Photo courtesy of WNPS

Today is World Environment Day

Policymakers cursed with a lack of original thinking, especially with the possibility of elections in the offing, resort to knee jerk reactions to long standing problems rather than seek informed advice and have the patience to wait for success. This, of course, is unrealistic in this day and age of politics where ideology has long been suppressed to the individual ambitions of the elected representatives of the people. That vote, that ever necessary tick on a ballot sheet, is vital for the perpetuation of personal power. Once that is “purchased”, then damn the promises made and any vestige of ethical principle that may have prompted them, that is until the whole self-serving cycle comes around again; back to a time of political pledges and of damning the future for immediate need.

In February 2023, having for decades and decades, made the wild elephant the bogeyman of crop depredation, the authorities finally admitted that the damage they did to crops and cultivations was of a much smaller percentage than that done by other, much smaller wild creatures – birds and animals – both with a much less significant physical presence than elephants. And so peacocks, monkeys, giant squirrels, porcupines and wild boar were taken off the protected list and farmers are authorized to use any measures necessary to tackle the problem.

The government is now making one such tool of destruction freely available to them – firearms. The claim made is that excessive research has apparently been conducted both in Sri Lanka and overseas and that there was no other solution. There was no reference made, however, to the sources of such a claim and no researcher has come forward with a published document to confirm this assertion. This is probably because no self-respecting scientist would place their name to such an ill-conceived plan without substantial evidence to prove it. In fact, it seems that this is a decision driven by politics, the desperate kind, fed by the knowledge that a political wilderness awaits any who would lose at the next free electoral ballot, whenever that may be. This decision is certainly not motivated by the findings of science and research and Sri Lanka can boast of several renowned and independent academics in this field, human-wildlife conflict, who seem not to have been consulted. Many of them have decades and decades of experience and the findings of research to inform their views.

Not the first time

This is not the first time that guns have been prescribed for conservation purposes. In 2018, the then minister decided that the elephant population needed to be halved. That would have meant the culling of over 3,000 elephants. As an alternative, they were to be enclosed into protected areas to starve to death with armed guards patrolling the electric fence perimeters to ensure that no elephant tried to break out, to survive. It must be remembered that the Sri Lankan elephant is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Fortunately, not least because of negative public opinion and a fortuitous change in government, this was never implemented and today it is widely acknowledged that the sensible thing to do is to protect and fence in villagers and their cultivations in areas where they have wild elephants as neighbours. This has been tried and tested, and works – research and pilot projects pioneered by one of the foremost elephant researchers in Asia, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR). Sadly, the relevant authorities are reluctant to make whole scale adoption of this proven method. Why, one wonders?

Indiscriminate killing

The problem with indiscriminate killing is that when the gun is held by someone unfamiliar with the specific identification of species and of the connectivity that these creatures have with every other living being in the habitat they share, that the innocent and invaluable are often slaughtered with those prescribed as the problem populations.

In the case of armed conflict between human and wild animal, it is a one sided battle in terms of numbers and of arms. Very few wild animals have the ability or the intention to kill humans and even then it is usually a reaction to physical or aggressive contact with humans. They cannot bring a human down at several hundred feet as a human can, with a gun. Neither do they have the ability to shout out their innocence prior to the deed being done; the error is usually found after the creature has been killed. In most cases, the perpetrator does not care.

There is also the continuing demand for game meat, especially from those who visit these areas from the big towns and cities. How many deer and sambhur and others will fall victim to these new, government created poachers? Killing wild animals will not alter the basic economics of the relationship between the buyer and the seller with the producer at the bottom of the earning ladder. Which farmer could resist a now legal avenue to earn an extra income?

There are 33 endemic species of birds in Sri Lanka, 20 of which are classified as endangered. Some are found in home gardens and cultivations, are they to be killed? Of the 522 species of birds currently recorded, 19 species are listed as being critically endangered, 48 endangered and 14 vulnerable. Parakeets are frequent visitors to cultivations, especially when kernels are ripening on the stalk or fruit maturing on the tree. In addition, it is estimated that if there is a two degree increase in global temperature, as seems likely with the present warming trends, the populations of many of these endangered birds could decrease by as much as 90%. Human killing will diminish these numbers even more.

Of the other delisted animals, any worker in sugar cane plantations will tell of the importance of peacocks and wild boar in controlling serpents in these dense growths. Without them, the lives of cane cutters could be endangered.

Some 100,000 macaques monkeys were to be exported to China, allegedly to zoos. This has received widespread media opposition and legal action, especially as it is unfeasible for such a number to be sent to the existing, recognised zoos in China (just 11). On the other hand, this species is in great demand for medical research and as other countries who host this species reduce their export of them, on humanitarian grounds, it seems that Sri Lanka is ever ready to fill the supply for this niche market.

Of the three types of monkeys found in Sri Lanka – the grey langur, purple face leaf monkey and macaque (toque monkey) – the purple face is listed as being endangered. How many lay people can easily distinguish between the grey langur and the purple face?

There has been no comprehensive study carried out to survey the real number of any of these species in Sri Lanka. How then does anyone know if there number has increased or is just concentrated in specific areas, merely giving that impression? For example, a visit to many holy sites scattered throughout the country witnesses sight of monkeys being fed by humans as an act of pious almsgiving to another living being. See the number of monkeys gratefully accepting this bounty and one could be forgiven into believing that the whole country is teeming with them. However, a visit to the nearby forests will see them empty of these primates. Monkeys, like all animals, are in a constant quest for food and survival. When humans provide it abundantly and with no danger to them, then it is to be expected that they will flock to these areas. It is ironic that a day later, should these same monkeys stray into a cultivation that they could now be killed by the same pious benefactor who fed them just the day before.

What can be done

It must be recognised that farmers do have a problem with losing their crop to wild animals. Fundamental to this is the inability of the authorities to realise that prevention is better than cure and that the prime reason for this intrusion of wild animals into human cultivation is for survival, as their previous sources of sustenance, forests and other wild habitats, have been encroached into and destroyed. Ironically, most farmers will give the same reason for this sudden increase in animal visitations. Yet, they are offered quick fixes that are not sustainable and cause more harm than good, for both human and wild animal.

So what can be done? When the matter of capturing 100,000 macaques for China first became public, it transpired that as far back as 2017, a workshop had been held on the human-monkey conflict. No fewer than 40 participants representing all categories of stakeholders, including relevant government departments, scientists and researchers, came up with a set of comprehensive strategies to help resolve the problem with both short and long term plans. These included, among others, the following:

  1. Enhancing the capacity of the public to address human-monkey conflict
  2. Mainstream required action into the work programmes of various agencies
  3. Planned land use
  4. Protecting and enriching viable monkey habitats
  5. Avoiding destructive methodologies
  6. Promoting research that assists addressing the human-monkey conflict
  7. Provide legal support
  8. Communicate and educate to achieve behaviour change among human communities
  9. Adopting a planned approach

Unsurprisingly, this was not implemented, possibly because it required long term strategies based on scientific research, hardly convenient for a select group obsessed with quick solutions. Yet there are no swift resolutions when dealing with systems that have taken millennia to evolve that have been destroyed in just a matter of decades by illogical and self-serving policies, plans and development. If a meaningful solution is to be found, then similar such research and discussion as suggested for wild monkeys must be used for the other animals in this doomed group too.

Present farming techniques and methodologies are some of the least productive in earning a farmer a maximum yield. These methods need to be re-visited and efforts made to re-educate the farmer to more efficient ways of making the most from their lands.

Sri Lanka needs wild animals. See any tourist brochure advertising the beauties of the natural bounty of this island, and the reason is self-evident. See its rivers, lakes and abundant ocean surrounds, all existent due to a balanced eco-system in which wild animals play an integral part in their creation, and its logic is clear. The people need wildlife and the wilderness for their continued existence.

As with all human-wildlife conflicts, it is humans who have created them by destroying the balance of nature that existed before so humans must resolve them. Sri Lanka desperately needs development. The present and impending destruction could all be avoided if this advancement is approached with proper planning with at its heart, compassion for those creatures who depend on us. It is not too late to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.