You Shall Not Pass!
By Risidra Mendis
Elephant corridors are linear, narrow, natural habitat linkages that allow elephants to migrate between secure habitats without being disturbed by humans. To secure the future for Sri Lanka’s wild elephants, it is essential that we ensure their uninterrupted movement between these key habitats. However, some of these corridors are no longer in existence and what you find instead are illegal human encroachments and destroyed forestland. Over the years elephant habitat and their migratory routes are destroyed to make way for human settlement and development.
Many point out decisions taken by ignorant politicians and some officers from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) as the main reason for the ongoing human-elephant conflict (HEC) in many parts of the country. The recent destroying of the Dahaiyagala elephant corridor is one example of the damage done to wildlife and the environment by those only interested in their personal welfare.
Protected under the FFPO
Former Deputy Director of the DWC and an expert on elephants Dr. Nandana Atapattu airing his views on the present situation told Ceylon Today that, as explained in the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) there are seven types of protected areas namely; national parks, sanctuaries, strict nature reserves, nature reserves, and elephant corridors.
He said some corridors are as long as 80 to 90 km and where elephants not necessarily pass through in a straight line but roam everywhere. “Elephants walk freely through these corridors but people have created barricades to block their continuous walking pattern and this has led to the HEC in many areas. Many corridors were identified by the DWC but none were declared as protected areas by a gazette,” Dr. Atapattu said.
He said the Nilgala corridor from Bibile to Maduru Oya is a long corridor and is more than 100 km in length. “Corridors are not only used by elephants, but other wild animals as well. By blocking corridors you restrict the movements of elephants and other wild animals. To maintain the balance of ecology of various wild species and for the existence of the animal species the conservation of the corridors is a must. In the early 1970s regarding the Nilgala corridor the DWC commenced a programme to demarcate the boundaries of the corridor. During that time an organisation called the Mahaweli Environment Authority was working with the DWC. The scientists, biologists, and park wardens got together to declare this notable corridor. For three to four years this went on but we couldn’t gazette it,” Dr. Atapattu explained.
HEC is critical
He said because elephant corridors are not gazetted the HEC has become critical in areas such as Bibile Mahiyangana, Maduru Oya, and other areas. “When elephants come across a barricade in the corridor, they have no other alternative but to turn towards the village or a cultivated area and damage the area, causing problems to farmers and villagers. The elephant corridor from Lunugamwehera to Udawalawe is nearly 100 km in length. In the recent past steps were taken by the DWC to declare this corridor for the free movement of elephants and to minimise HEC in the area,” Dr. Atapattu said.
With the assistance of the Survey Department Dr. Atapattu and DWC officials measured the length and breadth of the corridor and found the boundaries and illegal encroachers were asked to vacate. “But they were assisted by some powerful politicians and wanted the route changed. You and I can change the roadway but elephants won’t change their route. We were very close to getting the area gazetted when the Director General at the time who was a political henchman, stopped all the hard work done by us,” Dr. Atapattu revealed.
"Blocking of a corridor can create a lot of problems in a vast area. Corridors are not by the roads so people can’t see what happens inside a corridor. The DWC and the Government should take a firm steps to prevent illegal human encroachment and to safeguard these corridors by gazetting them and allow DWC officers to guard these areas continuously,” Dr. Atapattu said.
However, this is easier said than done in a country such as Sri Lanka due to political interference. “We have tried to solve HEC in Sri Lanka for over 60 years by trying to confine elephants into specific protected areas. But this has been a miserable failure evident by the increasing deaths of humans and elephants. This is because we have taken a human-centric approach to the solution. If we really want to solve HEC we have to understand elephant biology, ranging patterns, and elephant behaviour, and integrate that into the solution. Data from the studies conducted for over 15 years under the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project led by Dr. Shermin De Silva has indisputable evidence that elephants move between Udawalawe and Bogahapattiya Sanctuary,” Former Director General of DWC Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said.
He said the elephants move between these two protected areas through the Dahaiyagala elephant corridor and the DWC has designated this as an elephant corridor, specifically for this reason. “There have been some encroachments into the Dahaiyagala corridor in the past. These encroachers cannot be evicted due to political patronage, so instead of relocating the people living in the corridor, it appears that a decision has been taken at the highest levels to release more lands for settlement and agriculture. These human-centric decisions will not curtail elephant movement through this area, because there is a biological need for the elephants to move within these two protected areas,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
Solving the unsolvable
“A large number of elephants are moving through this corridor which will now be populated by people and agriculture, inviting HEC to occur. Then the DWC will be called upon to solve an unsolvable problem. It is such a shame that with such good data to justify not blocking the corridor, the local politicians have misled the President into making this decision. Before making a decision to clear an area designated as an elephant corridor one should first ask oneself the question, 'why this areas has been designated an elephant corridor?',” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
"An elephant corridor is a forest that provides connectivity between larger forests which are used by elephants for movement. I have not seen any scientific data which identifies the number of elephant corridors in Sri Lanka. Elephants need a large amount of food per day—around 150-200 kg of food. To get this amount of food they need to range within a wide area. If there are jungle paths for them to move between forested areas, the elephants will not come into contact with people and crops, thus reducing the probability for conflict. However, if these jungle paths or corridors are deforested, elephants will still move to other forested areas, but they will do so through human habitation. So if the Government was to reduce HEC, they have to ensure forest connectivity for elephants,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
Government should commitment
He said there has to be Government commitment to ensure connectivity between forests, if the Government wants to reduce HEC. “So, for these forest corridors to be protected political patronage for illegal encroachment should be stopped and the officials of DWC and the Forest Department should be allowed to do their job by enforcing the law. Politicians have to realise that officials have no discretionary power when enforcing the law,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.
“In the case of an area that is used heavily by elephants, particularly to access other areas, the impacts will be much more than that, simply due to the land cleared will impact a much larger area and affect a large number of people and elephants. The conventional view of an 'animal corridor' is a strip of habitat that connects two large habitat patches and which animals use to move between the two patches. Most often such a corridor connects seasonal ranges (wet season and dry season, or winter and summer) and represents a 'migration corridor',” Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando said.
He said traditionally in Sri Lanka elephant corridors have been identified as strips of natural habitat that connect protected areas. However, neither of these definitions is relevant to Sri Lankan Elephants. "Research has established that Sri Lankan elephant does not migrate between geographically separate seasonal ranges. What they have are distinct home ranges where they spend all their lives – the home ranges of Sri Lankan elephants are around 200 square kilometres (20,000 hectares). The elephants move around their home range throughout the year and maybe present in some parts of the range for a few months or weeks at a time. Especially in the case of elephants that live outside protected areas, they cannot use some parts of their home range because of settlements and cultivations,” Dr. Fernando explained.
One corridor gazetted
He said in some places, these human habitats narrow down the area that the elephants can use. “For example, if there is a road that bisects an elephant's home range and there are houses along the road, there may be only one place where there are vacant lots on either side of the road, which allows elephants to cross the road without going through people's home gardens. So that would then be an elephant corridor across the road. There will be many hundreds such of elephant corridors,” Dr Fernando explained.
He said, "As far as I know the only gazetted elephant corridor is the Wetahirakanda corridor that connects Udawalawe and Lunugamvehera National Parks. Real elephant corridors are critical for elephants as they allow them to move within their home range. The only way to identify real elephant corridors is through radio tracking. In Sri Lanka, such corridors have been identified in the Hambanthota Managed Elephant Range (MER), in Galgamuwa, and in the Habarana area, based on radio tracking data but they have not yet been secured,” Dr. Fernando explained.
Since approximately 70 per cent of elephant range in Sri Lanka is outside protected areas, it is critical to identify the corridors used by elephants in these areas through radio tracking. “Under the World Bank funded ESCAMP project there was provision to obtain 300 elephant collars, but the DWC agreed to get only 40. It took three years to put those collars on elephants and the DWC has so far refused to provide access to anybody to that data, including for the preparation of a National HEC Mitigation Plan by a Presidential committee. However, even the National HEC mitigation Plan submitted to President in December 2020, strongly recommends collaring an appropriate number of elephants to identify areas used by them, including corridors,” Dr. Fernando said.
“The clearing of the Dahaiyagala elephant corridor was stopped the same day after it was brought to my notice. Villagers were clearing the area for cultivation. The suspects were produced in Courts,” the Director General of DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara said when questioned about the deforestation happening at Dahayyagala.