Human-Elephant Conflict In Galgamuwa
Life is a constant struggle for the people of Galgamuwa, every day they scrape through their meagre earnings to make ends meet but today it has become a fight to secure their right to live. Last year they lost their harvest during both seasons of Yala and Maha and this year’s Yala has not been fruitful either.
But several people in Galgamuwa, facing constant poverty and hunger, have another problem to deal with. The issue has been none other than the human-elephant conflict which has been going on for the last 30 years. Despite media highlighting the issue, the authorities have not been able to provide a permanent solution thus far.
Both humans and elephants have stood steadfast, refusing to stand down from the conflict. Conflict is stirred when the elephant comes looking for its old habitat, now taken over by human settlement. The battle which has thus continued for decades has been most profoundly felt by the people of the Dummuluwawa village, belonging to the 37th Southern Grama Niladhari Division of the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat.
An age-old issue
The elephants did not arrive in their village recently. They have been coming since 1982. And though no definite solution has been offered since, the people have been constantly fighting with the elephants to protect their lives and property. Their main source of income has been Chena cultivation or through the cultivation of small plots but today most of their working hours are spent chasing away elephants.
“We have met all the government officers, begging that they stop the elephants from coming, finally we got them to build a fence. But the fence has not been of any use. I sometimes feel that money was wasted on this fence. We are facing more problems because of it”, said E.M. Ranjith Ekanayake, a resident of Dummuluwawa.
The fence has not been maintained ever since it was erected. Furthermore, Ekanayake feels that the government built it in a careless manner to pacify the villagers.
“The government spends money on this; the contractor steals half the money. In the end, we are the ones who suffer with the fence. To this day, there is no electricity provided to this fence. The fence is broken in a couple of places. They have not even taught us how to manage this. They don’t even change the batteries for this fence properly”, he explained further.
There are around 40 families that live in this village and most of them engage in daily labour. R. Sarath Kumara, a daily labourer himself said none of the politicians who came to visit them earlier have done justice to their vote.
“We struggle to send our children to school, but no one sees this. Politicians come here and promise the world to us and then soon forget us. The elephants come into the village through the broken sections of the fence and destroy all our crops. At times, they come between 6 to 7 pm. If the fence worked properly, we would have fewer problems”, he said.
Strangely enough, this now defunct fence was only built three months ago. L. Nelson Silva donated a part of his land for the fence, in the hope that it would serve the greater good but he now feels that he lost his land in vain.
“I did not think of my needs when I donated the land. But there has been no improvement. The man who got the contract did an awful job. The officials too said that he had done a good job and paid him. They constructed concrete pillars to erect the fence but the concrete is so weak that it can be broken with a piece of decaying stick. They have just built it with sand, concrete, aggregate and water. Concrete falls apart like a block of soil”, said Silva.
He further explained that though concrete posts need to be buried deep into the soil to withstand any pressure, the columns had not even been built at least half a foot high to be able to achieve that.
“They might even fall apart if a butterfly happens to land on them. They stand on the surface. The elephants find it very easy to break such fences”, added Silva.
Even though it is supposedly called an electric fence it has only been a namesake one.
“The electricity does not flow through it properly; we too touch these wires with no fear of being hurt. The rechargeable batteries in the panels don’t work either. They have never come to check on it after having first fitted it. We all got together and cleaned the area around the fence once, but as soon as a few rains came, the columns started to break. Some columns are still lying around on the ground”, said Silva.
E.M. Ranbanda came to the village seven years ago and during that period, his wife was attacked by an elephant causing her to go into shock, from which she has never recovered.
“The elephants at times come during the day when they feel like it. They destroy the harvest of a farmer who has toiled through the sun and rain. I don’t know for how much longer we can go on like this. We have not had a proper harvest for three seasons now and when we managed to somehow grow something after that, the elephants come and eat it”, Ranbanda complained.
Ranbanda was also worried of the fact that most of the children in the village returned home after classes in the evening, coinciding with the times that elephants came to the village.
“Though they call this an elephant fence, it is like a plastic fence. The elephants break it and we go and repair it”, he said.
Whilst Ranbanda worries of his grown-up children, Nadeeka Kumari is in constant fear for her new born. She lives in a small thatched roof hut with her baby and husband.
“With such a situation, we never know when we would be attacked. When the elephants come to the village, we all live in great fear. All I ask is that this problem be resolved soon”, she begged.
Problems with the Bureaucracy
An officer attached to the Galgamuwa Wildlife Office when inquired of this problem said, “This fence has not been handed over to us legally by the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat. If that was done, we would have undertaken the maintenance of the fence. The other issue is that the villagers have not informed us of this issue, so we are not aware of it”.
The Galgamuwa Divisional Secretary, Priyangani Pathiraja in the meantime said she would talk to the wildlife officials regarding the fence and take necessary action.
A. H. Sumanasekara, North Western Province Assistant Director of Wildlife Conservation Department explained that it was only in the recent past that the Wildlife Conservation Department started constructing fences.
“To be honest we have had problems in certain areas where fences were built. We have had complaints that batteries in the system had broken and I provided 10 such batteries recently”, said Sumanasekara.
He assured the Daily News that he would contact the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat regarding this fence and start investigations immediately.
“We will also compile a status report on this elephant fence. In that report we can get a clear idea about the fence’s current standards. Thus, I hope to work towards resolving this problem soon”, he added.
Since our inquiries into the fence, the Daily News has learnt that the Wildlife Office had sent its officers to inspect the fence and that they had begun investigations into it. Whether it is repaired or not remains to be seen. (M.M. Krishan Galgamuwa Correspondent – Dailynews)