of its grasses and foliage; a practice of natural habitat management. As such the DWC, as stated at the public meeting, has to take the following measures, “Habitat management should be regularly conducted within the EHG or else external feeding of elephants held in the EHG is needed”.

In addition, most of their captives had injuries, either sustained before or after capture. A veterinary health facility did not exist at Horowpathana and the DWC admitted that, “A soft release area is needed for caring for elephants that have been injured, prior to being released into the larger EHG.”

A monument to the failure of conservation

Horowpathana has been a disaster as far as conservation is concerned. According to a recent newspaper article, 64 elephants were placed here between 2015 and March 2021. As of today, the remaining number within the EHG is less than a dozen, the rest either having died or escaped. And yet the facility is still in use. Rambo was to be sent there. Not only this but another larger such facility is being built; this time within a national park at Lunugamvehera.

If such a construction was to happen within one mile from a boundary of a national park, something that would alter the habitat of the region, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) would be necessary by law. As this new elephant prison, referred to as a Problem Elephant Rehabilitation Centre (PERC), is to be built inside a national park, only the consent of the Director General of Wildlife is necessary and, not surprisingly, he has given it. This new PERC has even more negative repercussions for conservation not only because it will remove a large extent of land for use by the present populations of wildlife of the area but also because a deep trench is being constructed around it that will not only prevent the movement of elephants but also that of all the other animals. They will either be locked in or locked out. The large moat will seriously alter the area’s drainage lines, which will impact not only the collection of water within the national park for times of drought but also its flow downstream. This is an environmental disaster in the making.

Based on a report by the National Audit Office of the Government of Sri Lanka (Performance of the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground, Report No: IEN/F/DWC/19/PR/11, National Audit Office 2019/20), the DWC incurred an expense of Rs. 159.48 million from its budgetary allocation in 2012 to construct 16 km of reinforced electric fence to surround 997 ha of the EHG in Horowpathana. Of the elephants translocated to the EHG, the report states that, “…it was observed that the health condition of the elephants retained at the holding ground remained at a poor level and no follow up action had been taken on the health of these animals…Accordingly, it was observed that such elephants had been deprived of the needs integral to their lives and an appropriate environment to express their natural behavioral patterns.”

The greatest indictment is in the conclusion of the report. “In taking into consideration all the matters referred to above, it was observed that the objective of the establishment of the Horowpothana Elephant holding ground could not be achieved.”

Under these circumstances, why is the DWC spending close to Rs. 1 billion of public funds to replicate a failed initiative? Would it not be better to rectify the problems at the Horowpathana EHG since the capital costs have already been incurred rather than waste more public funds to create an environmental disaster in the Lunugamwehera National Park? If the EHG in Lunugamwehera does not achieve the objective of constructing an EHG similar to Horowpathana, who would take the responsibility of wasting Rs. 1 billion of public funds by not heeding the Auditor General’s observations? Accountability is essential.

Waging War on Elephants

A previous Minister for Wildlife decided on a military solution to the problem of HEC by driving all elephants into protected areas and keeping them there with miles of electrical fencing and armed personnel to ensure that they did not break out. Any O’Level biology student would tell you that this was a sure step to ensure the extinction of the wild elephant in Sri Lanka. Locked into confined areas, which are currently at or near its carrying capacity of elephants, they would soon run out of food and those who did survive would breed with their mothers and siblings, both avenues leading to terrible, lingering deaths, and ultimate extinction of the species. Yet the hierarchy of the DWC agreed to implement this and it was only a sudden prorogation of Parliament that prevented it from being implemented.

Conservationists had reluctantly agreed to the construction of this additional holding ground as, it was recognised, the politicians needed their proverbial pound of flesh. They canvassed unsuccessfully for it to be built outside of the park, in its buffer zone without effectively removing approximately 3,500 hectares from it, an area that is currently used by the park’s existing herds of elephants and other animals. The construction of a deep trench around it was not a part of the original plan and, it is reliably learnt, is due to the intervention of a military advisor to the Ministry of Wildlife. The principles of war are to be waged against elephants once more. This trench not only removes an additional area from the park but also has serious consequences on the conservation integrity of the park.

  • What happens to the other animals enclosed within the PERC?
  • What happens to the herds of elephants that already use this area?
  • Will they be pushed to find food outside of the park, in adjacent cultivations, thereby increasing the already serious HEC in the area?
  • What effect will this have on the drainage lines of the area?

EIAs are generally done to get answers for questions such as these. Isn’t it incumbent upon the DWC to undertake an EIA to ascertain the impacts of removing approximately 3,500 ha of prime elephant habitat from the elephants presently residing in the national park? This has nothing to do with EIA regulations but is an ethical and moral duty of the DWC that is mandated with the conservation of wildlife since there is a good chance that displaced herds may die of starvation as evidenced by previous short sighted decisions that led to restricting the range of elephants.

Is there a future for wildlife?

In the vindictive environment that is Sri Lankan politics and the political control of the civil service, it is easy to understand the lack of backbone of the hierarchy of the DWC. If they stood up for principles they may be removed on some charge or other and lose their hard earned pensions or be transferred to some less desirable assignment. Yet the DWC has had ethical officers, some of whom stood up for values and even resigned their post rather than cower to the unprincipled whims of politicians.

As reported instances of deforestation increase and the DWC abrogates its mandate of conservation for control, is there a future for wildlife in Sri Lanka?

This is the second part in a series on Abandoning Conservation For Control: The Political Destruction Of The Department Of Wildlife Conservation. Click here to recap on Part one -The Uncertain Fate of Rambo the Elephant, and here to read Part 3 – The Final Nail in the Coffin of the Wild Elephant.