Photo courtesy of Newswire

Animal rights activists and conservationists are up in arms about a plan to send 100,000 toque macaque monkeys to China on the request of a private Chinese firm. The government says the monkeys are pests who attack farmers’ crops while activists warn that the animals could be used for scientific experiments or worse.

The toque macaque monkey is on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species.Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has said that that monkeys and five other wild creatures -peacocks, monkeys, grizzled giant squirrels, porcupines and wild boars – that destroy crops could be killed.

But environmentalists warn of the adverse consequences of indiscriminate and unscientific control measures since the monkeys play a role in preserving the ecological balance. They also contest the figures given of the monkey population and say that it could be as little as 200,000 so sending away 100,000 would halve the population.

The human population on the planet has been increasing at an alarming speed, tripling since the 1960s. Humans have been consuming more than their fair portion of every natural resource that is actually meant to be shared with all living things.

Since the industrial revolution, this excessive consumption of resources has led to the extinction of countless land and water based species. Although during the time of the ancient kings, Sri Lanka had been aware of the need to preserve its natural resources in a sustainable way, those treasured concepts based have been long forgotten as the incessant drive for development and profit drives policy decisions.

The degradation of habitats and the destruction of the environment has been rapid ever since the colonisation of the country by the British, who began exploiting our resources and taking what they wanted for trade and consumption by the west. When the British arrived, forest cover was 80 per cent and by the time they left it was barely 50 percent. This was the driving force for the extinction of many species. Today, due to the corrupt practices and short sighted policies and decisions of our politicians past and present, forest cover is barely 17 percent.

Sri Lanka has had the technology and capacity to build reservoirs in the centrals hills since ancient times but this was not done until the modern era. The construction of these reservoirs has resulted in  the destruction of forests that were home to elephants, leopards, wild boar, bears, cats, foxes, reptiles and insects. The development of agriculture is being done with heavy amounts of chemicals that pollute the soil and the rivers. Farmers continue to kill precious flora and fauna species, driving them to extinction with the degradation of critical ecosystems and habitats. Some species that have become extinct are unknown to us.

Myopic development has resulted in breaking the ecological balance in terms the population of certain species, which are seen as invasive. The public and politicians think that the number of monkeys, peacocks, elephants, wild boar, porcupines and sambar have increased but in fact these animals and birds have become more visible because they are being displaced from their habitats and are seeking food in places inhabited by humans.

Post-harvest losses amounting to 40 percent and some pre harvest losses mean that farmers produce twice as much fruits and vegetables as is consumed. Productivity is also low. The species that are called pests end up in human farmlands where food is abundant because land grabbed by people means that the wilderness is disappearing fast and with it, the availability of food for the animals and birds. With water catchment areas being degraded, there is a scarcity of water as streams and waterways are used for massive agricultural activities. The lack of food and water and habitat loss as well as many human activities in protected areas have resulted in animals becoming accustomed to humans and looking for food in farmlands, where it is abundant and easily accessible.

The human-elephant conflict and the human-leopard conflict are not conflicts created by animals but are due to the loss of their habitats caused by human beings expanding into their areas and over using the resources meant for every living being. The fundamental issue of habitat loss and the fact that their essential requirements cannot be fulfilled has not been addressed.

There is no scientific data to say that there have been increases of populations of the species referred to as pests. Coming out of forests to human settlements is their way of survival. We see them more frequently but this doesn’t mean the numbers have gone up dramatically. It is unfair that politicians and policy makers decide what to do with these so called pests without having the proper data to show that populations have gone up. In fact, they have gone down in the case of porcupines, sambar deer and purple faced langurs.

The population increase of peacocks started with their displacement from the dry zone in Hambantota as land was taken over for development projects. Peacocks are raised in temples and kovils since they have religious significance and sheltered from natural predators so their numbers increase. Monkeys are kept around temples where there is an abundance of food and they get used to humans. The temples request the Wildlife Department or private animal catchers to catch the animals who are then released into forest areas. Monkeys from Anuradhapura are taken to Ampara or Kurunegala where they end up coming to farmlands. The religious aspect is contributing to the over population of these species.

There are many other issues that should be addressed to deal with agricultural production such as productivity, post-harvest loss, availability and cost of  inputs and the general absence of good agricultural practices. The effects of climate change is also severe on agricultural crops such as paddy.

Earlier, farmers spent many nights in their fields protecting their crops from animals but now they stay at home, dependent on electric fences and snare traps. Crops are damaged anyway. With mega projects such as the Mahaweli scheme, elephants were displaced and their traditional grazing land have become paddy fields. In 2020, five Mahaweli areas consisting of tens of thousands of acres were given to companies for growing ten different types of crops including corn. However, this was land allocated as reservations to make up for forest land lost to the Mahaweli scheme. When these forest areas are being converted to farmlands where do the elephants, monkeys, sambars, porcupines, snakes and frogs go?

Politicians such as Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera see solutions in allowing the killing of these species, distributing guns and exporting monkeys and elephants. But these are cunning moves to cater to their voter base and appease farmers; they are not doing anything to solve the issue. The connectivity and migration of these animals must be protected so that they can live in the forests and their habitats must be enriched with whatever food they need. The Department of Wildlife must have  a proper programme to make food and water abundant for these animals and birds so that they won’t have to come into villages and destroy crops. They must not be bred in temples and kovils.

Farmers’ problems such as the lack of water, availability of inputs, transport costs, ways to protect their harvests from losses and compensation for crop losses should be addressed. The media has a role to play in speaking about these issues instead of concentrating on plans to export monkeys and elephants. Politicians must stop take decisions that continue to degrade the environment and put these species in danger and stop making misleading statements to please their voters. Policy makers and politicians must be held responsible for their actions. Instead of vilifying conservationists and activists, it is time that farmers, media and public blame the politicians who created the issue in the first place.