By Risidra Mendis
History states that the beautiful and scenic Kala Wewa reservoir was built by King Dhatusena who ruled the country in the 5th century. He also built the Balalu Wewa and linked them together to make a very large tank that could be used for ancient agriculture. Over the years these tanks were renovated and now hold water all year around, attracting wildlife and most importantly Sri Lanka’s unique tusker population.
Known for its high tusker population the Kala Wewa area has always attracted tourists, locals, photographers, and artists over the years. While tourists and locals go to see the tuskers and elephants, photographers go in search of that exclusive photo that would capture the hearts of millions around the world. But in recent times due to illegal encroachment and cultivation Sri Lanka’s unique elephant species may soon lose what is left of their natural habitat and feeding grounds.
As humans slowly and illegally take over elephant habitat, their only intention is to get rid of the elephants and ensure their safety. The erecting of private electric fences around their properties has now become a common sight in elephant habitat areas and the deaths of elephants due to electrocution are a common occurrence these days. The recent death of a tusker in the Kala Wewa area due to an illegal electric fence has caused concerns among wildlife enthusiasts who say stringent measures should be taken to save the remaining tusker and elephant population.
Illegal electric fences
The wilderness around Kala Wewa and Balalu Wewa are a part of the Kahalla Pallekele Sanctuary and give elephants 'protection' status. GPS radio-tracking of a female and male elephant by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) has shown that some of the herds remain in the vicinity throughout the year. However, Sri Lanka’s unique elephant species may soon be a thing of the past, if land grabbing is not halted and illegal electric fences continue in areas protected for elephants.
“I’m not sure of the exact elephant population in Kala Wewa. While no proper count has been done, I have observed over 100 elephants in Kala Wewa during the dry season. Kala Wewa is extremely important for the elephant population in the area. In addition to being a water source in the dry season, the grasslands that emerge in the lakebed during the dry season are the main source of fodder for the elephants during the months from May to October. There appear to be more tuskers in Kala Wewa than other areas in Sri Lanka,” Former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya told Ceylon Today.
He says during the last three to four years, there appears to be a problem in Kala Wewa as in the past, the grasslands of the lake bed emerge during the dry season and provide the fodder needs of the elephants. “The grasslands are largely submerged during the dry season due to water releases from a mini hydropower project that uses water from the Ibbankatuwa Wewa. The water releases from the power plant result in the grasslands being submerged in the dry season, significantly reducing the fodder available for the elephants,”
Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
High voltage low amperage
Dr. Pilapitiya believes that electric fences are the best available deterrent for elephants. “An electric fence designed to deter elephants from entering land, is powered by an energiser which is powered by a 12 volt battery or main power line. The energiser converts electricity to a high voltage, low amperage direct current (DC) pulse at about one pulse per second and a pulse duration of a few thousands of a second. Fences used to deter elephants usually have a voltage between 6,000 to 9,000 volts and a current of about 5 milliamperes. Touching such a fence gives a powerful electric shock, but there is no physical harm to a person or animal from the current. So if main’s electricity is used, it has to be converted through an energiser to a high voltage low amperage DC pulse. However, when a household electrical supply is directly connected to a fence, contact with it most likely results in death,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
He said the instances where elephants get electrocuted is when people have deliberately connected their household electrical supply to the fence, which is illegal. “So the DWC has to prosecute the people caught connecting their household electrical supply directly to a fence. The people who are engaged in this illegal activity do so knowingly. Instead of investing in an electric fence specially designed to deter elephants, these people connect the regular electricity supply they get to their house directly to a regular fence. Once this is done, the fence is ‘live’ and touching it is similar to touching a ‘live’ electrical wire. The best way to stop this is to enforce the law to the fullest against people using illegal fences,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
He added that the DWC is right when they say that they don’t have enough manpower and resources to monitor fences to see if they have energisers or whether they are directly connected to the household power supply. “The DWC has to seek the assistance of other Government agencies, such as the Divisional Secretariat to support the DWC in this endeavour. Each village has a Grama Niladari (GN). The GN has regular contact with the community and would be in a position to assist the DWC. Awareness of the illegality and the detrimental effect this has on elephants has to be given to the people,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
300 to 400 elephants
Scientist and Chairman CCR Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando added that it is difficult to say how many elephants are in an area such as Kala Wewa, as they are not limited to Kala Wewa (most elephant ranges in Sri Lanka are contiguous). However, probably about 300 to 400 elephants use Kala Wewa. The importance of a particular 'population' for conserving elephants cannot be clearly defined, for the above reason. “However, Asian elephants are globally recognised as being 'endangered' - which means there is a high risk of them becoming extinct. Kala Wewa is of particular importance as it provides a unique and very picturesque setting where elephants can be observed freely. The Kala Wewa area is 'home' to a number of magnificent tuskers. Many of them have been identified individually by a number of Wildlife photographers, who have spent a lot of time and effort in following them and recording their presence, creating some fabulous portraits of them,” Dr. Fernando said.
He said the fact that the elephants are there and are in good health shows that there is sufficient food and it is very important to realise that these elephants use and depend on a much larger area than what is recognised as the Kala Wewa protected area. “The protected area by itself which mostly consists of the Kala Wewa-Balalu Wewa reservoirs, gets completely flooded when the reservoirs are filled and cannot sustain the elephants that use them. Electric fences are certainly the best option to prevent elephants entering villages. However, it is very important to differentiate between 'protective electric fences' and 'lethal electric fences'. Electric fencing is only a tool and the results depend on how we use it. It is like using a knife to cut vegetables or to stab someone,” Dr. Fernando explained.
He said protective electric fences are powered by an energiser and carry a high voltage and on contact, such fences give a huge 'shock' but do not harm an animal or person. “In contrast, connecting main’s electricity or an inverter to a fence makes a 'lethal fence' that carries a voltage of 240 volts and a current of 5 amperes as continuous AC (Alternating Current). Such a current on contact causes the heart to stop, causes external and internal burns, and organ damage that cause instantaneous death of any animal or person. The very fact that it is illegal shows what needs to be done,” Dr. Fernando explained.
Rs 3 billion for HEC
He added that people who set up lethal fences should be prosecuted for setting up 'death traps' and dealt with severely and they should be penalised, and their electricity connection removed and wide publicity given to it. “So, not only the DWC, but also the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has a responsibility here. If they continue to allow a person convicted of setting death traps to access main’s electricity I think they are being irresponsible. Is it that the DWC does not have enough resources and manpower or is this not a priority? Is there any effort at all to check electric fences by the DWC in order to identify lethal fences? Is that part of the work of DWC officers? There are plans and funds spent to chase elephants, drive elephants, translocate elephants, build electric fences and so forth. These are all for the benefit of people and not elephants,” Dr. Fernando said.
He said this year the DWC has been allocated Rs 3,000 million (3 billion) for Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) mitigation and shouldn’t a tiny bit of that be spent for safeguarding elephants? Shouldn’t protecting elephants rather than people be the priority of the DWC? Or should we consider it the Wildlife Control Department? Has the DWC consulted the CEB to see what they can do? Each person who connects mains electricity to a fence has access to electricity and an electricity board officer visits the place every single month to assess usage and give a bill. If they are using it illegally by illegal tapping shouldn’t the CEB do something about it? Maybe the DWC should make the CEB also one of the accused in such cases,” Dr. Fernando said.
Director General of the DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara said electric fences are the best option to stop elephants from entering villages and that the DWC does not have the manpower to regularly maintain the fences. “When elephants realise there is a weak point in the barrier they break through the fence from that area. We cannot regularly monitor fences due to a shortage of manpower, but we conduct awareness programmes for villagers, school children and DWC officers annually. If a person is caught setting up an illegal fence we take legal action against them,” Sooriyabandara said.