By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
‘Unique’ within an already ‘unique’ group – this is what the last of the two Sinharaja elephants are!
As there was a deadlock, with President Maithripala Sirisena issuing instructions that moves to translocate (take from one place to another) the pair of elephants be halted forthwith and Wildlife Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka insisting that they need to be translocated, environmentalists are urging a permanent solution to ensure that the elephants remain within the Sinharaja Rainforest.
This was while UNESCO has informed Sri Lanka that no flora and fauna should be removed through man-made actions in this World Heritage Site and Man and Biosphere Reserve, said environmentalists, who pointed out that Sinharaja is also a National Heritage Site which gives it maximum protection.
Such declarations on Sinharaja make it unique, with all flora and fauna including the two elephants becoming unique as well, the Sunday Times learns.
Giving voice to what measures can be taken to protect the two elephants in the Sinharaja Rainforest, the Convener of Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesingha said that several solutions are there which could be mixed and matched as it is essential to protect them.
“Those who are loudest about translocating the two elephants are people who seem to be involved in illicit activity such as clearing of the forest, logging, sand-mining, bio-piracy, encroachment and the kasippu business,” said Mr. Wijesingha who spends much time in the area.
This is because the elephants are a hindrance to their nefarious activity, he pointed out, adding that in recent times the human-elephant encounter has increased in the area because more people have settled beyond Sinharaja’s boundary, blocking the pathways used by the two elephants. However, 90% of the people living in the affected area do not want the elephants to be removed. It is only those who are into illegal activity who are clamouring for this.
Recalling that in 2008 too there were moves to capture these elephants, he reiterates that a permanent solution is a must.
Among the many solutions, Mr. Wijesingha proposes, is the collaring of this pair. “But they should be GSM collars which transmit real-time data on the location of the elephants and not the traditional GPS collars as with the latter there is a time-gap in getting information on their movements. If the authorities can work with telecommunication service providers and get real-time reports, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) can monitor the elephants closely.”
He points out that there is no need to know the movements of the elephants each minute of the day, but only when they are about 5 km from a village. An alarm system with software apps providing parameters can be installed in the collars, as otherwise the batteries of the collars will burn up very fast.
This alarm can be geared to send SMSs to the DWC as well as to the community leaders in the villages to give them alerts that the elephants are close-by, says Mr. Wijesingha, pointing out that at recent meetings an affected villager had suggested a simpler solution, that of putting bells around the necks of the elephants. “Even though people laughed him off, it is a good early warning system of elephant presence, so that people can be careful, if the bells are not a hassle to the animals.”
Another crucial point that he raises is that of street lighting. The areas are very dark and though this came as a proposal about eight years ago nothing has happened.
he lights will prevent villagers coming upon the wild elephants suddenly.
Along with this, he underlines the importance of cutting the manna grass which has grown about 8-10 feet. This will help give a clear view to villagers what lies beyond, on the sides of the road, as has been done in areas atop the hill. This could be strengthened by having electric fences in certain strategic points to guide the elephants, when crossing to other areas, on paths away from human habitation. These fences should not be all over the place, as the terrain, which is hilly and not flat, should be considered in this situation.
Mr. Wijesingha is also of the view that the DWC should look into the possibility of growing delicacies, such as coconut, banana and kitul that elephants enjoy, in little groves away from human settlements so that they would stop there for the food and not venture farther.
Looking at the situation from a humane angle, he says that as these two bull elephants do not have any cow elephants to be with, they are stressed, which manifests itself as aggression. May be even a pair of domesticated cow elephants from the Wet Zone and of the same generation should be introduced to them. It is not an easy task, but at least it should be tried out.
About 30 years ago, according to Mr. Wijesingha, there had been reports of about 17 elephants, most probably with adequate female companions. Gradually, their numbers have reduced and ultimately there were three, one of which is said to be a female. No one knows what happened to the third elephant. Now the two which are left have become angry and disgruntled, which is aggravated due to human activity such as lighting of fire-crackers, throwing acid at them and placing cruel nail boards in their path to severely injure and harm them etc.
He adds that even though there is a big hue and cry about the human-elephant conflict in the area, the numbers speak for themselves. One person had been killed in 2016; 2 in 2017; and 1 this year.
The incident this year, which though tragic, gives a strong indication that people need more awareness on how to co-exist with wild animals. The man who was killed in this human-elephant encounter had left the safety of his home to defecate, without a torch or lantern and had come upon the elephant suddenly.