Elephant Relocation Does Not Work
By Buddhika Samaraweera
Another phase of the ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandarak’ Programme, to find solutions to problems faced by the rural people, was recently held in the Karuwalagaswewa area in the Puttalam District, under the patronage of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. One of the main issues brought to the attention of the President, by the villagers, was the problems caused by wild elephants.
The President giving a patient ear to the grievances of villagers instructed officials to drive the elephants living in the area into the Wilpattu National Park. However, villagers and environmentalists have pointed out the futility of driving away elephants to other areas, saying that such a programme would not successfully resolve the human-elephant conflict.
A number of similar attempts were made in the past; the first of which was the driving away of about 21 elephants from Angunukolapelessa to Gannoruwa forest areas in 1974. In the second instance, about 130 elephants in the Mahaweli H4 and H5 zones were driven away to the Wilpattu National Park between 1978 and 1979, but about 40 to 50 of them had returned to their homelands.
Between 1982 and 1983, about 76 elephants in the Resvehera Forest area and the Mahaweli H2 Zone were driven to the Wilpattu National Park, but seven to ten of them returned and more than 100 of the 150 elephants driven from the Mahaweli B Zone to the Maduru Oya Reserve in 1988 returned to their homelands, making it clear that driving away elephants was not a feasible solution to the human-elephant conflict. Nearly 250 elephants were driven away to the Udawalawe National Park for the Sevanagala Sugarcane Project in 1989 and about seven to 10 of them had returned.
Also in 1990, about 62 elephants from Laggala and Naula areas were driven away to the Wasgamuwa National Park area, but almost all of them had returned to their homelands. About 22 of the 65 elephants that were driven away from the Pubbiliya area to the Wasgamuwa National Park in 1990 have returned, while in 1991, 60 to 70 elephants were chased away from the Bundala and Gannoruwa areas to Yala Block 4 and all returned, according to data of Wildlife Department.
When Shanuka Sandaruwan, President of the All Ceylon Wildlife Officers’ Association (ACWOA), was asked about the proposal to drive away elephants in Karuwalagaswewa to the Wilpattu National Park and its surrounding areas, he said the project was not feasible. He also said even if it is implemented, it will not be possible to find a lasting solution to the human-elephant conflict.
He also said a large number of elephants were already living in the Wilpattu National Park and the surrounding areas, adding that elephants would not have enough food and space if some more elephants are to be driven. He said due to the lack of adequate food, elephants could suffer from various health problems with certain nutritional deficiencies. He also said the human-elephant conflict could only be resolved by creating an environment where elephants and humans could live in harmony, and that isolating elephants would not solve the problem.
Sandaruwan recalled that the elephants were living in the Karuwalagaswewa area because of the environment was conducive for them to live, adding that there was no need to drive away these elephants in such a situation. Instead, he said, what needs to be done is to create a conducive environment for elephants to live without harassment. He said especially if elephants live in small jungle areas, some solution to the human-elephant conflict could be found by erecting electric fences around such areas or by declaring forest reserves by adding a few such jungles together.
Erecting electric fences
However, erecting electric fences alone will not solve the human-elephant conflict. Most elephants have adapted to electric fences at present. In particular, there have been reports of some elephants damaging electric fences and crossing over to villages. Also, many electric fences have not been maintained, which has become a serious problem. It would be more appropriate if the authorities, including the Wildlife Department, not only erects electric fences but maintain them and make timely updates.
Sandaruwan also said although steps were taken to drive away elephants living in the Weheragala area in Polonnaruwa to the Maduruoya National Park and those that are living in the vicinity of Waskaduwa to the Waskaduwa National Park, no permanent solution has been found to the human-elephant conflict in those areas. Almost 14 years ago, in 2006, about 300 elephants living in the left bank (Wam Ela) of the Udawalawe area were driven away to the Lunugamvehera National Park, but due to water and food shortages, the elephants came out and returned to their homelands through the villages, he said. He added that although a very limited number of elephants had adapted to the area, most elephants could not be prevented from returning to their homelands.
Convener of the Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle of Sri Lanka, Supun Lahiru Prakash said previous attempts to drive away elephants living in various parts of the North Western wildlife administrative region, to areas such as Thabbowa and Kahalla-Pallekele sanctuaries and Wilpattu National Park, have been unsuccessful. He also said the Department of Wildlife Conservation had taken a policy decision not to carry out large-scale elephant driving away of elephants due to the death of a considerable number of elephants and the return of many more who were driven away to the Lunugamvehera National Park in 2006.
Prakash noted that when elephants are being driven away, the elephant herd consisting of females and calves who do not cause problems also suffer the same fate. They have to travel long distances and many elephant calves die on the way due to tiredness and lack of water. Herds restricted to protected areas and fenced up also face a number of difficulties after being driven away and starve to death eventually. Elephant populations that within the protected areas also get affected as they have to compete for food with the new comers, he said.
He also said it was difficult to drive away adult male elephants since they escape when the elephants are being driven away and return to the same locations and continue damaging crops and other properties. Furthermore, young males in the herd, after repeatedly facing such drives, may turn out to be aggressive towards humans, he said.
He also pointed out there are several programmes that can be implemented using modern technology and methods to resolve the human- elephant conflict. For example, to prevent damage to paddy fields by elephants, seasonal electric fences can be erected until the paddy fields are harvested. Even more successful is the erection of fences around villages, he said.
Speaking further, he said the declaration of Managed Elephant Ranges (MER), as planned in the Hambantota area, is a successful method to bring the human-elephant conflict to an end as it protects elephant home ranges outside the wildlife protected areas. It is also a milestone in the elephant conservation and human-elephant conflict mitigation history in the country. It should also be introduced to the North Western parts of the country, where 60 per cent of elephants in the area live outside wildlife protected areas, he said and added that due to the clearing of forest lands belonging to various temples in the North Western Province for large-scale agricultural ventures in areas that was home to elephants for a long time, have no alternative other than to invade villages.
Electric fences surrounding villages
Meanwhile, Sunil Perera, who has been living in the Karuwalagaswewa area for more than 26 years, said before elephants are driven away to another area, an electric fence should be erected around the villages in a strong and compliant manner. He added that many of the electric fences that have been erected were dilapidated and elephants regularly break through and enter the villages as a result. He also said that when chasing elephants to a protected area such as Tabbowa, it is important to think about the animals too.
"The President has said elephants would be driven away to the Wilpattu National Park, but what we, as villagers, feel is that they are planning to drive away elephants to the Tabbowa forest reserve. There is not enough food and water for elephants there. Some time ago, two tanks were renovated, but the water in those tanks is not enough for a large number of elephants,” he added.
Considering the views of all sections, driving away elephants from one area to another was not such a successful solution to resolve the festering human-elephant conflict. Also, before serious decisions such as removing animals from their habitats are taken, it is the responsibility of all to conduct a formal study and take necessary action after consulting experts. The fact that a significant number of elephants in the Lunugamvehera area have died after being driven away and the human-elephant conflict is still rampant in the areas where elephants have been driven away, clearly shows that driving away elephants was not an appropriate solution to the human-elephant conflict or the welfare of elephants. Therefore, it is vital that officers take necessary action, keeping in mind that animal lives are as valuable as those of humans.