Photo courtesy of Mongabay

In 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the world and under its malevolent cloak, Sri Lanka’s environment, wildlife and wilderness had to face some of the greatest threats they have ever had. Not a day went by without the media highlighting some environmental catastrophe – a forest illegally cleared, a pristine beach desecrated or an elephant or leopard killed. Sadly, conservation management decisions seem now to be made at the political level. Politicians only look to the next election and the perpetuation of their power. The relevant institutional heads, too, seem content to pander to political whim to safeguard their positions and pensions, irrespective of the responsibilities to which they have been appointed. History will be harsh on them all but by then, they would have overseen the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe that this country has ever seen; a calamity from which there will be no return.

Beleaguered conservationists and environmental organizations have little recourse but to keep these matters at the forefront of public knowledge and for historical record. The following paragraphs summarize just a few examples of this nightmare year for conservation.

The devastation of the ocean

In May 2021, Sri Lanka suffered its worst maritime disaster when the X-press Pearl, a cargo ship carrying chemicals, caught fire and partially sank off the coast of Colombo. It is the biggest chemical ship disaster in the world and the largest plastic nurdles (tiny pellets) spill. There it still rests, un-salvaged and leaking of its contents into the surrounding sea. Of the 1,486 containers laden on it, 81 were categorized as Dangerous Goods Containers holding 25 tonnes of Nitric Acid, Sodium Hydroxide, Urea, Epoxy Resins, Copper and Lead. In addition, it carried billions of plastic nurdles, small but lethal, which are consumed by creatures that mistake them to be of biological origin and they then die in their thousands. The tanks of the partially submerged vessel still contain gallons of fuel which, if not already leaching into the water, are just awaiting a storm to grind the stricken vessel apart, to then unleash its contents into the surrounds (278 tonnes of bunker fuel oil, 50 tonnes of gas oil and 20 containers of lubricating oil). It is not just small creatures who have died but whales, dolphins and turtles have been washed ashore, all victims of the poisons circulating the currents. The more optimistic hope that the vastness of the ocean will dilute their venom. However, some of the spill, the non-soluble, will remain concentrated in certain areas, on land and sea, entering the food chain, with humans at the top. Meanwhile millions of uncollected plastic nurdles will continue to destroy the ocean ecosystem for next five centuries as they will not degrade easily.

While authorities are yet to determine whether it was official negligence or personal benefit that permitted this ship to approach the inner waters of Sri Lanka still ablaze, the deed has been done. The country suffers. It is estimated that the effects of this disaster are being felt from Yala to Mannar, which is more than 500 Km of the coastline. The processes in place for the removal of the plastic nurdles are highly unsatisfactory. Fishermen have depleted catches and people are uncertain of the safety of consuming what they catch, the poisons and plastics continue to infest the marine habitat and its creatures and the glorious beaches of the island continue to be threatened. The media reports that the government is claiming $50 million compensation for the damage, with $3.6 million paid by the shipping company so far. It will take time and much haggling before a final figure is settled on. How can a fair figure be reached for a disaster with such wide-reaching consequences? The destruction of marine habitat, marine creatures, of the livelihoods of those who live off the sea and from tourism and of the reputation of the country now possibly seen as a place to dump toxic wastes with minimal penalty. No one in Sri Lanka has yet to be held accountable for permitting this all to happen.

The rape of the forests

In 2021, a Cabinet decision was made to abolish Government Circular 5/2001 and replace it with another; handing over forests declared as Other State Forests (OSF), those not declared as protected areas, which were in the custody of the Forest Department, to that of the Divisional Secretaries for agriculture and development. Renamed as Residual Forests, this derogatory name enables their destruction, irrespective of the following services of these vital living entities to the country:

  1. Connectivity between protected areas, allowing elephants and other fauna to safely move from one to another;
  2. They host unique species of fauna and flora, some found nowhere else on earth;
  3. They are corridors of life, allowing for the exchange of genes, vital for the long term existence of all species, and
  4. They help ensure healthy communities of biodiversity within the protected areas for all those who earn revenue from them.

Without these forests, the protected areas and their diversity of life are doomed. If the land is required for development, rational decision makers could evaluate the ecosystem service values of the OSFs and earmark lands with low ecosystem services for development rather than allow the unplanned opening up of these forests.

The insidious effects of this decision are already being felt in areas that were provided with some protection from unplanned development. What was supposed to provide poor rural communities with added income has become an avenue for business entities to clear vast swathes of land for large scale farming projects of non-essential foods. Dangerously, with vast volumes of water required for these large scale developments, scarcities are being reported from these areas to the detriment of the local communities.

Conservation is about people – ensuring that they have a clean, natural environment in which to live and prosper; that means clean air, fresh water and fertile soils. These forests and their wild residents contribute to achieving just that. If we destroy them, then we are destroying ourselves too. Starvation, thirst and resulting social turmoil will arise soon thereafter.

Driving wild elephant to extinction

Over 70% of Sri Lanka’s wild elephants live outside protected areas, largely in these Other State Forests. They provide vital links for these increasingly endangered animals to move from one area to another in their search for food, water and mates. As these forests are destroyed or encroached on, elephants are forced to enter human cultivations and habitations to survive. Sri Lanka already had the highest incidence of human-elephant conflict in the world and, in the past few years, this has grown even further. Although the number of elephants and human deaths reduced in 2020 and 2021 due to the restrictions in human movement brought about by the Covid pandemic, over 300 elephants were killed last year.

Electric fencing is the best tool available, to date, in preventing elephants from moving from one place to another. It is important, however, that these fences are placed in the right places. The fact that the conflict keeps growing despite over 4,500 km of fencing is ample proof that they are in the wrong place. Many have been placed between lands belonging to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and those of the Forest Department, both protected areas with contiguous elephant-friendly habitats, and with elephants still living on either side of the fences. This will be further exacerbated by the Ministry of Wildlife’s stated intention of erecting even more fencing, 1,500 km more, to be reinforced by wide trenches along their perimeter to ensure that the elephants stay in. This initiative has little to do with conservation. The will to survive is great, especially with intelligent creatures like elephants, and they will find a way, if forced to, to breach these barriers to feed themselves and their young. For if they are confined to a single area, they will soon run out of food and water and starve to death. What then of the human-elephant conflict? What will the tourist come to see?

Fencing must be strategically placed, based on science and research, on ecological habitat boundaries between areas used by elephants and those used by people. This will allow elephants to use their traditional ranges in search of food and water and keep them out of cultivations and villages. This principle of community and cultivation fencing, placing fences around villages and their farmlands, has been tried and tested and works. A bonus is that once these fences are erected, the local farming and community associations take on responsibility for their policing and maintenance, thereby saving public revenue. However, this is proving to be unpopular in political thinking, after all, which politician wishes to empower the people? In addition, it is alleged that the main objective for the digging of the trenches is the extraction of sand and soil for building projects and that the contracts have been given to such interested parties without a transparent selection process. In the meantime, people and elephants die.

Alien invasions into protected areas

Another, blatant breach of the laws of conservation is the illegal grazing of domestic cattle in national parks and other protected areas. Thousands of domestic buffalo and cattle denude these areas of grass and other fodder on which elephants and other herbivores depend. This adds to the pressures for these creatures to seek feed outside of the protection of these areas, resulting in increased human-wildlife conflicts. As these intrusions are politically supported, the authorities do little to stop them. So while on safari in some national parks, a tourist is confronted by a herd of elephants of a dozen or more and several hundred buffalo and cattle all marked with their owners’ brands. Their responses to this invariable question the integrity of wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka.

In addition to these domestic faunal invasions, alien floral species have begun to alter the habitat of many national parks; not just the entry of these foreign plants but also in the way they have been managed. Lantana camara (S. Gandapana), Eupatorium odoratum (S. Podi Singho Maran), Xanthium indicum (S. Agada) and others have pushed out native trees and shrubs, and most dangerously, grasslands. All of these species are inedible to herbivores, apart from the berries of Lantana, which are consumed in great numbers by birds who spread the seeds even further in their droppings. These species are extremely resilient to fire and clearing, with deep root systems. The only way to successfully achieve that is by hand, with follow up clearings a month or two later to remove any new growth. This, however, takes time and the DWC has long resorted instead to clearing them with bulldozers and backhoes. The root systems are untouched and they grow back again, along with other species of shrubs; no grasslands. As a result, the habitat of some of these parks has changed to such an extent where once they were havens for large herds of elephants, those large gatherings have fast disappeared. Where have they all gone? The increasing human-elephant conflict and the number of elephants killed provide some explanation. Researchers have also noticed an increase in the mortality of baby elephants in these areas with their mothers’ unable to find sufficient nutrition to enrich their milk, which in the longer term would lead to a reduction in elephant populations.

The Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO) commenced an operation to manually remove Lantana from areas within the Lunugamvehera National Park, with periodic re-clearing of the uprooted areas. Previously, they had successfully removed large swathes of Agada from the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, a weed that was threatening the grasslands of these protected areas. The areas so cleared in Lunugamvehera have regenerated not just with indigenous species, but also with grass. Elephants and other herbivores have returned to feed there.

Leopards too

There was a myth being shared that the lockdowns from Covid-19 gave wildlife a great respite. That may have been true if referring to the army visitors who descend on protected areas. Yet this is far from the truth. Poaching was rampant with, in certain areas, members of the security forces being called in to assist the DWC in trying to control it.

The years 2020 and 2021 were bleak for leopards with the largest number of recorded killings of these beautiful creatures, including an elusive black leopard. Some had fallen victim to poachers’ snares that had been laid out for wild boar and other wild animals. However, there is increasing evidence to show that they are now being targeted no longer for their magnificent pelts but for their teeth and claws, which are extracted and sold to those who believe they have aphrodisiac and other medicinal abilities to make weak men feel more like men.

No proper island wide census has ever been carried out on the leopard and we do not know of their exact number. Guesstimates range from 600 to 800 but that number is diminishing not just with poaching but also from loss of habitat and, with it, prey animals. Yet, people come from the world over to visit the Yala and Wilpattu National Parks, two of the few places in the world where leopards can easily be seen during the day. As an apex predator, the health of a forest is very dependent on the healthy populations of this endangered species.

How has this all been possible?

There are many more issues that beset conservation in 2021 – the destruction of mangroves, unrestrained mining of rivers, the possible construction of reservoirs inside the Sinharaja rainforest, the building of elephant prisons; the list goes on. How has any of this been possible in an age when even the most ignorant seem to understand that we must protect the natural world for our wellbeing, when global warming and rising sea levels threaten devastation throughout the world, and on islands in particular; when future wars may no longer be over real estate, religion and ethnic differences but over natural resources, particularly water; when the air we breathe has become so polluted in certain places that the sun is blocked from view in a haze of chemical excrescence, and people gasp to survive; and when everyone knows that Sri Lanka can overcome these natural hurdles if we protect and preserve them?

If we are to protect what we have left, people will have to make a greater effort to hold those in authority responsible to fulfill their mandate not only of protecting the life of this country for today but for the future too. Young people have a greater awareness of the importance of the environment and the natural world than any generation before it. We must keep up the fight and keep the protection of the environment, of wildlife and of the wilderness at the forefront of every conversation, every plan and every policy decision. If we do not, we might just prove to be the final generation.