October 23, 2011, 6:51 pm By Ravi Ladduwahetty
Sri Lanka is one the thirteen Asian elephant range states and has around 2 percent of the habitat of the elephant population in South Asia, but, has over 10% of the population. This means that Sri Lanka is densely populated with elephants. Sri Lanka is an island with an expanding human population which means that conflicts are bound to arise. The most serious problem that has arisen in recent years has been the consistent encroachment of humans into the elephant areas. These are areas that these elephants having been living for generations, but with development pressures, there has been consistent encroachment of humans into elephant habitats. No opposition from ecologists Environmentalists are not at all against development in elephant populated areas, but the crying need of the hour is for proper planning, taking cognizance that there are elephants in the area! Projects have to be designed so that the conflicts are minimized between the humans and the elephants. All the conservation community is yearning for, is for the Government to recognize that the elephants also need to be protected in project areas. The cost of the elephant factor has also to be drawn to development project plans. The conflict has aggravated due to the fragmentation of forest land.
Elephants are a flagship species which means that if the habitat is suited for them, it suits other species as well. Extinction of elephants will also mean that other species fauna will also be under threat. Fragmentation of land and poor land use decisions, have resulted in creating this conflict, which keeps aggravating. Currently, between 50 and 70 humans are killed year on year due to elephants. Correspondingly, over 200 elephants have been killed by humans. This merits serious debate on the remedial measures.
Translocation, drives, radio collars, no answers The solution hitherto devised has been to translocate them or to drive them away from the human habitats and so- called development areas. This has been the ploy which has been adopted by the authorities for the last five decades or so. If that was the panacea for all the ills, should not be the conflict be less? The answer is a resounding no! On the contrary, it is going from bad to worse. Then, the strategy has to been reviewed.
Sri Lanka, like most other developing countries, has no monitoring mechanism for projects which would spell out the results of the management actions. Investments are continued to be made on management actions which have repeatedly failed. The Wild Life Department in consultation with the Centre for Conservation and Research, initiated a management action by installing satellite based radio collars on the elephants on certain translocated elephants. The data clearly revealed that translocations do not work, not only for the elephant but also the problems as well. When translocated, they become a bigger menace, attempting to return to original areas or create bigger problems in the new areas, ranging in a much broader area including the development areas. There are the large development projects for which elephant drives are created and where they are effectively driven away. Wild Life Department studies have also revealed that drives are unsuccessful as well. Both drives and translocations have been deemed unsuccessful and that is something that the Wild Life Department cannot be held accountable for. That is due to the Department having to be subject to political pressures and community pressures. The community pressurizes the politicians, who in turn imposes pressures on the Department and the solution meted out are the drives and the translocation, which, of course has a temporary short term gain. The community gets the perception that it is working. On the contrary, it does tremendous harm, especially for the she elephants and the babies but the department is helpless due to pressures. What the authorities are unaware of is that Sri Lanka is one of the best bases for research of the Asian elephant.
One of the solutions which have been devised has been the deployment of electric fences, which can work and are practical when they are placed in the right location. Over 70% of the electric fences are placed in the boundary of the national park and the Forest Department land surrounding it! While there are the administrative differences between the Wild Life Department and the Forest Department, the elephant does not realize that! When the elephant comes to the fence, it has food on either side. In fact, there is better food on the Forest Department side!! Elephants are known to prefer degraded forests. It is then that the elephant tends to break the fence and go out. Elephants, are intelligent and do not get stupidly electrocuted by knocking themselves against the fence!! Instead, they carry a long and place it on the fence, breaking it and they cross over! There are enough ways of breaking the fence. When they cross over, there is nothing to stop them from invading agricultural lands and villagers where they are on the war path. Electric fences have a role, but in the right location. They have to be placed in the ecological boundary and not on the administrative boundary.
One of the solutions could be allowing the villagers to do their farming leaving the elephant to roam the jungles, is one attemptable solution, rather than continuing what has failed over the last five decades. Reports, Policies not implemented The Government, the Minister and the Wild Life Department came out with the National Policy on Wild Life Conservation in 2006, which received Cabinet approval and which is one of the best conservation policies, despite few shortcomings, overall which is one of the best. However, the tragedy is that it is not implemented, but the department is playing the same number!
There was also a report which was compiled last year by the Departments and a group of experts and the Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa presented the report to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is no a carte blanche case of their being no solutions. They are not being implemented for what ever reasons best known to the authorities. The same tried, tested and failed strategies continue to get implemented. Monitoring has been paramount importance. These reports were prepared by the Government and technocrats in Sri Lanka and not by foreigners or donor concerns. It is easy for the arm chair critics who sit in plush air-conditioned in Colombo to lament that poor elephants need to be saved and that they should not be killed. But, putting oneself in the situation of the poor farmer who has to have his crops destroyed their houses and when even he / she are injured and/ or killed, is not the most unenviable experience that Colombo does not goes through. Farmers and village communities who are juxtaposed with wild elephant habitats are those who are the hands on people who are going through the issues. For them, they view the elephant as a threat and a menace and that too, without economic benefit! Asking these villagers to co-exist in that backdrop, does not make sense. Create economic benefits
There are also some ways that the villagers and the rural communities will want to co-exist with the elephants, and that would be, of the elephant brings some economic benefit to them. The Government should look that option of looking at and creating economic incentives so that perceptions of villagers cohabiting with the elephants will not be an issue of epic proportions of the five decades gone by. Dr Pilapitiya says that the villagers could be allocated a percentage of the revenue that is derived from the national parks as it is the case in some countries those go into community funds so that the communities who live in the areas under question, benefit. “There are some countries in which communities get Eco- System Funding Fees” he said. Community groups could also be used as stakeholders in the processes of elephant viewing. Certain times of the year, one would see few elephants even at Yala as most of them are outside. Why cannot community groups be involved in these areas take the tourists out and earn something? It is then that the elephant which is seen as a destructive element is seen as an economic asset.
Elephant viewing is seen as an ideal vocation in chena cultivations are harvested as degraded lands are the best for elephant habitats. Suggestions have also been made that more elephant habitats should be created inside national parks. Degrading forests inside national parks will be ideal for elephants but will have a substantial impact on bio-diversity. There are the forest areas outside the national parks in which farmers are in chena cultivation which are ideal for this. Elephant habitats in chenas One blessing. Chena cultivations create elephant habitats and develop good eco-systems indirectly. Politically, no sensible government will ever stop chena cultivation! One of the mainstays of nature based tourism is elephants. Chena farmers should get rewarded for this and that will also alleviate poverty among villagers. Other South Asian countries adopt this. Sri Lanka should look at such innovative ways. Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) should be transformed to Human Elephant Co-Existence which will be mutually beneficial. Surveys have shown that farmers have said that if the crop damage is minimized, then they have no issues with elephants.