Empathy for elephants | Daily News

Empathy for elephants

‘One can measure the greatness and the moral progress of a nation by how it treats its animals’
-Mahatma Gandhi

Due to the escalation of the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), the Wildlife Department recently announced that it is taking immediate steps to mitigate the problem with short term and long term measures. Alas! the immediate measure is to strengthen and increase electric fencing to enclose elephant habitats.

Although electric fencing is considered to be the most effective way of diverting elephants away from human habitats, elephants have shown intelligence in finding ways to effectively bring down electric fencing and cross over avoiding electrocution as evidenced in media reports.

One of Sri Lanka’s most eminent conservationists, Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research, gave a lecture recently titled “Are our National Parks, Sanctuaries or Concentration Camps for Elephants?” It was a shocking expose of how the elephant population in Sri Lanka is gradually perishing due to incarceration in ‘sanctuaries’ enclosed by electric fencing. He states that there is a significant lack of elephant fodder within sanctuaries to meet the demand resulting in gradual starvation of elephant populations.

Forest reserves

The contiguous elephant habitats of Udawalawe, Lunugamwehera and Yala are currently enclosed with electrical fences preventing access to neighbouring forest reserves managed by the Forest Department. Dr Fernando believes that if the forest reserves are opened to elephants, elephants will thrive due to unhindered space and adequate vegetation to forage thereby significantly reducing the HEC.

As mega herbivores, elephants require relatively large areas and diversity of environments to forage. It is estimated that an adult elephant consumes up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per day. Our lush tropical forests provide a staggering 116 plant species as elephant fodder.

It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia. However, as a small island nation with an increasing human population density and changes in land-use patterns, elephant habitats are being rapidly eroded. As a result, much of the present day elephant range extends into and overlaps with agricultural lands resulting in conflict with man.

Although the Forest Department and the Wild life Department come under separate ministries, there could be collaboration for expanding elephant habitats. The National Policy on Wildlife Conservation and National Land Use Policy are two important policies which form a part of the National Forest Policy which can be leveraged to facilitate collaboration.

Magnificent creatures

The tragic outcomes of the HEC are human and elephant injury or fatality, loss of livelihoods due to crop loss, grain storage damage and destroyed homes consequent to frustrated, hungry and displaced elephants on the rampage in human habitats. What can be done to correct this?

Since ancient times, elephants have been respected for their iconic role in our spiritual, cultural and economic life. Elephants have not only laboured for our economic well being but also played a venerated role as bearers of sacred relics in Buddhist religious pageants over the centuries.

The seasonal migration and the famous ‘Gathering’ of wild elephants at the ancient Minneriya Reservoir is considered one of the most stunning spectacles in the world. Undoubtedly, it is our moral duty to continue to act as custodians of these magnificent creatures as a national treasure for posterity.

It is tragic that the Sri Lankan elephant population has declined by as much as 65% since the turn of the 19th century with the current population down to an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 mainly on account of loss of elephant habitat. Now, it appears that the HEC has reached the tipping point in Sri Lanka. Each year approximately 50 people in Sri Lanka are killed by elephants and over 100 elephants are killed by farmers protecting their crops. According to conservationists, successive governments’ failure to give priority in addressing the HEC has resulted in a increasingly negative attitude to elephants by affected communities and their apathy or indifference to conservation initiatives.

It is indeed timely that reforestation has been given priority by the government through a tree planting campaign to increase the country's forest density from the existing 29 percent to 32 percent in the next three years. Deforestation mainly due to small scale farming, commercial plantations and human settlements are resulting in rapidly declining wild life habitats. Due to the variety of causes of deforestation, it is evident that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed to tackle the problem.

As opposed to electric fencing, less costly and environmentally friendly solutions to mitigate the HEC have been put forward by experts. As an immediate measure, they recommend awareness building among affected communities on elephant behavior patterns. In the medium term they suggest structured fencing with palmyrah palms averse to elephants and in promoting the cultivation of crops averse to elephants such as Chillie, Ginger, Citrus, Turmeric, Thibattu berries, Kohila and Sesame. In the long term, they recommend habitat enrichment by planting varieties of elephant favoured plant species and re generation of forests through a sustainable and environmentally friendly program.

The elephant conservation strategy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation aims at conserving as many viable populations as possible in as wide a range of suitable habitats as is feasible. This means protecting elephants both within the system of protected sanctuaries and as many animals outside sanctuaries that the land can support and landholders will accept, and not restricting elephants to the protected area network alone.

The proposed strategy of the Department of Wild life Conservation is to (1) manage the protected areas and their elephant populations in their current context, as the core of future elephant conservation (2) Manage areas outside protected areas, so that together with the protected areas, they form a contiguous landscape for elephants. They also recommend the management of unprotected areas by regulating Chena cultivation, so that traditional cycling regimes are preserved and permanent cultivation is prevented in order to permit natural re-generation of forests which provides elephant fodder. They recommend supporting Chena farmers, so that they derive a direct conservation benefit from elephants being outside protected areas, and consequent costs of having elephants in their areas, such as crop depredations, are offset.

Project to produce elephant resistant crops

The international wild life charity, Born Free has conducted a project to produce elephant resistant crops in Pallegama in central Sri Lanka which is claimed to be a success. The success story needs to be replicated in other HEC prone zones. Supported by Born Free, the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society is currently working with local communities in Wasgamuwa to provide orange trees for villagers – a sustainable source of income and a crop that elephants do not raid or trample.

The above mentioned cost effective and environmentally friendly solutions need to actively promoted through a coordinated effort led by the three state agencies referred to above. National conservation policy planning and the political will to implement same are the two most critical areas in the protection of not only our elephants but all of our wild life. Recognized globally as a bio diversity hotspot, not only do we have the moral responsibility to preserve this asset as a world heritage but also as an economic resource for the nation’s benefit.

In addition to the networking of relevant state agencies, all stake holders, local and international, who are direct beneficiaries such as the travel and tourism industry and those directly linked to wild life protection such as conservationists, environmental and nature protection societies, impacted communities as well as the local and foreign media such as Animal Planet, National Geographic and Discovery should be invited to participate with the government towards mitigating the HEC for their mutual advantage through advocacy, awareness building and display of commitment leading to sustainable wild life habitats.

(Dr Fernando together with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society appeal to the President Maithripala Sirisena, as the Patron of the Society, to initiate urgent action to save the elephant population of our country.) 

Add new comment