Photo courtesy of Sameera Weerathunga

Today is World Wildlife Day

On World Wildlife Day, it is important to remember both the triumphs and the tragedies of conservation in Sri Lanka. One of these is the Uda Walawe National Park, which was established on June 30, 1972 after consistent lobbying by members of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS), led by its president, Thilo Hoffmann. They had noticed the large number of elephants that visited this place and who needed protection. The Director of Wildlife, the legendary Lyn de Alwis, had come to the same conclusion and strongly supported their cause. Yet, in the 1980s, hardly any wildlife enthusiast would visit the Park. Ease of access was, perhaps, one reason for its lack of popularity; it could take four to five hours of travel from Colombo on roads that were a far cry from the carpeted highways which take you there today.  There was also a dearth of facilities. Unless the two bungalows in the park could be booked or that of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society on its border, there was just a small, five bedroom guest house and the nearest other accommodation was in Embilipitiya, about 20 kilometres away. Vehicles had to be fueled up at Godakawela or Embilipitiya and the very few shops there were then did not have much except for the most basic of needs.

Then there were the varied descriptions of the place of degraded forests, teak plantations and plains with grasses so high that not even an elephant could be seen above the towering stalks. To cap it all, the elephants were supposed to be either so aggressive or so afraid that the few who would appear in an open space would either fiercely charge on sight or fearfully flee out of it.

As it was: a delightful reality

Hardly a hundred metres in from Park Gate, which was then just by the main road, the track crossed a much frequented elephant trail preferred by groups of young males who had left their natal herds and banded together for safety and company. It was not uncommon to see several of them either feeding on the grasses by the road or jousting in friendly combat to establish their future hierarchy.

Further on the road entered a forest of teak that stretched for a few kilometres along it, and a considerable way into the interior; their bark providing roughage for the elephants. Nothing substantial grows under teak except for grass. During times of drought, these areas provided shade and food for the hundreds of elephants who would seek refuge in the national park; the only substantial area in the region that still had food and water.

“It was late afternoon, in the 1980s, and driving around the edge of the now parched “Wewa Pitta” (Reservoir Bed)…the forest of teak trembled with the sounds and movements of a mammoth throng. The day cooled, out they tumbled, of varying age and size; they either grazed their way, or as with the younger, ran, for the cooling waters of the shrinking reservoir. These were my first sightings of the large herds of elephants for which Uda Walawe is now famous. We counted around 250 of them on that special evening. We stayed noiseless and still. Ours was the only vehicle there. The animals went around us doing what they had done for millennia in that place, just being elephants.” (Extract from Nature, 2012 by the author).

Life from the flames

The magnet for elephants was Uda Walawe’s grasslands; acres and acres of guinea grass that they feasted on at most times of the year and they were generally round and replete. In addition, the retreating waters of the reservoir left behind vast meadows of grasslands so that even in the harshest of droughts, there always was food and water for these beautiful creatures. It was not unusual to see two to three hundred of an evening, grazing in groups along the edge of the waters and then, as the shadows lengthened, cooling off in or slaking their thirst from this vital source of water. There were also far less feral buffalo in the park then.

An unexpected aid to the maintenance of these grasslands came from fire. When the grasses were at their driest at the height of the drought, lightning and other natural factors would set them alight. After the resulting burn, which could cover several acres, any moisture of even a heavy dew and the grasses would regenerate. Poachers would also intentionally set fire to the dry grass. The emerging sprouts attracted deer and other grazers who would be easy prey on the now clear plains. Once patrolling and law enforcement improved, however, the activities of poachers reduced but the necessity for fires, especially if controlled, had become an integral part of the health of the park.

As it is now: an ecological disaster

Most, if not all, of the grasslands have now gone, a legacy of almost two decades of mis-management and neglect. It also shows a lack of understanding that wildlife habitats have to be actively managed. It is now overrun by scrub with the remaining few small herds of elephants eking out a meagre existence from the scarce sprouts that spring between the Invasive Alien Species (IAS) that dominate the park. While the lone males are forced into nighttime raids into neighbouring cultivations, even defying the electric fences in search of adequate sustenance, the females and young suffer much worse. Many are nothing more than walking shadows of wrinkled skin draped over protruding bones as infant mortality rises with mothers not having the necessary nutrition to suckle their babies. What was once a haven for elephants, where a sight of them could be guaranteed at any time of the day, it is now a place of stark existence and possible extinction from this once elephant Eden.

There was a time when the herds of Uda Walawe could move out to adjacent habitats or even further, in search of food, allowing the park’s resources to regenerate and provide for the next season. Alas, many of these elephant ranges have now been encroached into, or blocked, and there is no escape without running the gauntlet of shotguns, trap guns, jaw bombs and thunder flashes.

Unheeded warnings

As far back as 2007 the authorities were warned of an impending disaster if the invasive species were not removed before they spread further, of the importance of reducing the feral buffalo and, most importantly, the significance of having controlled fires for the regeneration of the grasslands. Prior to this, a decision had been made to allow the Forest Department to remove the teak which had been knocked over by elephants when feeding off the bark; an adaptation to living in this unique habitat. Miraculously, most of the teak fell when the clearing was taking place and there are no longer teak forests in Uda Walawe, just invasive scrubland.

At that time, offers were even made to assist the authorities, with no cost to them, to aid with the manual removal of these invasive species as the mechanical methods only encourage their further dispersal. This was refused and the results are now there to be seen.

Instead, especially after someone with power expresses an opinion, they resort to mechanical removal using earth moving equipment, eliminating both the good and the bad, with the roots of the aliens still active in the ground to sprout back up again, sometimes within weeks of clearing. It is a well-known scientific fact that areas that are mechanically cleared of IAS and exposed to direct sunlight creates ideal conditions for them to dominate the aftergrowth as native species find it difficult to compete. Huge amounts of money are spent on this, funds that could be used for essential conservation rather than pandering to the needs of the ignorant, which has destroyed this park.

Of course a committee of researchers and scientists was formed to advise on what to do. However, while it takes an electric saw or a bulldozer just a matter of hours to destroy a natural habitat, nature does not recover as quickly. It may take decades or even centuries to repair even with informed human intervention. Those in authority and their subordinates cannot wait that long. Of course, nothing came of the learned proposals of science. As with many other such they lie on an official shelf gathering dust while the natural world disintegrates in those places the officials are supposed to guard.

As it could be again: There are no quick fixes

If a comprehensive programme of restoration is commenced today, it would take a minimum of 10 years to restore the park, even partially, to what it was before but such a programme is a vital necessity if not only the park, its wildlife and elephants are to be saved but also the local economy of the surrounding communities who are deeply dependent on its healthy existence. In the nearby Lunugamvehera National Park, the Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO) have been undertaking an IAS removal programme for the past couple of years. FEO engaged in the manual removal of only the invasive species, roots and all, and immediately burnt them. In addition, they would follow this up a few months later and any seedlings that had germinated were treated in the same way. With the rains came the miracle of resurrection as grasses and native species re-colonized these areas attracting not just elephants back to them but deer and other grazers and, in their wake, leopards.

FEO’s efforts were self-funded, by corporate sponsors and concerned citizens. Contrast this with the Department of Wildlife’s (DWC) efforts in the same park, with the aid of World Bank funding. Despite everything they persisted with the mechanical removal of these species and, in a short while, even more of them grew back. It remains a wasteland of alien scrub while indebting the nation to pay back the funds spent on this futile exercise.

The stark reality 

The complete lack of positive intervention by the concerned authorities seem to indicate that they have given up on their role as guardians of the wildlife of Sri Lanka and are just letting them be killed or starve to death. Elephant deaths have soared to record levels; an embarrassment to a country that hosts a unique sub-species of the endangered Asian Elephant and leads most of its tourism advertising with pictures of them. Preservation of position and protection of pensions seems to dominate reasoning. There is but one way to do this; pander to the whims and fancies of your political masters.

Rather than the plump, contented herds of elephants that once filled this park with life and purpose, the following is the most likely sight for a discerning visitor to behold:

“A squawking, squabbling murder of crows, accompanied by a less vocal but slavering pack of village curs were all that she had for her funeral wake. However, theirs was not a grieving gathering of those whom she loved, and who loved her in return, but a clamouring throng who had already begun to celebrate her death in an orgy of feasting. Emaciated and starving, wrinkled skin draped over skeletal frame, she still had sufficient meat on her to feed the gluttony of these scavengers, at least for a day or two.  For she was just a few months old!” 

If this is not to be re-written for the last elephant of Uda Walawe too, something must be done, and now, or a similar epitaph will have to be penned for the local economy and communities.