The Jumbo Plan
By Raisa Wickrematunge
From honeybees to electric fences, the methods villagers use to fend off hungry elephants have been legion. Up until recently, however, there was no definitive solution for the ongoing human elephant ‘conflict.’ However, the government has officially announced that a plan has been compiled, with the help of several experts.
Plan One of the first points noted by the new plan (a copy of which is in The Sunday Leader’s possession) is that elephant drives and capture transport have been largely unsuccessful. Females and young elephants are driven away, while males are captured and transported to protected areas. Last year, a male tusker died while being transported. The new programme involves constructing more electric fences, which will cost Rs. 5 million per village. There are also plans to construct more temporary electric fences around paddy fields. Also being discussed is a mechanism to deal with ‘problem elephants’ perhaps using specially allocated holding grounds, (though this is still in the experimental stage). Some suggestions in the plan, however, have raised eyebrows.
One which is causing particular controversy is a method put forward to decrease the likelihood of elephants entering villages. The idea is to differentiate villages from elephant habitats. At present, many villages have isolated patches of scrub forest close by. Elephants sometimes live in these forest patches during the day and raid the nearby villages at night. The proposal calls for those forest patches to be cleared. This will be done in the 100 villages protected by electric fences. Unoccupied land will be put to good use and electric lighting installed.
While this may seem like a sensible idea on the surface, there are one or two problems, according to some environmentalists. University Zoology Department Senior Lecturer Nihal Dayawansa said that this approach was ‘not a solution at all.’ Chairman, Young Zoologists Association, Pubudu Weeraratne noted that there was a need to conserve the biodiversity present in the forests, not cut down on forest cover. He noted that a variety of flora and fauna would lose their habitat if the forests were cleared. In addition he said that though farmers fenced off 12-13 acres of land, they only used 2 or 3 acres to grow their crop, leaving bare land. “There is no proper land management plan, and not enough land available. Without a plan, you can’t stop the conflict. Electric and bio fences… are only temporary solutions,” Weeraratne commented.
Environmentalist and lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said that though there were many good suggestions made in the plan, he had reservations about the clearing of forests. Gunawardena pointed out that the scrub forest patches could act as a ‘catch crop.’ Elephants would stop in the scrub forest, buying villagers time to prepare for a raid. If the forest patches were cut down, the problem would be enhanced, as elephants would simply head straight for the villages, Gunawardena said. He too spoke of the need to preserve the biodiversity in forest patches. That’s without mentioning the cost of the project, approximately Rs. 1 million per village. That’s a total of at least Rs. 100 million for the 100 villages bordered by electric fences (implemented by the ‘Gajamithuro’ and ‘Gemiridiya’ programmes, among others).
Another problem which Gunawardena pointed out was the status of ‘chena cultivation.’ Chena cultivation involves clearing an area of trees, sometimes by fire. Crops are then grown on the land, but only during the wet season. In the dry season the land is kept fallow. After a few seasons the land is abandoned. ‘Pioneer’ plants grow in the fallow or abandoned chena lands, and these areas often attract elephants. The elephant conflict mitigation plan classes chena cultivation as illegal. However, Gunawardena disagrees. “Saying it is illegal bodes badly, especially when the government is trying to promote traditional varieties of enhancing nutrition,” Gunawardena said. The idea put forward in the plan is to convert areas using chena cultivation into Managed Elephant Reservations, where the people cultivating the lands receive ‘economic benefit’ from protecting the elephants. However, it is added that the spread of chena cultivation will be discouraged, as it encourages the felling of trees. Dr. Dayawanse said that while this concept was sound there needed to be careful implementation. This was echoed by Weeraratne as well.
Chairman, Centre of Conservation and Research (CCR) Prithiviraj Fernando was one of the team who compiled the elephant conflict mitigation plan. Fernando addressed the concerns raised by the other environmentalists. “This is a concept of how to manage the human-elephant conflict. The logistics still have to be worked out and the funds made available,” Fernando said. He added that many villages which used electric fences were not “contiguous areas of human habitation.” The lack of boundaries increased the likelihood of conflict, he said. As such, large patches of forest would be left outside the fence, but those scrub forest patches within the fences would have to be cleared. The cleared land would then be used for home gardens and so on.
Abandoned land would also be put to good use, he said. Fernando said the patches were often only half an acre to an acre in size. With regards to chena cultivation, he said that provision had been made for chena farmers to apply for permits to cultivate and develop the land. However, he said many farmers were operating without permits. “Chena is conducted illegally,” Fernando asserted. Farmers would set up a traditional house and begin cultivation, so that they would eventually receive a deed and permanent house, he said. “Chena needs to be regulated, not allowed to mushroom to encourage permanent housing and settlement,” Fernando observed.
Meanwhile, Jagath Gunawardena said the size of a forest patch did not preclude it from being rich in biodiversity. “In Knuckles, for instance, one small forest patch contains rare specimens of amphibian. Clearing one forest patch could mean the extinction of a whole species, or endangering some flora and fauna,” Gunawardena said. He added that the term forest patch was not really defined in the report. Many measures advocated in the plan are sound, (a suggestion to prevent the encroachment of development projects such as roads and tanks on elephant habitats being one example). Medium and long term plans have also been set out in order to resolve the current situation. However, other suggestions are finding less support from wildlife enthusiasts. The clearing of scrub forest in particular looks to be expensive, at Rs. 1 million a village, and might not prove fruitful. Like ‘Project Honeybee’ there’s no knowing how effective some of these measures will be.