Starved Calves of Yala
By Risidra Mendis
For tourists who visit the Yala national Park (YNP), both local and foreign alike, there was never a dull moment as there were hundreds of elephants to see. However, today it is a different story. Spotting elephants at the YNP has now become somewhat of a rare occurrence. The elephant population has declined at an alarming rate over the years, as many baby elephants are dying due to malnutrition. The irresponsible fencing at the YNP has resulted in a food shortage for the herds of elephants and has resulted in mothers not having the required nutrition to feed their newborn babies. But sadly, nothing has been done over the years and the newborn babies continue to die at an alarming rate.
“It started after elephants were driven from the Forest Department (FD) area extending from Kirinda to Wedihitikanda into Yala Block I and were fenced in. This was done in 2004 as a human-elephant conflict (HEC) mitigation measure. However, HEC remains a major issue in the area that they were driven from, because it is only the non-problem causing females and young that can be driven like this and confined with electric fences. Adult males who are responsible for most HEC incidents cannot be driven and even if driven in and fenced, they break the fences and come back,” Chairman and Scientist of the Centre for Conservation and Research Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando told Ceylon Today.
He said any given area can support only a certain number of elephants - called the ‘carrying capacity’ and all our protected areas already have reached this carrying capacity. “So when you forcibly drive large numbers of elephants into a park and fence them in, the elephants that were driven in as well as the elephants that ranged entirely inside the park, suffer from insufficient food. We have data of the Gemunu herd in Yala which has been studied continuously since the early ‘90s. There are about 35 elephants in this group. Every year, one to three young elephants from this group die of starvation. There are perhaps five such groups in Yala. So, altogether probably five to 15 young may die each year in Yala Block I,” Dr. Fernando said.
He added that the Gemunu group always ranged entirely inside the park, so the impact of exceeding the carrying capacity may be much more on the herds that used to go out of the park. Similar to deaths, on average, two to four babies are born each year to the Gemunu group. “So, extrapolating again, 10 to 20 elephants may be born to herds in Yala Block I, but again reproduction may be much less in the herds that used to go out. If the elephants are again allowed to use the FD area in the dry season, the problem will be solved. The positive impact will be immediate. However, for the population to recover to what it was will take perhaps another 25 years,” Dr. Fernando explained.
He said the decision to drive the elephants and fence them in was taken by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in line with the policy for mitigating HEC. “This has been tried for over 50 years, has completely failed and has resulted in the huge escalation of HEC we see today. Unfortunately, it appears that the same policy is still being followed. The DWC recently tried to move the fence to the boundary of the developed area and the FD (which is where it should have been constructed in the first place). However, the people protested, and some of the posts that were brought to put up the fence were burnt. Subsequently the decision to move the fence was revoked,” Dr. Fernando said.
He said the people are against it because they fear that if the fence is constructed on the developed area boundary, they will not be allowed to go inside to do chena cultivation. “Often, the elephant drives are justified by saying that habitat management will be done inside the protected area, to provide additional food and that has never been successfully done,” Dr. Fernando said.
Commenting on the issue Former Director General of DWC Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said the elephants of YNP, Block 1 have been using the FD protected area, west of the boundary of YNP Block 1 for fodder during the dry season (from June to October). “There have been chena cultivations going on within the FD lands for many years. Chena cultivation is rain-fed and cultivated only during the rainy season—clearance for cultivation starts late October and the crops are harvested by late March or early April. The chena farmers do not live on their land, but come there during the cultivation season,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
Dr. Pilapitiya said that after the growth occurs in these abandoned chena, a large number of elephants (herds and single males) from YNP move into the abandoned chena areas for fodder. “When this was occurring, (prior to 2001) large numbers of elephants could be observed in the abandoned chena areas feeding on the lush after growth. With the arrival of the chena farmers for the next season, virtually all the elephant herds go back into YNP on their own, in order to reduce the risk to their calves. Many of the males too return to the park, except for a few who tend to remain in the chena areas,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
He added saying that this was a coexistence model where the elephants use the area when the lands lie fallow and the people use it during the rainy season for cultivation. “During this time—pre 2001, this area did not have a significant HEC. However, around 2000/2001 a decision was made to erect an electric fence on the western boundary of YNP Block 1. Erecting an electric fence on the administrative boundary between DWC and FD lands makes absolutely no sense because elephants don’t relate to manmade administrative boundaries. The elephant travels on the ecological boundary—the boundary where the ecology changes. In this case, that boundary is between the forest and development/human habitation,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
He said that we must first realise that electric fences are not ‘boundary markers’ but a mechanism adopted to keep elephants and people separate, so it should be erected on the ecological boundary.“By erecting the fence on the administrative boundary, we have deprived the elephants of YNP from going to their dry season range for fodder.
Therefore, elephants in the park would become malnourished. At that time, the DWC may not have had the data to make the right decision and followed convention, which at the time was largely to erect fences on the administrative boundaries. The Director General at the time had recommended that the electric fence be erected on the ecological boundary but for some reason unknown to me, the location of the fence had been changed,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
He said the probability is very high that such a change may have occurred due to political pressure. “During my short tenure, I was subject to pressures from various politicians to change the path of electric fences to accommodate their supporters’ needs. My response was, the DWC erects fences for a specific purpose and if they need any changes in the fence path, I am willing to accommodate their wishes as long as the intervening politician is willing to take responsibility for HEC arising from the change as the DWC will not do anything about HEC created by a political decision. I found that to be a very effective approach because they always backed down. While it is unreasonable to expect a career public servant to take that stand, we the conservation community, the media, and the affected public should hold the politician who makes us uninformed decisions accountable to HEC that ensues,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
He added that there has been a lot of development of hotels, guest houses, camp sites, an army camp, farm, and so on that have come up in the zone that was used by the elephants, in addition to the chenas. “Taking into consideration the developments and relocation of the fence from the administrative boundary to the ecological boundary, a major effort is needed to make the community aware of the problem and get their support, as well as assure the farmers that the erection of the fence does not mean that the land enclosed by the fence will not be declared as DWC protected area. But I feel that it still can be done and has to be done to ensure the long term survival of elephants in YNP,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
He said prior to 2000 Yala was not well known for leopards, it was well known for elephants, but now there are days when visitors are unable to see a single elephant in Yala. “Saving the baby elephants from malnutrition is not easy. The reversal of the mistakes made need political support, without which the DWC will be unable to do it,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained.
“A fence was erected inside the national park and on the forest boundary at YNP Block 1 from the Nimalawa sanctuary area up to Buddangala. The fence should have been erected around the village and not from inside the forest boundary. When people want to do their chena cultivation a seasonal fence or a temporary fence can be erected. Once the harvesting season is over the fence can be removed. If a seasonal fence is erected, once it is removed, elephants will have more areas to move in and to find their food. Sri Lanka’s elephant sub species is not a forest species. Theses elephants depend on secondary forests for their food as there is more water and food in these areas. Illegal encroachment should not be allowed in these areas where elephants use for their food,” the Director of the Centre for Eco Cultural Studies (CES) Sujeewa Jasinghe said commenting on the matter.
Ceylon Today contacted a senior wildlife officer from the DWC and the officer who wished to remain anonymous said that erecting fences often creates clashed between them and villagers and the FD. “Some people are for it and some, especially the ones who do chena cultivations, are against putting up a fence. The area they want the fence to be erected often falls under the purview of FD. Therefore, we are often left with no other option but to put up the fence in a forest area that is under DWC which practically might not be the best solution,” the officer said.
Speaking about the fence in Nimalawa sanctuary, the officer said that half of the fence is already done. The fence will stop the elephants from entering FD areas - areas where chena cultivation is happening but the construction of the rest of the fence is halted due to political influence. “A reputed politician from Hambantota is forcing the authorities to drive all the elephants from Nimalawa sanctuary to YNP and fence them in there instead of building a fence in Nimalawa,” the officer revealed.