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Habarana Elephant Deaths

Habarana Suspicions raised over elephant deaths

  • 319 were killed last year
  • 293 elephants have been killed during the first nine months
  • DWC should be made a politics-free, efficient body
  • Carcasses of 7 female elephants were found in Hiriwadunna

Sri Lanka’s dwindling elephant population is facing severe threats. This was evident when seven more female elephants in Habarana instantly breathed their last during September.

Although the incident once again nudged the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) officials to get their acts in order while the subject Minister pointed out that it was a serious offense, loopholes in laws printed in statute books need to be fixed first. Delays in passing the Animal Welfare Bill and amending the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO) are key reasons for the delay in bringing perpetrators to book.

Even if they are caught, the penalties are lenient. According to official data, 293 elephants have been killed during the first nine months of this year while 319 were killed last year. With less attention given to strengthening the law, whether Asian elephants would be listed as extinct in the near future is a reasonable doubt in the minds of animal lovers. In this backdrop the Dailymirror sheds light on the incident, allegations of a political hand involved in the matter and the thoughts of experts.

Habarana Elephant Deaths, Pics by Kanchana Kumara Ariyadasa

A tragic ending

Carcasses of seven female elephants were found in the Hiriwadunna, Thumbikulam Reserve in Habarana last month. While four of them were found on September 27, three more were found the following day. Postmortem examinations on several dead elephants were carried out and preliminary investigations have revealed that they had died of poison. According to wildlife officials, six of the seven carcasses belonged to lactating elephants and they suspect whether it had been a deliberate attempt to clip the reproduction cycle of the elephants. While the final report is yet to be submitted, the Government took the responsibility for the deaths. According to villagers, at the onset of the incident, one calf was seen near its mother’s dead body, trying to blow air into her mouth.

Grasslands near lakes and tanks need to be protected : Gunasekara

“We sent a letter to the President to take immediate measures to resolve the Kalawewa issue,” said Samantha Gunasekara, ex-Deputy Director of Customs. “The issue here is that because the water levels in Kalawewa – Balaluwewa keep increasing elephants don’t have access to their main mode of diet. During the dry period, grass that grows near catchment areas are one of the main diets of elephants. Nowadays due to excavation work in the Wayamba Ela, water is moving towards Kandalama and from Ibbankatuwa, they have put a canal for excess water to flow to Kalawewa. Therefore, elephants don’t have grass to feed on.

For hundreds of years the water levels have been maintained. Now the elephants have started moving towards the villages and people are chasing them away from within the tank area as well. This is a new development that has emerged due to the Moragahakanda reservoir. We suspect what happened in Habarana would happen in Kalawewa as well. On the other hand, if water levels are not maintained, it will also affect the ‘elephant gathering’ that happen in the area. People worry about their properties and people are aggressive. Government officials don’t take action on time and we have seen the repercussions. The grasslands in Somawathiya, Kaudulla and Minneriya play an important role and they need to be protected.”

I have no involvement in this matter : Gamage

The letter refers to the alleged involvement of Anuradhapura District UNP MP Chandima Gamage. But when the Daily Mirror contacted Gamage, he refuted allegations. Gamage said that it was JVP Provincial Councillor Namal Karunaratne who has put him in trouble. “Around three weeks before the incident, eight safari jeeps were taken out of the Kalawewa National Park on his orders. During this time, part of the fence was broken and as a result elephants had moved to the villages and damaged a 100 acre area of land. As a result some villagers also staged protests demanding compensation, but their requests fell on deaf ears. On the other hand people have done chena cultivation in places that the Mahaweli Development Authority has prohibited and people have demanded agricultural insurance. After the Jeep incident the park was closed and people haven’t allowed safari jeeps to function. It is still unclear how the elephants died and we are awaiting a final report.”

I challenge Gamage to prove that I was involved in this incident : Karunaratne

In his comments to the Daily Mirror, JVP Provincial Councillor Namal Karunaratne said that he didn’t mention Chandima Gamage’s name anywhere. “I said that a member of the governing party has been involved and if the hat suits him he can wear it. His people had gotten into a fight with DWC officials due to an incident regarding elephant crackers. Subsequently his people have stopped jeeps from entering the park and it was closed since September 15. I have videos and recordings with me to back what I am saying. It is a known fact that his people are involved in various illegal activities in areas around Kalawewa. These include brewing kasippu (Moonshine) to felling trees etc. Since elephants are a menace to them, they light crackers and chase away elephants who frequent the forest reserve. Therefore his link to the elephant deaths could be suspected. After all he’s an MP and he can use his powers to get things done. If he says that I have been involved in a safari Jeep incident that is absolute bogus. If he can prove what he’s saying I’ll give up all the work I’m doing. I’m a farmer and I don’t have powers like him.”

The least unlikely explanation is poisoning :Dr. Fernando

Preliminary investigations suggested that the elephants had died of poison, but elephant experts have raised doubts. “It’s highly unlikely that these elephants were poisoned, opined Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, a Conservation expert who has researched on Asian elephant conservation and management and is the Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research. “If someone was targeting elephants they should target males. Females move in herds. Although people have mentioned poisoning, no crop materials were found in their gut. In one photo I saw that the elephant had dropped dead instantly. This can only happen if the elephant is shot dead and it hits the brain or if they are anesthetised. The least unlikely explanation is poisoning. Killing elephants is illegal and whoever who did it needs to be punished soundly.”

We need an armed force to protect wild elephants : Champa

Raising her concerns, Champa Fernando, Secretary of Kandy Association for Community Protection through Animal Welfare (KACPAW) said that Tikiri died of old age and illness. “Saman died at 42 definitely as a result of being brutally abused by mahouts . He has fallen off a lorry some 12-15 or so years ago while being transported and was seriously injured. Although he was treated and revived, he was abused by mahouts. His fall would have had an impact later on. He grew up as a baby elephant at Pinnawala and was donated to the temple. All goes to show that we need to set up strict protocols on captive elephants in care, transport, wellbeing and retirement embodied in a national plan. There are no more babies to be given away. As for Habarana we need to get an armed force established for the protection of wild elephants. Establish efficient electric fences. There are very successful vertical ones set up by Kataragama and Hambantota Pradeshiya Sabhas. The DWC should be made a politics-free, efficient body. Those who did this need to be punished. It is important to investigate whether they were killed to fulfill a vow.”

Expert committee appointed to probe matter

During a press conference held last week, subject Minister John Amaratunga appointed a six-member expert committee to probe into the matter. The committee is headed by Deputy Director General of Animal Production and Health Prof. S. E Ranawana, Dr. L. H Dhammi – an expert in forensic toxicology, Dr. D. L Waidyaratne – an expert in forensic pathology, Manori Gunawardhana – an expert in elephant ecology, Dr. E. W. Y Lakshani – expert in agrochemicals and Dr. Ganga Wijesinghe – expert in veterinary science and pathology. According to the terms of reference, the Committee is expected to conduct an independent investigation to reveal the probable causes of deaths, provide scientific evidence for conclusions drawn and to probe migratory measures to avoid elephant deaths in future. The final report is expected by the Ministry in a month’s time. The Minister also assured tougher penalties to protect wild elephants and said that autopsies were sent to the Government Analyst, Veterinary Research Institute and Faculty of Veterinary Science of University of Peradeniya. The Government Analyst’s report will be submitted to courts this week.

Letter written to President

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