Photo courtesy of Brunch

Right now, and understandably, the media is consumed by the political events of the day, matters of such magnitude that the very future of Sri Lanka is at stake; the wrong decisions today and thousands may starve in the future. Yet, despite the calls from the majority of the people of this country, most of their previously elected representatives, in government and opposition seem quite happy to cloud matters with platitudes and compete against each other for opportunities for individual positions. After all, almost every one of them, at some time or other, has enjoyed the preferential fruits of power that the political system has promoted for the past 45 years; the cult of the individual overriding that of political ideology.

Wild elephants have been facing a similarly calamitous fate for some time now. Conservationists have longed for change in policy and practice, something these endangered creatures desperately need. It has not happened. This has been compounded by the utter incompetence of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in the management of this species preferring, instead to yield to political expediency rather than the well-being of the national treasures they have in their custody and are mandated by law to conserve. Elephants are already dying from the effect of starvation and malnutrition and others from their quest for food. The wild elephant in Sri Lanka may soon be a matter for history and zoos…and belated tears.

The elephant prison

In the last few days, reports of elephants starving to death within the confines of the Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) in Horowpathana have been trickling in. This is nothing new. The Auditor General’s Report on this facility of 2019, showed that of the 52 elephants supposedly imprisoned in this facility since 2015, only nine remained. The same report said that 12 of these elephants had died for various unstipulated reasons, although elephant researchers had previously noted the poor body condition of the animals in there. The DWC had no information as to what happened to the balance 30, whether they had broken out from their place of incarceration or perished in their prison. These reports are of further deaths in this EHG, which is incredibly still in use, and the pictures being circulated are of severely malnourished male elephants.

How has this happened, and at considerable cost to the nation? For the sake of clarity, the warped reasoning for these wicked structures needs to be understood.

Politics not conservation

The DWC used to drive elephants into protected areas with disastrous consequences. It was the females and babies who were driven while the males, those who usually break into cultivations, craftily evaded the drive and remained behind. In addition, as happened in the Lunugamvehera National Park during the Walawe Left Bank Development Project Elephant Drive, elephants were herded into land that was already inhabited by resident herds, its carrying capacity appears to have been exceeded and they soon depleted the area of fodder. With their escape blocked by an electric fence and their hesitance to go further into the national park due to affinity for their home range, they soon starved to death. With this hard learned understanding, the DWC abandoned the practice of long-distance drives. Apart from being a conservation disaster, there was no improvement in the human-elephant conflict in these areas as the main culprits, the mature males, remained where they were.

The politicians wanted something else, however, an action where they could immediately demonstrate to their voter base that they were working on their behalf, whatever the consequences to humans and elephants. Against the advice of elephant researchers, the DWC agreed to the pound of flesh demanded of them, in this case elephant flesh, and proposed the idea of EHGs to appease their political masters. Researchers, faced as they were with this inevitability, recommended that if such holding grounds were to be built, they should be placed in a location that met the following criteria, among others:

  1. Have elephant friendly habitat with plenty of appropriate fodder all year round, which is needed to ensure that a high density of elephants could be held in the EHGs.
  2. A plentiful supply of water throughout the year.
  3. That an assessment was conducted on the holding capacity of such an area to determine the maximum number of elephants that it could contain without running out of food and water.
  4. A scientific identification of problem elephants to determine which animals should be incarcerated in them; not just that of the local populations who, mostly, would be unable to identify one elephant from another especially as the majority of their depredations were undertaken at night.
  5. A study of the elephants using the areas identified for the EHG so that adequate compensatory measures could be taken to improve the habitat of the adjacent areas to accommodate the number of elephants displaced from the proposed holding ground area.

Instead, the location of this EHG was based on the electorate of a politician then responsible for wildlife. Elephants feed mainly on grass and sedges, hence their large numbers during the dry season in the Minneriya, Kaudulla and Uda Walawe National Parks. Common to all are the large irrigation reservoirs whose waters recede during the dry season, exposing acres and acres of succulent grasslands. Conversely, this is also why there are relatively few elephants in the Wilpattu National Park as its forested terrain is poor in elephant fodder. Similarly, the EHG in Horowpathana is located in an area of primary and secondary forest where research data has shown that such habitats contain a low density of elephants, approximately 0.5 elephants per kilometre. No studies were carried out to determine its holding capacity. No scientific identification was, or still is, undertaken to determine if the right elephant has been captured; often the innocent taken along with the guilty. As such, it is no wonder that those imprisoned there either succumbed to malnutrition and disease or escaped.

Lessons not learned

If there was a lesson that Horowpathana had to give, there has been little learning. The DWC is now in the process of building another EHG in the Lunugamvehera National Park. While the habitat at Lunugamvehera is certainly better than that of Horowpathana, what of the elephants that already use this area for grazing? Where will they go? Is there suitable habitat to support them within the remainder of Lunugamvehera or do they go to nearby cultivations? Why could this have not been done, if it had to be done, in the buffer zone of the park?

Once again, no study has been undertaken to assess the holding capacity of the demarcated area nor the impact it will have on the rest of the park. A loophole in the law provides the Director General of the DWC the authority to approve any development within a national park which, if done in an area outside of the jurisdiction of the department, would require the carrying out of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the public scrutiny that would entail. After the experience in Horowpathana, isn’t the DWC ethically obligated to undertake such studies, even though not required by law?

Prisoners of war

This time, however, to ensure that the elephants and all the other animals within the area are unable to break out, deep and wide trenches are being dug around the facility. When faced with starvation and death, elephants will still try and break out but this time they will die. They will fall into these trenches and break their spines or limbs and, unable to get out, will suffer lingering, painful deaths. With renewed political encouragement, trenches have also begun to be excavated around some of the national parks to convert them into vast holding grounds. Not only will the elephants of these parks die from starvation or in the long term from inbreeding, but so will many of the other larger mammals in these parks.

Apart from the conservation catastrophe these trenches will inevitably cause, they will also be of tremendous long term cost to the country. Right now, the main motivation seems to be the extraction of sand and soil by external contractors to whom this task has been given, allegedly for the government to save by not investing in their construction. In reality, it appears that political supporters are rewarded by the provision of soil for sale. They will have a lot of opportunities. With Sri Lanka’s weather patterns, every time the rains come, the trenches will fill with water and the sides will erode. The silt will have to be cleared at least twice a year. In the meantime, these water filled moats will pose an added peril to any wild creature trying to get out, especially the smaller ones who, with the steep sides, will be unable to climb out and will drown.

The Centre for Environmental Justice and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society have each taken separate court proceedings against the further construction of these fences and they have been halted for the moment but the Minister who championed this has been reappointed as Minister for Wildlife. The preservation of the future is not a priority of the present political regime.

What are the alternatives?

In 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa commissioned a Presidential Committee of all stakeholders – Statutory, Scientific, Conservation, Local Government, et al – to formulate an action plan for mitigation of the accelerating HEC in the country. That illustrious body, of which world renowned elephant researcher Dr Prithiviraj Fernando was the chair, agreed on a plan and presented it to the President in December 2020. Nothing happened thereafter. Humans and elephants continue to be killed. Instead, actions are taken on the whim of the ignorant and implemented by those whose prime motivation is self-survival.

The action plan was based on decades of scientific knowledge and research and on the inherent understanding and experience of those on the front line of the conflict. Some of these are as follows:

  1. Wild elephants occupy over 60% of the landscape of Sri Lanka, over 40% being outside of protected areas. Any plan had to take this into account and recommend actions that would enable that equilibrium to continue as this is the minimum area required by wild elephants for their continued survival in this country.
  2. According to present knowledge, electric fences are the most effective deterrent against elephants encroaching into an area. However, Sri Lanka has erected a total distance of fences that could circumvent this island over three times over. Yet, HEC has increased, rather than decreased, proving that these fences are mostly in the wrong places. Many of them are between DWC and Forest Department (FD) lands with elephant-friendly habitats and elephants on both sides of them. This makes nonsense of conservation management.
  3. The priority must be to save human lives. As such, it makes sense that electric fences should be built to protect human habitation and their cultivations. This is termed community fencing and the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) has successfully piloted this in over 60 villages in the North Western, North Central and Eastern Provinces with complete success. Fundamental to this success has been the involvement of the local communities in their maintenance and repair. This is done through village farmer associations that make a token charge from each beneficiary towards repairs. They also take their own disciplinary action against any member who breaches their responsibilities.
  4. Local communities must benefit financially from having elephants and other wild animals as neighbours. Apart from compensation for any damage to their crops or houses, they should also be able to benefit from the proceeds of wildlife tourism in that particular area and even from some of the vast financial income earned at any adjacent protected area; all to be used for community enhancement.

Change today to prevent horror tomorrow

Apart from significantly reducing HEC, these measures will also empower the local communities affected, reducing their reliance on perceived political beneficence while being no burden on the Treasury for maintenance funds for the fences. As is to be seen in the current situation, empowerment of the people is the last thing that the current politicians desire.

As with the future of the country, the fate of the wild elephant needs to be determined by the people of this country, especially the youth to whom the future belongs. Elephants are vital for the continued existence of the protected areas and their other residents and they play a prominent role in attracting foreign exchange to these shores. It is the young, however, who will appreciate their true value and worth, and the ethical need to keep them from going extinct.

As with the system of government, wildlife conservation too needs fundamental change with policies made and implemented based on science and research and driven by those committed to their primary responsibility – protecting wildlife for posterity. If this change does not take place, the horrors that will happen to the wildlife of Sri Lanka will make insignificant those that are currently being perpetrated at Horowpathana.