It’s More Than Just Poisoning

Lamps were lit in memory of all dead elephants, prior to the start of the media briefing held by the Bodhiraja Foundation, Justice for Animals.

Kshama Ranawana and Aanya Wipulasena

A few of weeks ago the nation was shocked to learn of the deaths of seven elephants, in one fell sweep as it were in the Habarana area.  One of the six cow elephants was pregnant.

While poisoning has been confirmed as the cause of deaths, the government analyst’s’ report is awaited to ascertain the type of poison. Nor is it known how they were poisoned, says the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Chandana Sooriyabandara.

Three separate departments, the Government Analyst, the Veterinary Research Institute and the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Peradeniya are carrying out independent autopsies into the case. They will submit their reports to the courts, he told Counterpoint. “Then it will be up to the courts to decide on the penalty those involved in the poisoning should pay. It is hard to say what the punishment will be at this time.”

According to those familiar with the subject, the elephants are believed to between the ages of 25 and 35 and were of the same herd.  Another tusker, about 15 years old had also been found dead in the Puttalam area, here again the cause of death was due to poisoning, according to media reports.

Though the multiple deaths caught the attention of the media and held the spotlight for a couple of days, the larger picture is that elephants are dying in the country almost every day. Many of these are caused owing to the human elephant conflict (HEC). In 2018, there had been 319 elephant deaths while by September this year 293 elephants had died. This is not to say that human deaths caused by this conflict are any less important. What it really means is that unless and until the HEC is responsibly managed, both animal and human will continue to pay the price.

Justice for Animals, a community project under the Sri Bodhiraja Foundation, told reporters at a media briefing on October 9, that apart from the seven deaths, two others had been killed in the recent past; “one had been shot in Asirigama and another electrocuted in Kekirawa.”  The media briefing was convened by the president of the Foundation, Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thero.

The organisation claimed that one of the main reasons for the deaths is the various decisions made by government, which result in the ‘elephants being displaced from their traditional homelands.’   During certain seasons when the tanks in the National Parks dry out, elephants as well as other herbivore find grass that is suitable for their food.

However, the government’s decision to fill up the tanks with ‘recently built reservoirs such as Moragahakanda’ means that the tank beds don’t dry out, forcing elephants to migrate in search of food.  Another contributory factor is the filling up of the Kala Wewa tank through a diversion of the Ibbankantuwa tank in Dambulla to set up power plants there, they said.

Counterpoint contacted Dr. Sumith  Pilapitiya former Director General, Department of Wildlife and former Environment Specialist at the World Bank  to learn more about the issue.  He said that in the dry season large populations of elephants are seen in National Parks that “have large multi-purpose reservoirs “within their boundaries, Minneriya, Kaudulla, Kala Wewa, Maduru Oya, Uda Walawe, to name a few.”  These reservoirs are filled up through waters that are released upstream through the cascade reservoir system as well as the North East Monsoon. Thus, between the months of December to March, the grasslands along the tank beds are submerged in water. For the elephants, this is a period they do not have to worry about food, as the rains bring forth lush foliage and grasses for them to feed on.

Following the high water levels of three to four months, the practice that has been followed for many years, states Dr. Pilapitiya is for the Irrigation and Mahaweli authorities to release water that farmers could use for agriculture purposes, within the command areas of these reservoirs. With the controlled release of water there is gradual exposure of the tank beds, which having been submerged in water for several months, is rich with sediment deposits that are ideal for new grass to grow.  Until nearly four or five years ago, the gradual release of water took place between May to mid – October, months generally known as the dry season.

“It is the availability of fresh grass which is high in protein that attracts large numbers of elephants to the grasslands on the lake beds of these reservoirs.”  Despite the gradual release of water, he points out that there is enough water in the reservoirs in the dry season for the elephants, who feed on the grasslands of the lake bed till October/November when the North East monsoon begins. This is what results in the “great gathering of elephants in Minneriya”, but that gathering had not taken place this year, as the elephants had moved to Kaudulla instead of Minneriya, because, as the grassland is not fully submerged, it is not fresh and attractive for elephants.

Sri Lanka's elephants live within a small home range and are not given to long migratory patterns
Sri Lanka’s elephants live within a small home range and are not given to long migratory patterns

“This fragile ecosystem has been kept in the balance for centuries in our ancient reservoirs and more recently in the new reservoirs constructed under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project which commenced in the late 1970’s,’ Dr. Pilapitiya told Counterpoint.

The great elephant gathering, also known as the “seasonal gathering’ according to Justice for Animals, is the largest gathering of Asian elephant’s world-wide, and attracts a large number of tourists each year.

According to Dr. Pilapitiya, the North East monsoon has, for the past five to six years not been effective, perhaps due to climate change. This situation is exacerbated by the release of water into Minneriya and Kala Wewa during the dry season for various development needs.  If the grasslands are not fully submerged in water, there is no fresh grass, which the elephants prefer, he says. The absence of fresh grass results in the elephants ‘moving around more within and outside protected areas, looking for suitable food.”

Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thero,(centre) president, Sri Bodhiraja Foundation. With him are Sujeewa Jayasinghe (left), Rukshan Jayawardena (immediate right) and Sashi Kalana Ratwatte (far right), environmentalists addressing the media.
Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thero,(centre) president, Sri Bodhiraja Foundation. With him are Sujeewa Jayasinghe (left), Rukshan Jayawardena (immediate right) and Sashi Kalana Ratwatte (far right), environmentalists addressing the media.

Justice for Animals and Dr. Pilapitiya state that the other factor is the releasing of water into Minneriya from Moragahakanda.  This occurred “from early July this year to apparently satisfy farmer demands,” states Dr. Pilapitiya.  When the lake beds of Minneriya and Kala Wewa are submerged and they have no grass to eat, it  increases the human elephant conflict around the Kala Wewa area with “elephants even coming into crop fields during the daytime–which is quite unusual,” unlike the herds in Minneriya who migrated to Kaudulla.

He points out that the solution is to ensure that water does not collect in these reservoirs during the dry season, and if water is needed for any reason, it must be ensured that the ‘rate of water input into Minneriya and Kala Wewa is the same as the output from these 2 reservoirs.’  Unless that is done, he explains, elephants will raid crops and there will be more human elephant conflicts, though elephant casualties would be more.

The Wild Life Department is in talks with the authorities regarding the Morgahakanda issue to mitigate the problem Sooriyabandara told Counterpoint. “We have had many discussions with the Secretary of the Mahaweli Development & Environment Ministry and the Mahaweli Authority about the Moragahakanda water issue and  have come to an agreement to manage the water. The water is carefully managed so that it will be favourable to both people in the area and animals. There is no problem there now.”

Meanwhile, Justice for Animals also stated that despite Cabinet approval, the Ministry of Tourism and Christian Affairs is yet to gazette the Kala Wewa sanctuary a National Park, which would then allow local officers to take necessary action against any illegal activity in protected areas.

Says Mr. Sooriyabandara, the delay is due to the long process in gazetting.

What else then could be done to ease the problem and hopefully mitigate the conflict?  There is no long migration amongst Sri Lankan elephants, says Dr. Pilapitiya, as they have ‘distinct home ranges’ and move between forest patches within that range.  It’s the illegal encroachment in to those small corridors of elephant movement, and government development projects that cause the conflict.”

In areas with high HEC, the DWC should radio collar several herds and determine their ranging patterns.  Based on this information, areas could be cleared of human habitation.”  Survey data indicate that humans and elephants share 44% of the land area, so where there are only small patches of forest, there will be conflict. One of the solutions has been the introduction of electric fencing of villages, with the active participation of the residents, so that they take ownership and maintain the fences to protect their homes and land.  Dr. Pilapitiya points out that based on his experience, this method has been very successful in preventing HEC, and states the programme must be up scaled. Such fencing is yet to take place in Kala Wewa and Minneriya.

While the DWC has, with the help of experts developed a plan to mitigate HEC, it is implemented “piece meal”, mostly because of “resource constraints and political interference’ which does not allow the DWC to fully implement the plan, says Dr. Pilapitiya.

It appears then, that until and unless there is political will to take concrete action, the conflict will continue, causing harm to man and beast. Even if the type of poisoning which resulted in the recent deaths is ascertained, would the authorities be able to identify the culprits and take appropriate action?  Villagers would do whatever it takes to protect their families and crop, and wild animals will forage for food, when their habitats are encroached.

Will our politicians at least now stop making populist decisions to fatten their vote banks and implement the plan designed by the DWC and save the lives of both humans and elephants?

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