Elephant Killers Roam Free!
By Nirmala Kannangara
Unplanned developments within forest areas and unsuccessful elephant drives have become one of the main causes for human elephant conflicts in the country.
As a result of ‘acquiring’ forest lands which are elephant habitat areas, elephants have been deprived of food and water. Hence elephants have no other option but to invade the surrounding villages which has led to human-elephant conflict.
After four wild elephants including a baby elephant were electrocuted at Handilla in the Hambantota district a few weeks ago, it has come to the limelight as to how illegal encroachers use the main power connection to kill elephants.
Environmentalists are up in arms against the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) for their alleged failure to discharge the duties to take action against those who violate DFC and DWC regulations.
“In the case of the four elephant deaths few weeks ago, why couldn’t the DFC take action against the person who built the house blocking the elephant corridor in Handilla. When the DWC is driving away the elephants from their natural habitats to certain parks, DFC is allowing people to build houses in forest lands blocking elephant corridors so where can the elephants go? When this happens, where else can the jumbos go other than entering border villages looking for food? In this particular incident in Handilla, these elephants were roaming in their ‘homelands’ but was killed by an illegal encroacher. How cruel this is. These elephants – two mothers and a young tusker around 5-6 years and a baby elephant about two years were killed brutally by this illegal encroacher. What action would these two institutions take against the accused for trespassing elephant homelands?” alleged Director Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara.
According to Handilla villagers, another male elephant has been electrocuted closer to the airport a few days ago.
The angry villagers, on condition of anonymity, too accused the Department of DFC for allowing people to destroy forest lands but added that fines are imposed against the villagers if they clear a small piece of land for a chena cultivation.
“A fine of Rs.15,000 is imposed if we clear a small area in the forest to make a chena for our living. However they are silent when outsiders clear the forest to make holiday homes,” the sources claimed.
According to the sources, although the Forest Department razed the house to the ground and set it on fire claiming it is an unauthorized building at the beginning, their stance was changed later.
The sources further accused Ceylon Electricity Board for giving power connection no sooner the house was built although the villagers were not given the power supply.
“We have been requesting the CEB to give us the electricity connection over the years but all appeals had fallen on deaf ears. However, no sooner this ‘holiday home’ was built, electricity was given to that house. It was only after this that we got electricity to our houses,” said the sources.
According to him, the villagers had to undergo severe hardships to get Grama Niladhari’s approval for the electricity connection as they had to produce their title deeds and many other documentary evidence to prove that the house legally belonged to the applicant.
“Although we had to produce all these documents to the Grama Niladhari to get his approval for the electricity connection, how could the CEB and the Grama Niladhari give approval for the electricity connection to this illegal construction?,” alleged the villagers.
Meanwhile, the villagers accused the encroachers for not having sympathy towards wild animals who have got to live on the mercy of humans.
“This is their homeland and we should not invade their territory.
Even if we invade, we have to allow these animals to live free without killing or harassing them. We have been engaged in chena cultivation for several decades through generations but elephants and humans have lived amicably,” the sources added.
According to him, the electric fences around this land in question are similar to wildlife electric fences.
“Those who were engaged in chena cultivation for over decades were chased away from the forest a few years ago but were given two-and-a-half acres each to plant kohomba (Margosa) trees promising us that we would be allow to sell the trees after 20 years. After planting kohomba trees a few years ago, the entire area was allegedly given to a private party for an unknown project. Now they are bulldozing the 50- 80 acres of forest land and have bulldozed all our hard work – the kohomba plantation. When we asked as to why these lands were allowed to be bulldozed, the Forest Department had nothing to say but to give lame excuses,” he added.
Refuting allegations levelled against the Forest Department for giving away lands to outsiders to clear more than 80 acres of lands, District Forest Officer , Mr. Herath said that the lands that had been given away belongs to the Land Reclamation.
“I do not know as to how they got this land from Land Reclamation but it is said that they have got the approval to clear the land.
The Forest Department looked after this land over the years but that does not say it belongs to the FD. However we have not banned chena cultivation in forest lands but do not give licences for new chenas. We have given permission for those who did chenas over the years,” said Herath.
However Herath confirmed that the four elephants that were killed were electrocuted illegally.
“The watcher has allowed the elephants to enter their land and connected 5 amp current to the fence.
All four elephants died on the fence instantly,” he added.
Meanwhile, Hemantha Garusinghe, Grama Niladhari of Ketenwewa said that there are no restrictions to give the electricity connection to illegal encroachers as it is a basic human right.
Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation, H. D. Ratnayake was not available for comment nor answered his mobile phone.
Elephants cannot be driven off completely from their natural habitats
Dr Prithiviraj Fernando
Elephant Biologist Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman, Centre for Conservation and Research, said that elephants cannot be driven off completely from their natural habitats although government spends millions of rupees for unsuccessful drives.
“If there is a need to clear elephant habitat for development work, it should be done in a planned way so that the area developed is a single, fully developed block, instead of creating patches of development within elephant habitats or patches of elephant habitats within developed areas. However, as long as there is suitable habitat, elephants cannot be driven away”, said Dr Fernando.
He further stated that the trouble makers – some of the adult male elephants who raid habitually and become aggressive towards people – cannot be driven away but only the females and young could be moved out.
“Females and the young can be moved by the elephant drives but hardly any large males who are really trouble makers. Trouble causing male elephants remain in the area and become more aggressive as a result of drives, resulting in increased conflict with humans. On the other hand the innocent females and young, which are driven into parks and restricted by electric fences, starve to death inside. Although much effort has been taken to drive away the elephants over the past 60 years to restrict them to protected areas, it has become a failure as 70% of the elephants remain out of the parks. Research clearly shows that trouble-making elephants, that have been translocated to parks, have all left the parks where they were released.
While some of these trouble-making animals have come back to their original habitat, there are some who have failed to find their original places but wandered over large areas seeking to get back home. There are others who leave the parks but settle close by in new places and enter adjoining villages and raid crops. Many of them were killed by people soon after being released and they also killed many more humans than non-translocated elephants. This has shown that translocating elephants does not help to lessen human elephant conflict,” he said.
Giving a classic example, Dr Fernando pointed out as to how the Department of Wildlife Conservation failed to drive the elephants to Lunugamwehera National Park during the Walawe Left Bank Development Project between 2005 and 2006.
“The wildlife workers spent almost one-and-a-half years to drive away the elephants to Lunugamwehera. Although first it was said that there were only 106 elephants to be driven off to Lunugamwehera, 250 elephants came out of the forest and was driven into Lunugamvehera Park. However, after the drive, another 400 elephants are still roaming in and around the airport,” added Dr Fernando. So while the original ‘count’ was 106 there must have been around 600 elephants.
According to him, the more the villagers fire elephant thunders (large firecrackers) to scare the elephants, the more these animals get used to it and react aggressively.
“The elephants get used to elephant thunders when they are used often and haphazardly. Lighting thunders means confronting elephants and getting into conflict with them. As a result, elephants become aggressive towards humans and lead to increased human-elephant conflicts. When elephant thunders or live ammunition is used to scare them, even the innocent elephants get aggressive and the trouble-making elephants even more aggressive, which is disastrous,” said Dr Fernando.
He added said that out of the translocated animals, most are adult male elephants. The male elephants leave the herd by the time they turn about 15 years and thereafter lead a largely solitary life. It is mainly some of these single males who come into conflict with humans. When such a ‘trouble maker’ kills a person or damages houses, they are subjected to capture and translocation.
“Over the past 20 years, together with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, we have fitted GPS satellite collars with transmitters to over 60 elephants. Once in every four hours these collars collect position data and transmit the locations once a day through the satellite. The locations and movements of these elephants are marked on a map to show where these elephants are and their movements. The data has shown that translocating elephants do not lessen human-elephant conflict as they continue to conflict with humans,” said Dr Fernando.
He further added as to how people have been killed by elephants due to lack of common sense.
“Most of these reported deaths were due to lack of common sense and failure to act responsibly by villagers. We have seen as to how people either walk or ride their bicycles in the night even without a light or in some cases drunk, in areas where there are elephants. People think that these areas belong to humans and they act without thinking as to what could happen if there is an elephant. This is exactly what has happened on many occasions. There is no point of staging demonstrations or holding placards against the Wildlife Department for not taking action against human elephant conflict once a person gets killed. The Wildlife Department cannot stand behind every person living in areas with elephants. Primarily the people should act responsibly and take measures to safeguard their lives and avoid these animals,” he pointed out.
According to Dr Fernando, Asian elephants are found in 13 South and South-east Asian countries and the highest elephant density and third highest human density is reported from Sri Lanka.
“Why we have a high level of human elephant conflict is because development takes place within elephant habitat not considering that there are elephants in those areas. An exception to this happened under the Greater Hambantota Development Plan where the entire area was zoned to accommodate development needs till 2030. However, the Urban Development Authority and Central Environmental Authority changed the Hambantota zoning plan to also accommodate elephants in the area while catering for all the development needs.
The Managed Elephant Range (MER), identified under the zoning plan, was aimed to prevent the conflict while development took place by also accommodating the needs of elephants. Under the concept of MER, both humans and elephants co-exist in areas designated for them. However this is yet to be gazetted and as a result lots of legal and illegal encroachments are taking place, jeopardizing the elephants, villages and the planned development” said Dr Fernando.