Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Workshop on the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants

 – Hosted by the WNPS and funded by the Born Free Foundation @ SLF on 24th January 2017 - 9.30am to 5.30 pm

The main actors conducting the workshop were Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, who for a short time in 2016 was the DG WLC and Elephant specialist, and the Elephant expert Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, of the Center for Conservation Research.

At the conclusion of the workshop an appeal was made to try and impress upon the President as the Minister for the Environment and Mahaweli, to make sure that the water from the Moragahakanda Project does NOT result in a permanent situation where the Minneriya and Kawdulla Tanks are always at spill level, which will KILL both the US$1.25B value of the Gathering for Sri Lanka Tourism, that will outweigh any benefit farmers of Polonnaruwa District will get from having constant water to guarantee two paddy crops a year from the lands cultivated from these two tanks.

While Sumith used the word spill level, Prithiviraj countered it will be at Supply level, which is only a semantic difference in words, but amounts to the same in reality, that there will be NO grasslands in either of the Reservoirs for the 1,000 or so Elephants who use it for their fodder when the water level recedes in the Tanks.

The interpretation is on how the President sees it as a Politician from Polonnaruwa District, being concerned about a few million rupees in the pockets of a few farmers, when compared with a few thousand billion rupees in the hands of the Sri Lankan Populace from Tourism, and what he values more! The micro level or the holistic macro level expected of a TRUE STATESMEN.

This leads to the main topic of the day, which was how we are to spread the gospel to the people of Sri Lanka, that the value of the Elephant in SL cannot be measured. Their commitment NOT to harm the elephants take reasonable steps to avoid coming into conflict with them, is the real practical means of avoiding HEC (Human Elephant Conflict). It all goes to the conscience of the affected villager, on how he manages to minimize his or her personal animosity against the elephant that damages their lovingly grown crop in a manner of seconds, that leads them to take revenge against the same rogue elephant who comes nightly, by using Hakka Pattas or other traps that maim and kill. Immediate compensation can help here!

With 45% of the Country in Elephant and Human Habitat co-existence, the name of the game is how to manage harmony,  where both man and beast can live side by side, with mutual respect for each other, reducing the temptation of elephants to venture into human habitation to raid crops, by having effective barriers in the form of intelligently managed and maintained Electric Fencing, around areas of human habitation protecting humans, whilst at the same time permitting the maximum possible spaces for Elephants by giving them access to historic and traditional corridors, so they may move around unhindered, as the best way to make this objective work, and minimize the elephant need to encroach.

Further a fervent request that ALL development plans, before they are even attempted, to look at the minimal conflict areas for its construction, rather than using the conservation and environmental impact report as an afterthought, to wiggle around the problem, once the basics of construction have been agreed to.

The various practical issues were discussed, and the conclusion was that as far as fences go, they are the single most practical means to reduce HEC, and all other natural and biological means have been tested and found wanting. Additionally the actual method of fencing must take into account the terrain and practical difficulties and be adapted to particular elephant behavior to minimize the likelihood of elephants using their cunning to break and penetrate them.

Further current systems of Elephant drives were looked at and the conclusion was they don’t work, and even short term drives do NOT result in any change in behavior as they return to base, sometimes with an aggravated consequence.

Reducing the effect of Elephants getting caught to trains were discussed, and the consensus was to identify the few areas where the majority of the accidents take place, and have speed limits as the practical answer to that problem, that does NOT even necessitate DWC officers having to go on those night trains with the Drivers, if the Drivers, merely obey the Track Rules of speed!

Strict action to be taken under the law for those who use their own means of electrifying a fence, using the Grid to supply power, that invariably could kill elephant as well as human who gets caught. All other private means to be approved

A brief discussion of the conservation of the unique Tuskers of Kalawewa was also included, to provide them safe passage to Ritigala through a corridor that is currently cultivated, which results in severe harm to herds that attempt the crossing. 

In my opinion, this land should be purchased outright to expand this absolutely critical requirement to ensure the survival of the Tuskers. If NOT, they are bound to have a finite life of not more than 25 years left. Remember the total land extent is very limited here and the protected areas must be expanded.

I was very disappointed that there were NO senior officials from the Conservator of Forests, so that joint undertakings with the DWC could be seen to act on the conservation of Elephants who move in and out of their mutual jurisdictions seamlessly, but who are dealt with differently. So an appeal that they are put within the same Ministry, so that their objectives and work could support each other in managing the PROTECTED AREAS in the manner that the statute determines, with each authority helping each other to carry out their duties rather than compete.

In this instance the Range Forest Officers could often work with the Wildlife Department Officers in raids on poaching and encroaching in protected areas, to minimize the future incidences of this activity, increasing their effectiveness.

Further the participation of the other stakeholders who had been invited, and whose attendance had been confirmed, not turning up was a barrier to a successful workshop, where MORE stakeholder issues and goals could have been stirred into the same pot to come out with the needed JOINT DECLARATION to the Govt. to insist that certain changes be made in order that the Law can be obeyed and enforced with POLITICAL BLESSINGS rather than Politics and Political interference, being a barrier to its successful implementation.

The impressive show from the DWC with 6 senior officials including the DG himself, attending was heartening, but as Dr Sumith pointed out, their flexibility in putting pressure is limited as they are mere staffers whose employment could be at risk if they are seen by the politicians as interfering, and so it is the responsibility of the CIVIL society of the NGOs to put pressure on the Government to follow the statutes and enforce the existing laws fairly, so that conservation is carried out by the DWC and the current intense illwill caused by affected villagers blaming DWC officials for HEC, when in fact another civilian body, working with the local Govt. officials SHOULD intervene to sort the problems of the people, with discussion with DWC to minimize conflict.

In short the DWC can side with the animal, and the Grama Niladari side with the villager, and they mutually agree on a plan to sort out the particular problem and have a means to reconcile or compromise with an independent arbitration body, when disputes arise that cannot be resolved.

It was an excellent session and I was able to reconnect with Kumudini Hettiarachchi and meet Malaka Rodrigo, an Environmental Journalist, to try and find a means to communicate with the Sinhala Speaking audience, as that is the population that has the least access to the latest recommendations on behavior! However most of the publicity SHOULD be given to the affected areas to change their attitudes, if we are to succeed in our objectives.


The whole session was geared in such a way that we would have well defined objectives of a 5 point plan as it were to present to the Minister of Wildlife Conservation who had agreed to attend towards the end, so that we could impress on him how important ALL stakeholders unanimously agreed on a proposal for him to consider and approve.

ALAS ( as is very common amongst our leaders) he was a NO SHOW!

PS Parliament was engaged in a useless Bond Scandal Debate, an excuse to waste more time! IF there is a case they should prosecute, not waste Parliamentary time on a foolish debate of words that have NO force! Priorities Priorities, all COCK-EYED

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