by Maneshka Borham
In a country that is home to an estimated 6,000 elephants, the current number of these gentle giants in the wet zone areas of Sri Lanka are few and far between. Once hunted widely during the Colonial period, the increasing human population in lowland areas with the land being used to grow cash crops meant, elephants were almost eliminated from the wet zones, save a few from the protected Sinharaja and Sri Pada forest reserves. Today, in the world famous Sinharaja Rainforest only two known elephants remain, making them a rarity.
However, a recent decision made by the Deputy Minister of Wildlife and Sustainable Development, Palitha Thewarapperuma to relocate these free roaming elephants to a holding centre located in Horowapothana, in the country’s dry zone has rung the death knell for these magnificent creatures, say wildlife experts and activists. The controversial move has even prompted environmentalists to call for the removal of both, the Minister and Deputy Minister of Wildlife and Sustainable Development, according to them, due to ad hoc decisions being made recently to the detriment of wildlife.
The decision made by Deputy Minister Thewarapperuma was his reaction to yet another death of a villager , Ulahinarachchige Podi Mahattaya (84) in Pothupitiya, Ratnapura, after one of the elephants in the area is said to have fatally attacked him during the night of May 20. According to villagers, up to date, 15 villagers have died, attacked by elephants roaming the area. With the recent death, a majority of the villagers heightened their requests for the elephants to be removed from Sinharaja. Calling a meeting with the village folk after paying his last respects to the deceased, Thewarapperuma promptly announced that the elephants will be relocated, amidst the applause of those in attendance.
Speaking to the media after the event, the Deputy Minister said, the best decision is to relocate the elephants to the Horowpothana holding center where he felt they would be better protected.
However, his announcement has managed to upset and enrage many conservationists and nature enthusiasts in the country.
As eminent conservationist and Chairman of the Centre for Conservation Research Dr Prithiviraj Fernando puts it, if carried out as decided, the elephants of Sinharaja would become extinct. “It would be a sad day as that would be the end of the elephants in Sinharaja” he said.
According to Environmentalist, Jagath Gunawardana the decision clearly appears to be politically motivated. “It is not a decision based on any scientific evidence or with the welfare of elephants in mind” he said.
Chairman of the Surakimu Sri Lanka Organization, Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera pointed out that while perhaps such swift decisions are attractive to the public, they are in fact very short sighted ones made by those who have no knowledge of wildlife and environment conservation. “Trying to be a hero before the public he has put the animals at great risk” the Thera said.
Gunawardana says, taking the elephants born and bred in perhaps the wettest area of the wet zone in the country to an alien environment of the dry zone in Horowpothana, known for its harsh climatic conditions would not bode well for the elephants. Firstly, the capture and transportation to the far off area can be traumatic to the elephants, who according to conservationists are known to be highly sensitive. “They are childlike and even hide among the rocks of the forest during thunderstorms as they are afraid of the lightning” one researcher said.
Gunawardana opines, it is not clear if the animals would survive the capture and transfer process itself, and if they do, more problems would follow, with them being taken to an area far from their familiar terrain. “The vegetation and feeding plants will be different to what they are accustomed to, causing issues” the environmentalist pointed out. According to him they would also become prone to various ailments such as breathing issues. Expressing his concerns on whether the animals can survive in such an unfamiliar environment he says, they may try to escape or get into tussles with other elephants in the area causing much more serious issues as a result.
Conservationist Dr. Fernando said, “The animal will not remain in an environment alien to it and will escape, and a majority of the time the animal dies from this traumatic experience”.
Meanwhile, experts have also expressed their concerns regarding the Horowpothana elephant holding ground. “We do not know how the elephants in that holding ground are faring” Dr Fernando said. Gunawardana too says he has no confidence in the facility as it is unknown as to how many elephants have escaped from it to date. “Either way, such a place is no life for an elephant, so keeping them there will not be for their benefit” Dr Fernando said.
While the human elephant conflict has been continuing from time immemorial Gunawardana says past decisions made in this regard must be revisited prior to taking drastic measures as suggested. In fact, Dr. Fernando says, most of the time human deaths from the conflict are preventable. According to him elephants do not roam around with the intention to kill humans. “The deaths are mostly accidental or due to the carelessness of the people” he pointed out. He says, it must be inquired as to how the recent death occurred to understand the root cause of the elephant attack.
Many conservationists feel, before making ad hoc decisions to relocate the animals to avoid more deaths, other solutions could be tested to resolve the issue. According to them the animals could be fitted with GPS collars which allows wildlife officials to monitor their movements. “We could monitor their movement patterns and see how often they venture into village areas” Dr Fernando said.
Ven. Ananda Sagara Thera suggests a wildlife beat office should also be established in the area where the elephants are known to roam. While the officers assigned could then monitor the animals, he believes it would also prevent poaching and other illegal activities in the area.
And if all else fails, others suggest perhaps, they could be transferred to an area in the wet zone instead.
However, while no exact date has been set for the capture and transfer, Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Chandana Sooriyabandara said, as a policy decision has been made in this regard, discussions will be held regarding the possible steps and processes prior to taking the animals to Horowpothana.
When asked, how suitable the holding ground would be for wet zone elephants, he said he could not comment as it is currently a controversial topic. Repeated attempts by the Sunday Observer, to contact Deputy Minister Thewarapperuma in this regard failed.
However, Ven. thera says, conservationists and environmentalists will not take the decision lying down. “We have organised a public petition and will also hold an environmentalists forum with over a crowd of 5,000 to fight these issues” he said.
But, many feel taking away the remaining elephants could also lead to the eventual destruction of Sinharaja. With poachers of all sorts fearing to venture into the forest because of the presence of the elephants, once they are gone they say things would perhaps take a turn for the worse. While one elephant was captured several years ago only to be released at the request of the people in the area. However, Dr. Fernando says, sadly the sentiment now appears to be that the elephants must go so that humans may remain in lands once home to these gentle giants.