The plight of the lone elephant

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Her trees are cut and her habitat destroyed. So she came in search of food and fell into a well. Wildlife officers say she is a loner and that she was not with a herd. The villagers say she was attacking them and should be relocated.

Due to pressure by the villagers, a request was made to the Director General Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Chandana Sooriyabandara, by wildlife officers of the area. Soon after, the she- elephant was taken away in a lorry and translocated to the Wilpattu National Park (WNP).       

Environmentalists have now voiced their concerns as to why the DWC took a decision to translocate a female elephant, as there are no records of a she-elephant attacking villagers and causing a Human- Elephant Conflict (HEC).

Did the DWC take the correct decision by translocating the female elephant due to pressure by the villagers or should they have rescued the animal and released her back to the jungle?     

Convener, Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle, Supun Lahiru Prakash, says they were surprised and disappointed to hear the news, that the DWC captured and translocated a female wild elephant which was found in a pit in the Walaswewa area of the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat in the Kurunegala District, to the WNP.

Social behaviour patterns

“It is surprising that the DWC, which has been entrusted with the primary responsibility of wildlife conservation in this country, has taken the lead in doing this in an arbitrary, unfair and unscientific manner, without considering the social behaviour patterns of elephants. It is my understanding that this is the first time a female has been translocated in this way,” Prakash explained.

He said there is no evidence in Sri Lanka that female animals contribute to HEC and some of the mature male elephants are those who contribute to the HEC. “HEC management strategies are being implemented in Sri Lanka, focusing on male elephants. For example, only the problem causing male elephants are translocated or sent to open prisons such as Horowpathana. However, it has now been scientifically proven that such translocations or confining bull elephants into holding grounds are counterproductive in terms of HEC management or wild elephant conservation,” Prakash said.

It is totally unacceptable he says for the DWC to capture and relocate a female animal in order to control the people’s opposition, who say that it will cause HEC. “Female elephants spend their entire lives with the herd in which they were born and raised. Females never leave the herd and spend time alone. In such a background, it is a very wrong for the DWC to remove a female elephant from her herd and leave her stranded in an unknown area,” Prakash explained.

“We request informing the people and community leaders of that area of this reality and taking immediate action to send this animal back to her herd. We further emphasise that if any harm happens to the animal in the new environment, the DWC should take responsibility,” Prakash said.

Intelligence and close family ties

Former Director General, DWC, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said elephants are well known for their intelligence, close family ties and social complexity.

“Adult male and female elephants live in very different social worlds. Females live in family groups starting with mother-offspring units, closely associated with other related females and their calves.  These female led family groups live together because there is a complex network of bonds between individuals and families which characterises the lives of females and their offspring. Members of these family groups or herds are closely bonded and rely on each other’s support during their life,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.

He said extensive studies have been done on elephant social organisation for over 50 years in Africa by eminent elephant researchers such as Cynthia Moss and Ian Douglas Hamilton and more recently in Asia; largely in India and Sri Lanka. “All the studies ever done on elephant social organisation have emphasised on the critical importance of family groups for the long term survival of females. While resource constraints may temporarily result in smaller sub groups of the herd, these sub groups do get together and are always within reasonable distance from each other,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

He said that even when in sub-groups, research has shown that these sub-groups are in constant communication, largely through infrasound and it is essential that members of a herd are not separated and translocated out of their traditional home range.

Risk to their calves

“Herds which are female dominated generally do not cause problems to villagers or come into conflict with communities as they are risk averse due to the possible risk to their calves. However, when they are short of resources such as food and water or their traditional movement paths are blocked, they take risks that they normally avoid. In areas like Galgamuwa, where elephant habitat has been drastically reduced due to human activity, elephants, including females and herds have limited options for survival,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

So, they tend to come into conflict with people he says particularly due to crop raiding and in areas where elephant habitat has been fragmented and drastically reduced, there are records of females and female groups coming into conflict with villagers.

“Being a researcher who studies elephant social behaviour, my observations are that elephants try their best to avoid conflict among themselves within elephant society.  Elephants are not aggressive by nature. However, they react to external stresses. When we visit a National Park, we should observe elephants without getting “into their space”. We should observe elephants from a respectable distance so that we don’t disturb them. National Parks and Sanctuaries have been declared for wildlife and not for us. So visiting wildlife should be done without harassing them,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.

According to Dr. Pilapitiya, although there are instances reported where female elephants have behaved aggressively, what he has noticed in his over 50 years of working with elephants is that elephants, be it female or male, turn aggressive only when humans get too close to them or harass them. They also act aggressively if they have past experiences of being subjected to harassment by vehicles and people. 

People make elephants aggressive

“It is people who make elephants aggressive. It is very rarely that we find female elephants alone. They are generally with others in their group. But when resource constraints such as food and water exist, the herd breaks into smaller groups and sub-groups because it is easier to find food for a smaller group than an entire herd. The more severe the resource constraints, the sub-groups tend to be smaller, with us observing mother and calf units at times. However, on very rare occasions, a lone female has been seen, but most often it is very temporary. They join their sub-group after a short time.  I do my research in Minneriya, Kaudulla and Yala National Parks and I have observed lone females very occasionally and have seen them back with their herd subsequently,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

He added that female elephants are generally never translocated singly to an area out of their home range and that they are very social animals and need to be with the other members of their herd. “Translocating a single female out of her home range should never be done. Studies done in Sri Lanka on translocated male elephants have not shown success. Many have died or been killed by humans while trying to return to their capture location. A study done on effectiveness of translocating elephants in Africa in 2008 has shown that the death rates of translocated elephants were higher than that of the local population,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.

It has been demonstrated through scientific research he says that translocation is not an effective way to address conflict with elephants. “This complex situation is compounded significantly when a lone female is translocated out of her home range. There is no doubt such a translocation would highly stress the female and I am not sure whether she can survive without a herd. The officials of the DWC were placed in a difficult situation when the community in Walswewa insisted that the elephant that had fallen in a pit should be translocated because it was a ‘problem elephant’.  They may have even had political pressure in addition to community pressure. But the mandate of the DWC is the protection and conservation of wildlife and their habitats,” Dr. Pilapitiya said. 

Females should not be translocated

Dr. Pilapitiya is of the opinion that the DWC should know that a female elephant should not be translocated out of her home range away from her herd, because it can affect the female elephant severely. “While the community may say that this female is a loner, conventional wisdom and scientific information shows that such separations are temporary. As the guardians of this country’s wildlife, the DWC should have somehow convinced the people to agree to a release especially since this was a female,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained. 

Leaders in this particular community such as the clergy, school principals and other senior Government officials whose opinions have influence and who work closely with this village could have been approached and the importance of social grouping for a female elephant should have been explained to them in order to convince the community otherwise.

“There are donor funded projects that are operating in this area with provision for community based village fences and seasonal agricultural fences. It could have been negotiated with the community to allow the elephant to be released back into her own home range and that the DWC through these projects would work with the relevant authorities, like the Divisional Secretariat to provide a community based village electric fence to protect the community.  Unfortunately, political pressure on the DWC over the years has forced them to respond to people’s needs over conservation,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

Senior wildlife officials have condemned the translocation of the she-elephant and have questioned wildlife officers in the area for taking such a rash decision. But ironically Sooriyabandara is not of the same opinion.   

Threat to elephant

Sooriyabandara told Ceylon Today the female elephant had to be translocated as there was a threat to the animal’s life. “The villagers had identified this elephant as the problematic animal and once she was translocated the villagers had no problems with elephants. If the elephant was kept in this area and the villagers harmed her, the DWC would get the blame for not saving the elephant’s life. This is not the first time that a female elephant has been translocated. The DWC has translocated females in the past. There are no records of female elephants causing problems to villagers. However females have attacked people and become aggressive inside national parks,” Sooriyabandara said.         

He added that all elephants are monitored by the park wardens for a while after they are translocated and that is part of the duty entrusted to wildlife officials.  

Ranger I.M.G.Seneviratne who was involved in this operation told Ceylon Today that the villagers wanted the elephant removed from the area and the DWC took a decision to translocate the animal to the WNP. “When the villagers complain, we have to take action. I did nothing wrong and you can write what you wish,” Seneviratne told Ceylon Today.   

The DWC is well known for taking rash decisions with regard to wild animals and think they are the standing authority on wildlife. They don’t bother to contact the experts in such cases and take orders from villagers, when their priority is protecting wildlife.

“Seneviratne seems to have acted as if Sri Lanka’s wildlife is his personal property. It is very sad that the country’s wildlife is in the hands of such senior officers whose interest is protecting the villagers and not the elephants,” wildlife officers said.

By Risidra Mendis