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The struggle for survival in the vanishing wild


In a joke used to promote the versatility of the famous London Department store, Ronald Reagan calls up Harrods and asks to order an elephant; to which the clerk replies “Asian or African?” For most of us our knowledge of the types of elephant species ends there. Thus many people in the country who head towards Pinnawala assume they are seeing just another herd of   Asian Elephants. However, many are unaware that elephants found within the country are an indigenous species that is fast being destroyed by various intrusive human activity.

The Sri Lankan Asian elephant is referred to by the scientific name of Elephas maximus, Maximus distinctly separate from the Mainland Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus Indicus, found all over the continent.

Despite the valuable nature of these creatures, especially for Sri Lanka, there is evidence to suggest that the species might be in distress. The most significant such indicator is the rapid increase in the off-spring being produced by the Elephant population in Sri Lanka. It is generally accepted that an elephant comes into heat or its peak mating period around 6 times in its life span of 60 to 80 years. However the females of the Sri Lankan Elephant species are showing signs of reproducing at a faster rate.

The many reasons contributing to this catastrophic situation is the Human-Elephant conflict that has rapidly increased in the last 30 years. Although it is the elephant that is most often portrayed to be the instigator, it is human encroachment on land used as passages by the elephants for decades that has caused this clash.

“If I were a doctor I would not be able to prescribe to you medication unless I knew the root cause of your illness. Similarly we cannot solve the human elephant conflict unless we identify the root causes of it. The root cause of this conflict then, is the fact that we have built villages in areas that have been inhabited by elephants for thousands of years,” Elephant Conservation Expert Lal Anthonis told the Daily Mirror.

One such instance, as explained by Anthonis, was the case of the elephant corridor between Udawalawe national park and Bogahapattiya sanctuary being planned to be blocked by an electric fence. The fence was being built along the jeep track between Pokunutenna and Kavudali Ara in the eastern parts of the National Park. The clearing of this area was undertaken by the participation of the villagers of Alutwewa, Pokunutenna and Kotaweheramankada.

The construction of this electric fence would have blocked the Udawalawe-Bogahapattiya Elephant Corridor, sending the elephants into a frenzy, according to Anthonis. The Dahaiyagala Sanctuary declared in June 2006, with a land area of 2685 hectares. There are 28 tanks in this Sanctuary and the Pokunutenna, Ginimula Ara, Giniangawela and Diganpelessa tanks situated in the sanctuary are main water sources of elephants, all of which faced being blocked by the electric fence. Elephants migrate to this area frequently. Hence, this electric fence would have blocked the movements of elephants and this could have intensified the human-elephant conflict in the area.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunewardene warns of another impending disaster where a Banana plantation is about to be set up on the Northern Border of the Lunugamwerhera National Park. “Next to the park there is a State Land which is about 8000 Hectares and they intend on setting up a Banana Plantation there. Naturally Bananas are an attractive crop to elephants and when the caretakers attempt to ward them off they are sure to run into nearby villages,” he explains.

It is increasingly pitiful that we have begun to view elephants as the predators or instigators that destroy homes and belongings of villagers when it is our inconsiderate activity that has led them to desperation and soon enough destruction.

Because there is no escaping politics

Ernest Benn once said “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” How true these words are, especially in contest of the human elephant conflict in the country. Incorrect remedy after remedy has been prescribed by politicians to address the issue with little or no positive effect. In most cases the political prescriptions have worsened the situation, with politicians choosing to arbitrarily put up electric fences without proper feasibility studies, in the hope that their constituents and therefore chances of re-election remain intact.

“In 2006 an Elephant policy was put into place where there was an attempt to build fences in appropriate areas, after a feasibility study, driving out elephants from certain areas and the resettling of people to appropriate areas. However the latter was not possible due to political interference,” Gunewardena explained.

“Politicians are more interested in retaining their constituents and votes rather than resettling people away from harm and doing what is best both for the human and elephant environments,” Anthonis asserts.

However Gunewardena highlights some of the positives that came from the action plan that was previously implemented. “There were holding grounds established for the mature bulls or loners, who tend to create the most havoc- one was set up in Lunugamverhera and another is to be set up in Pitigala in the Anuradhapura District,” he explained.

The dividing up of departments has made it impossible for a holistic approach to be taken to the issue of conservation. “The Wildlife Department is under the Ministry of Economic Development, while the Central Environmental Authority and Forestry Department is under the Ministry of Environment- this will result in no proper action plan being put into place least of all being implemented,” he said.

The CITES Convention

Threatened with extinction, the elephant is theoretically protected from international trade by their listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1989.

CITES  is an international agreement between governments, drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1973 at a meeting of members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
~ ~ By Dianne Silva


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