Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman of a NGO specialising in research and conservation in the country in an interview with Daily News, recently spoke of the proposed Human-Elephant conflict (HEC) prevention programme of the Wildlife Conservation Department(DWC) and explained the would be the results of the venture on the basis of surveys conducted by his conservation and research institute.
Human-elephant conflict annually causes the death of around 70-75 persons and around 250 wild elephants.
The economic losses and lost opportunity costs incurred as a result of HEC increase rural poverty and impede socio-economic development. For over 70 years HEC mitigation has been based on limiting elephants to wildlife conservation protected areas. This approach has completely failed and currently, over 70 per cent of wild elephants are outside the DWC areas.
Prime to limit elephants to DWC protected areas causes an increase in HEC and the deaths of large numbers of elephants, Dr. Fernando insisted. He said that while electric fences are the most effective tool for preventing raiding by elephants its use as a DWC boundary marker has resulted in their failure. Currently, over 60 per cent of over 4300 km of DWC electric fences is between the Wildlife Department and Forest Conservation Department areas. Those are being maintained by the DWC and the Civil Defence Department. There are elephants on both sides of most of these fences. Such electric fences are ineffective in mitigating HEC as there is no barrier between the elephant on the outside of these fences and the village.
Q. According to your view, what is the human-elephant conflict?
A.) As it affects both the people and elephants, it is known as the human-elephant conflict in brief. The farmer community especially is worse affected due to the destruction of crops and belongings, physical harassment and mental agony. The wild elephants get killed too.
It is a pity that the effects on wild elephants are on the increase due to some short-sighted strategies being adapted for controlling the conflict.
Q.What do you see as the main reasons leading for the increase of human elephants conflict?
A.) Mainly agricultural development activities taking place in the habitation zones of wild jumbos for centuries. On the other hand, male baby elephants leave the herd after they mature preferring to live in solitude. They are so often observed invading the villages thus promoting the human-elephant conflict.
Q. How do you comment on the Wildlife Conservation Ministry’s human-elephant conflict prevention programme?
A.) In addition to the current protective electrified fence system, 4,349 km in length, the government has considered erecting an additional fence. Through a proposal, they plan to construct another 2,651 km long electrified fence thus separating wild elephants totally from the lands used by human beings.
The other step is to recruit 5,000 civil security officers armed with modern firearms to be detailed in guard duty to protect electrified fence and to grow grass for the consumption of wild elephants being confined to the area covered by the electrified fence.
There is another proposal to imprison the wild elephants staying out the electrified fence in elephant holding grounds. This is totally an unproductive, unprincipled and contrary to the cultural and religious concepts of the country.
These proposals would jeopardise the life of around 4,000 wild elephants while worsening the conflict. These proposals are not practical, scientific and realistic.
Q. What is the present situation with regard to both humans and elephants who live in these ‘conflict’ ridden areas?
A.) Good question indeed. Our surveys have revealed that at present humans and wild elephants live together in 44 per cent of the country’s total landscape (in 70 per cent out of the total elephant’s habitation zones)
There are only 18 per cent forest cover and wildlife conservation reservations where human activities are not found (30 per cent out of the wild elephants’ total habitation areas). If the said plan is to be a success the wild elephants around 4,000 heads maintain their traditional habitation in 44 per cent of the country’s total landscape should be driven away and confined into the above referred 18 per cent landscape.
Q.Could you explain these elephant driving away programmes?
A.) Today this exercise is limited to just a phenomenon where hundreds of men, having gone interior of the jungle, behave themselves quite an irresponsible manner, harassing and frightening the wild elephants by shouting, blasting thousands of elephant crackers and sometimes shooting them.
Once driven away such authorities have planned to erect an electrified fence around the reservation. These so-called elephant driving away operations executed by the Wildlife Conservation Department for the last 75 years have proven utter futile and unproductive.
The main reason is that the problem-creating male elephants can’t be so easily driven away. Only the baby and the she-elephants who are not contributing to the human-elephant conflict are being disposed of or driven away. The failure is reflected clearly by the fact that today 70 per cent out of the country’s elephant population living outside the wildlife reservations. Also, there is no single area where there are no elephants. Resulting from the fruitless driving away operations the wild elephants spared in the haunting areas, become more aggressive and respond violently to the people. Also due to the unwarranted driving away operations, non – violent elephants become violent and the stubborn ones converting to killers thus gaining an international reputation that our country is in the forefront as far as human-elephant conflict concerned.
Q. There is a talk that jumbos are getting killed or assassinated due to driving away operations. Is it true?
A.) In the reservations to which the herds of elephants forced to occupy, there are a number of wild elephants permanently living in those but due to the increasing number imprisoned in the limited reservation, they face scarcity of food and water causing them to starve and die. Such incidents have been reported from Lunugamwehera and Thabbowa Wildlife Reservations.
Q. There is a programme proposed to start grazing lands to an extent of 15,000 acres. Will it help to enhance food for elephants?
A.)The grass growing programmes done in Udawalawa, Lunugamwehera Sanctuaries were unsuccessful. Also, the grassland limited to 15,000 acres is only sufficient to feed nearly 150 elephants. In brief, 4,000 wild elephants scheduled to be ushered into reservations under the proposed plan have to make their sustenance on the grazing meant for 150.
Q. What is your view of the elephant holding grounds?
A. For an example, the elephants holding ground at Horowpothana is an utter failure. It is learnt that only a very few elephants stay there currently, while others either deal or expire mainly due to hunger.
Scientific research has shown that a Sri Lankan elephant habitation site requires an area of 50 – 660 Square Kilometres – whereas the total landscape of the Horowpathana holding ground is 20 square km. It is learnt further that the Department seeks to imprison 100 wild elephants in this tiny space. In other words, the holding ground is an open prison camp for elephants. This unfortunate situation results in the dwindling inbreeding and loss of environment friendly services rendered by elephants as such when looking through a conservation angle there is no difference in imprisoning as such or shooting them.
Q. What is your view on the 2006 National Policy on Elephant Management? Is the new conflict prevention program in conformity with that policy?
A. The National Policy was launched in 2006 to decrease human-elephant conflict and save the lives of both parties etc. The policy proposed a strategy for allowing both human beings and the elephants to co-exist. The cabinet approval was granted for the policy. In 2017, some amendments were done. It is unknown whether the cabinet approval was received or not. The proposed conflict prevention programme planned by the Wildlife Conservation Ministry is not in conformity with the said national policy and it is a non-ethical uncivilised plan contrary to the scientific research findings and agreements. Also, it will be a great blow to the human-elephant conflict management and the conservation of elephants and tuskers. The government shall not deviate from the 2006 National Policy.
Q. Are there any proposals to prevent the conflict?
A. There shall be the newly introduced community based electrified fence system promoted to prevent elephants from invading the paddy fields and the habitations. There will also be constant awareness programmes for educating stakeholders.
The elephants shall be dressed with G.P.S. satellite belts for gaming continuous information about their pattern of roaming about and living. The negative effects caused by elephants towards the development programs and vice versa shall be well looked into and take action to thwart them. The pilot electrified fences adhering to the new strategy in north-western, eastern and southern provinces have proved highly successful and practical there are at present 36 permanent fences around villages and 25 temporary electrified fences around paddy fields being maintained. The community entrusted the maintenance of them.
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