Nothing but a White Elephant?

By Risidra Mendis | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 15 2022
Echo Nothing but a White Elephant?

By Risidra Mendis

It all started on 18 January 2021 when farmers from the Walsapugala area engaged in a protest campaign demanding that the proposed Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) in Hambantota be included in the gazette.

Farmers have over the years faced many issues with damage and loss of crops due to wild elephants. However, the farmers were not only concerned about their crops and cultivation but also about the safety of the many wild elephants that roamed in the area. 

The protest campaign continued for some time since the issue remained unsolved. Then in late February 2021, the Cabinet granted consent to publish the gazette for the proposed MER in Hambantota.

“When the Government published the gazette to declare the MER in April 2021, we thought that it would be a milestone in the human elephant conflict (HEC) mitigation and elephant conservation in Sri Lanka. However, it is clear that the Government’s intention was not to address the HEC in a scientific manner, but to hide the huge public outcry. This was about a decade-long struggle to declare Hambantota MER and it was accelerated by the farmers' organisations in the Walawa left bank irrigation project in the Walsapugala area,” Convener Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle, Supun Lahiru Prakash said.

“We thought that declaring the MER would be a milestone in elephant conservation and HEC mitigation as it forces politicians, officers, and the general public to think out of the protected areas in elephant conservation and HEC mitigation in Sri Lanka. About 70 per cent of elephant home ranges in Sri Lanka lie out of the protected areas. Authorities tried to drive those elephants into protected areas and fence them up over the past decades in order to mitigate the HEC,” Prakash explained.

He says the HEC escalation during the past decades clearly show that the method is completely unsuccessful, and this attempt led to increased aggression of elephants towards the humans. “The ultimate result was Sri Lanka becoming the country with the world's highest elephant deaths due to HEC and the second highest human deaths. Elephants have a strong bond with their home ranges and it is not possible to remove them from their traditional home ranges. If we try to do so through drives, only the herds consisting of females and the young could be driven and the problem causing males will remain and continue to cause damages,” Prakash said. 

He says there is no impact on HEC mitigation and herds driven to the protected areas are suffering for lack of resources and starve to death. “It badly affects elephant conservation in Sri Lanka. That is why the MER concept was introduced to protect the elephant home ranges outside the protected areas. However, now the MER gazette has become a white elephant and the authorities maintain the usual sleepiness in implementing the MER concept on the ground. In April 2001, we found that there is a problem in the size of the declared MER when compared with the size of the MER proposed in Greater Hambantota development plan of 2009,” Prakash explained. 

He further notes that the process of gazetting the MER was also arguable as the gazette was signed by the State Minister, not the Cabinet Minister. “At that time we also argued that removing encroachers from the lands belonging to the MER and converting them into suitable habitat for elephants is another challenge that the Government has to deal with. Now it is clear that the Government did not do anything other than publishing the gazette notification and encroachments are going on as usual. There are a number of granite quarries inside the MER that need to be removed in order to make it suitable for elephant living,” Prakash said. 

The saddest thing is, he says, without doing so, the authorities issued more permits for granite quarries inside the MER and using lands belonging to the MER for the purposes of the Government is also continuing.    

We know that MER is not a Trojan horse for elephant conservation and HEC mitigation; if the Government honestly tries to maintain it, it will cover a significant amount of the national programme of elephant conservation and HEC mitigation. Then this concept could be implemented to other areas where elephants live outside the protected areas to get better results for the entire country. I think that the general public should understand this reality and come into a common front against these culprits,” Prakash opined.

Secretary Walawa WamIvura Farmers Union, 

I. K. Saman Sudarshana told Ceylon Today that they commenced their strike on 21 December 2021 as they were not given a proper solution to their problem. “Wildlife Director Chandana Sooriyabandara told us that once the area is gazetted by the Cabinet we will have no problems. Now he is saying the regulations pertaining to the area have to be approved by Parliament for our issues to be solved. There are 450 wild elephants in this area and due to the illegal activities continuing despite the gazette getting Cabinet approval, these animals have no jungle to roam,” Sudarshana said.  

“While many illegal cultivations are taking place in the area, water connections for these illegal cultivations have also been given. Illegal sand mining is taking place with no action from the relevant authorities. Large extents of forests are to be destroyed in the future to make way for other projects,” Director Environmental Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara said.  

“The said area that farmers were protesting about, was gazetted and is now considered a protected area. All rules according to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) are applicable for the gazetted area. However, there are some regulations that we have sent to the [relevant] Ministry for approval. We are waiting until this gets approved,” Director General Department of Wildlife Conservation, Chandana Sooriyabandara said.

When asked why the farmers of the area are protesting again, he said he doesn’t know and that nobody from the Farmers’ Organisations has informed him regarding the issue.

By Risidra Mendis | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 15 2022

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