Another ‘White Elephant’?
By Risidra Mendis
Ceylon Today Features
The human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Sri Lanka is a much talked about subject these days. However, despite the many discussions held and the ongoing work done to mitigate HEC, a solution is yet to be found. While many decisions taken are not necessarily in favour of the elephants, the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) has no choice but to adhere to political requests and protests by villagers in the areas where HEC is prevalent.
With no other option available the DWC is now in the process of building another elephant holding ground at the Lunugamwehera National Park. The idea of an elephant holding ground is to house problematic elephants that are moved from areas where they are deemed a problem to villagers.
“The DWC is continuing to build another holding ground for so-called ‘mitigating HEC’ in the country, which completely failed in two previous attempts; in Lunugamwehera itself in 2007 and in Horowpathana in 2013. With a view to minimising the damages caused to lives, properties, and cultivations due to the said HEC, a sum of Rs 200 million had been allocated from the budget proposal, 2012 to construct four elephant holding grounds in order to retain and rehabilitate the rogue male elephants,” Convener of Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle of Sri Lanka Supun Lahiru Prakash said.
Horowpathana holding ground
“In accordance with the Cabinet Memorandum No. 12/0151/549/001 dated 17 March 2012, a wild elephant holding ground has been set up on a land area of 997 hectares at Horowpathana in the Anuradhapura District. Accordingly, decisions had been reached to construct the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground first, and to construct the other holding grounds following the evaluation of success of the above holding ground,” Prakash explained.
He said the audit report number IEN/F/DWC/19/PR/11 dated October 2020 entitled ‘Performance of the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground’ published by Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne, revealed that the Horowpathana Holding Ground is a complete failure and there are some financial irregularities. “Therefore, the Auditor General has recommended that steps should be taken to make the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground successful before the establishment of another holding ground. According to the report of the elephant census conducted in June 2019 at Horowpathana, only nine elephants were remaining while 12 elephants had died for various reasons,” Prakash explained.
He added that five of them had died of malnutrition and lack of sufficient foods and another two elephants had died due to unattended translocation to the holding ground. “During the period from 4 September 2015 to 25 June 2019, 52 elephants were retained in the holding ground. The Department lacked information as to whether the remaining 31 elephants had either died or fled the holding ground. However, we know that the number of elephants retained in Horowpathana would be much higher as it started in 2013. No elephants are released back to the wild after rehabilitation in such holding grounds. It is clear that the holding ground concept is not a scientific way to mitigate the HEC as it kills the elephants and wastes the public’s money,” Prakash said.
3000 hectares from Lunugamwehera
He added that, notwithstanding the shortcomings found in the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground, the DWC is presently constructing an elephant holding ground in the Lunugamwehera National Park, under the ESCAMP Project with World Bank assistance. This will be another white elephant for the HEC mitigation and will lead to escalate the HEC around the Lunugamwehera National Park as it claims 3000 hectares of land from the National Park which is more than 10 per cent of the entire National Park. This will be a significant loss of home range of the elephants living inside the National Park and that’s why the HEC will escalate. I request the DWC to stop building the elephant holding ground in Lunugamwehera, which is a waste of money and will escalate the HEC in the country,” Prakash explained.
Commenting on the new elephant holding ground, Director General of DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara told Ceylon Today the area chosen for this purpose is not used by elephants at the Lunugamwehera National Park. “There were no water holes in this area at the time we started building this holding ground. After we started building and the lakes were built elephants started coming to this area. The elephants only visit the area but don’t stay there. So there are no resident elephants in that area,” Sooriyabandara said.
He went on to say that the DWC is in the process of building more lakes and work on the holding ground is expected to be completed by the end of this year. “Around 100 problematic elephants can be kept at this holding ground. The elephant holding ground will not pose a problem to elephants inside the Lunugamwehera National Park,” Sooriyabandara explained.