Photo courtesy of National Geographic

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 (EHG). Part 2 discussed the fact that EHGs are built for political expediency and not conservation advantage and the possible ecological disasters that may happen if an EHG is built within a national park. There are, however, Cabinet approved conservation policies available for the mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) to make these drastic measures unnecessary. According to a media report, it seems that the Government has decided to sideline this science and research produced at the request of the President himself through a Presidential Committee appointed to the task and revert to that of a previous military leader – waging war on wild elephants.

What of the science?

In a changing of the political guard 18 months ago, the country and conservationists were promised science and research as the basis for decision making, especially in relation to HEC, with the focus being on protecting both humans and elephants. The irony is that there are science-based solutions that have been pilot tested in high HEC affected areas for over eight years. Apart from the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s (DWC) National Policy for the Conservation of the Wild Elephant, there is an action plan based on it prepared by a Presidential Committee appointed by the President. Sadly the first, though passed by Cabinet, remained unimplemented and the second sits on a shelf at the Presidential Secretariat and seems destined to remain there.

Astonishingly, ignored by all policymakers, especially in this time of economic hardship, is the enormous potential that wild elephants and all wildlife have for generating foreign exchange for this country and for the local communities who have them as neighbours. That is if they are kept alive and wild and free.

What of economic sense?

“The Department of Wildlife Conservation is planning to go ahead with the construction of 1,500 km of electric fencing in the protected areas, sidelining recommendations by the National Action Plan for the Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict…State Ministry Secretary Maj. General Palitha Fernando has directed Wildlife Department Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara to proceed with the move,” according to a report in The Island.

It will cost the budget a further Rs. 3 billion to construct this 1,500 km of fencing; an addition to the 4,500 km of electric fencing that is already in existence and has failed to reduce the conflict, which has actually increased. Although electric fencing is still the best available barrier of keeping elephants out of areas, they have to be erected in the right places. Erection of these fences should be based on elephant ranging patterns, which are based on ecological boundaries rather than man-made administrative boundaries. These have also to be maintained as well as the military trenches that have now been proposed for construction along them.  Following a shaming by the international media of elephants feeding from a garbage dump in Ampara, the DWC constructed a fence and trench around this dump. But the elephants are back at the dump.  Hunger often proves the mother of invention and these intelligent creatures will find a way.

What makes this political directive even more incredible is that when this same Secretary to the State Ministry was asked by the Chair of the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) as to whether the erection of these 1,500 km of additional fencing would work, his recorded response was that “…he could not give any assurances because they do not know how elephants will behave.”

Does this make any fiscal sense when the country faces economic ruin brought on by the pandemic and the huge debts it has incurred as a result, to throw more money at a consistently failed strategy when science and research based solutions that work are available?  What could be achieved if the funds are used for these strategies instead?

Follow the science

The 4,500 km of electric fencing already in existence are erected mainly by political directive rather than conservation sense, around 65% of these fences being between DWC and Forest Department (FD) land – ecologically contiguous ecosystems with elephants on both sides of the fence in virtually all instances. If there are elephants on both sides of the fence, of what benefit are these fences? The political reason for erecting fences between DWC and Forest Department protected areas is to tacitly encourage encroachment into FD lands.

The action plan presented to the President, based on the national policy and authored by those with over a quarter century of elephant research and understanding with their published data, has made recommendation for the correct placement of this fencing for the protection of people and their cultivations – community based village fences and seasonal agricultural fences. These have been tested in the Trincomalee, Hambantota, Kurunegala and Anuradhapura Districts and work perfectly well as the beneficiaries, village communities and farmer organizations would attest.  The added advantage of these initiatives is that the local communities look after the maintenance of the fences through their respective community and farmer associations, thereby assuring their effectiveness and reducing costs of maintenance and replacement through the public purse.

Another possible benefit is that with private sector partnerships, these communities could have opportunities to gain additional income from eco-tourism, especially during the fallow seasons when a multitude of herbivores, elephants and birds would visit to feed off the gleanings from their harvested fields. A strategically placed tree house or viewing facility could give a tourist the unique opportunity of seeing these animals, especially at night; the whole experience being the main attraction to be marketed. Having these wild animals as neighbours could add substantially to the annual incomes of these impoverished communities with necessary corporate and government assistance.

Benefitting buddies

If a doctor does not have the necessary learning and skills, along with empathy for his or her patients and is not motivated by an overwhelming desire to heal, then that doctor will prove to be nothing more than a butcher, killing more than she or he cures. Sadly, rather than science as promised, several of the decision makers of today seem to have been appointed on a buddy system, a friend of someone in power, irrespective of their previous experience or knowledge of the subject placed under their jurisdiction. This results in decisions based on personal knowledge and experience that may have been exceptional for what they once did but have no relevance to the responsibilities they have now been gifted with; basically square pegs in round holes. In terms of conservation, this can lead to the irreversible destruction of lands and species that have taken millions of years to evolve.

There is also another possibility, as put forward in a recent article by a member of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society. Is this a planned programme for the elimination of this iconic species from the landscape of Sri Lanka? The military strategies being mooted raise this spectre. If this is the case then the policymakers responsible, the officers of the DWC who remained subservient to their political masters and we, the people of this country who sat by and let it happen, will be cursed not only by future generations of Sri Lankans but by those of the whole world for our callous disregard for the continued existence of an intelligent species.

“There are no wild animals until man makes them so.” Mark Twain

This is last in a series on Abandoning Conservation For Control: The Political Destruction Of The Department Of Wildlife Conservation.