‘All efforts towards resolving human-elephant conflict have failed’

Elephantine errors

By Sapumal Jayasena
The human-elephant conflict is now probably at its most critical stage in Sri Lankan history. Around 15 elephants have lost their lives during the past week, along with a number of humans who have become victims of elephant attacks.
Below is a breakdown of the number of elephants killed during the past six years due to the prevailing conflict.
Year Number of elephant deaths
2005 123
2006 163
2007 189
2008 224
2009 228
2010 250

The statistics clearly show that the number of elephant deaths is increasing each year. It is expected that the number at the end of this year would end up surpassing the deaths in 2010. However, an officer of the Department of Wildlife Conservation said that the actual number of elephant deaths may well be higher as there are deaths that go unreported.

A herd of elephants that raided a village in the North Central province recently is estimated to have caused some Rs.10 million in damages to local crops and property in a two-day rampage. Meanwhile a blind tusker referred to as ‘Dala Poottuwa’ attacked 49 vehicles along the Dambulla-Kekirawa road, and the arrival of another herd has caused disruption to the day-to-day lives of the people of Mahiyangana.

Around 50 to 70 people die every year due to attacks by elephants, while enormous damage is caused to crops and property. The Department of Wildlife Conservation is the authority that is vested with the responsibility of looking into the human-elephant conflict, along with elephant conservation. However, the director of the department in a statement claims that it is almost impossible to solve the problem without the support of other relevant organisations and the public.

Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, who has conducted research for over 20 years on elephant conservation, is of the view that all efforts that the government has undertaken throughout history in terms of the human-elephant conflict and elephant conservation have been failures.
Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife S. M. Chandrasena, addressing the media recently, said that in 1950, the total forest cover of the country was 40%, and its elephant population was 3,000. However, by 2010, that forest cover had dwindled by 20% while the elephant population had doubled to 6,000.
Speaking further on the issue, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando set out the steps taken to resolve the human-elephant conflict.

1. Tranquilising dangerous elephants, then transporting and releasing them into forest reserves (relocation).
2. Driving away elephant herds towards forest reserves.
3. Erecting electric fences along the borders of forest reserves.
Dr. Prithiviraj believes that all three of these steps are failures.
“Mostly, it is the lone elephant that is most aggressive and causes most problems. They tranquilise these animals and release them into some forest reserve situated some 150 to 200 kilometres from their original location. These forest reserves have plenty of food and water, as well as other elephant herds. And yet, the elephants relocated this way still end up coming back to their original habitats some weeks afterwards,” Dr. Prithiviraj says.

He points out that this is clearly visible when one studies the patterns shown in the GPS trackers that have been attached to these elephants. He also states that there have been occasions where elephants returning this way, attacking and killing people along the way. Currently, 25 to 30 elephants are relocated each year to forest reserves.

Another step taken towards resolving the human-elephant conflict is driving around 300 to 400 elephants who are part of many different herds, towards forest reserves. This is a massive operation that takes several months and the collective efforts of hundreds of wildlife officers.

Commenting on the effectiveness of this strategy, Dr. Prithiviraj states, “Dangerous lone elephants tend to get left behind during such operations. It is from these lone elephants that people are most at risk. Smaller herds also tend to get left behind. On the other hand, what we are doing in such operations is going to the homes of these elephants, setting off thousands of thunder flashes and making an awful racket. This is an extremely cruel act. Baby elephants have been known to die after such operations. Even elephants that haven’t been known to be aggressive end up being dangerous due to such acts, and the aggressive ones simply become even more vicious.”
A project lasting one and a half years and costing Rs. 160 million was undertaken to drive elephant herds away from areas in Hambantota, Weerawila, Mattala, and Ridigama towards Lunugamwehera. However, villagers in these areas say that lone elephants and small herds left behind during the operation are still roaming these areas, and are behaving more aggressively than ever.

“The third option of erecting electric fences along the borders of forest reserves is also a failure. The main problem here is that the fence is being erected along the borders of forest reserves. This means that the forest reserve will be on one side of the fence, while the normal forest is situated on the other side. What should actually happen is that the fence should be built along the border between the forest and the village.
There are also other issues such as the low voltage of the fences, the lack of effective maintenance, and thieves making off with wires used for the fences.” Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando is of the view that support from the villagers should be utilized to maintain electric fences. He also claims that 70% of human deaths caused by elephants are avoidable.


The future of sinharaja and the periphery

By Sajeewa Chamikara
Only a small number of large forests still exist on the island at present. This situation has arisen mainly due to two reasons: first being the destruction of many wetland forests in order to make room for commercial crops such as tea, coffee, and rubber during the colonial period, while the second being the further destruction of such forests due to rapidly expanding human settlements in later years.

The end result of such destruction is that Sri Lanka’s entire landmass is covered by just 2.14% of wetland forest at present. In terms of land, this is just 1415 square kilometres. However, much of Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna are concentrated in the wet zone. Nevertheless, just 68% of this forest cover has been designated as protected land. The remaining percentage of these wetland forests are vested with the Land Reform Commission, the State Plantations Corporation, or is privately owned. It is vital that these forested lands are designated as nature reserves and protected.

On October 21, 1988, 11187 hectares of land belonging to the Sinharaja region were designated as a national heritage forest through gazette number 528/14 under the National Heritage and Wilderness Areas Act No. 3 of 1988. Even 22 years afterwards, steps still have not been taken bring these other forests surrounding Sinharaja into the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.
There have been numerous plans drafted over the years costing millions of rupees in order to protect this land. Of these plans, the one drafted by the Presidential Task Force in 2004 should be commended as one drafted with the country’s future in mind. As per this plan, Cabinet memorandum PS/CS/26/2004 requested that all land belonging to the Land Reform Commission situated within half a kilometre from the Sinharaja Forest Reserve be handed over to the Department of Forest Conservation as per section 22 (1) e and 44 (a) of the Land Reform Act of 1972.

Though these recommendations have been made, files related to them have been gathering dust for seven years in the Natural Resources Management Division at the Ministry of Environment. According to recommendations made in this cabinet paper, 2508.4 hectares of virgin forest land is supposed to be added to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. However, all this has been simply limited to the exchange of letters at official level. Meanwhile, Chairman of the Land Reform Commission, Attorney at Law Nimal P. Punchihewa in a letter dated June 22, 2011, has informed the Commissioner General of Wildlife Conservation to, in the interest of conservation of the Sinharaja region, to bring under the Department of Forest Conservation, forest land that belongs to the Land Reform Commission. The letter further states that the commission is entitled to compensation for the land that is recommended to be taken over.

It is disappointing that the Land Reform Commission is demanding compensation to transfer its forest land to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. One wonders whether the LRC is attempting to safeguard one of the country’s most valuable resources, or whether it is intent on making a sale.
The report of the committee tasked with examining the harm caused to the Sinharaja forest reserve when constructing the road from Ilubakanda to Suriyakanda (the report was handed over to the minister recently) also recommends that forest land belonging to the Land Reform Commission be urgently transferred to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

Despite events standing as they are, it does not seem as if the Department of Forest Conservation or the Ministry of Environment are interested in taking measures in this regard. This has resulted in unprotected forested land around the Sinharaja National Heritage Forest Reserve being used for various development projects. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that there is no control over any of this at present.
Thus, measures need to be taken to not just bring these forests quickly under Sinharaja, but also to provide other valuable forest land situated outside the boundaries of Sinharaja with legal protection so as they could also be brought under the Sinharaja forest reserve. The Morapitiya-Roonakanda, Delgoda, Panagala, Waruthelgoda and Thibbotuwawa proposed forest reserves are connected to Sinharaja. In order to protect the biodiversity of this region, all these should also be brought under Sinharaja and the entire region must be made a protected area.
After these conservation measures are adopted, an area of about a mile or kilometre must be designated around the Sinharaja region in keeping with the National Environment Act. If steps are not taken to establish such a protective zone around the Sinharaja region: regarded as the most biologically diverse in all of Sri Lanka, then one would not be able to contain the adverse effects from all these irregular development activities that are taking place right now.

Forest land at the Sinharaja Forest Reserve border belonging to the Land Reforms Commission that is recommended to be taken over.
Ratnapura District
Murakele Watta - 50.4 ha
Fab Watta - 181.3 ha
Ilubakanda Watta - 567 ha
Morningside Watta - 55.4 ha
Cantor Watta - 130 ha
Gase Watta - 137.5 ha
Gonhela Watta - 137.9 ha
Abarose Watta - 35.4 ha
Backweya Watta - 109.9 ha
Kodurugala Watta - 99 ha
Dambahena Watta - 8.6 ha

Matara District
Enasal Watta - 436 ha
Kurulaga Watta - 188 ha
Beverly Watta - 28 ha
Hemagiri Watta - 40 ha

Galle District
Homadola Watta - 304 ha


Polluter pays under solid waste management policy

By Wijitha Nakkawita
Sri Lanka’s solid waste management policy objectives were discussed at the Solid Waste Association World Congress held recently at Daegu Korea by the Chairman Environmental Authority Chairman Charitha Herath who delivered the conference’s keynote address.
The opportunity afforded to deliver the address at the IWSA World Congress enabled Herath to explain the methods used in the country in solid waste management, ensuring social responsibility, minimizing environmental impact, reducing waste generation by re-using resources, recycling and promoting sustainable production. In this regard he said building capacity of local government bodies using market based approach like “the polluter pays” in enforcing the provisions of the environmental laws of the country, CEA official sources said.
Herath pointed out that there were certain constraints like insufficient financial resources in implementing solid waste management, public and political interferences due to lack of awareness and civic responsibility and inadequate provisions in the existing laws, they said.

He presented the Pilisaru National Waste Management to the conference showcasing small, medium and large scale composting plants, construction of bio gas units, logistical support to sustain these projects like supplying household composting bins and also explained the CEA’s role in supporting engineered sanitary landfills, sorting out and recycling plastic, metal and electronic waste.
Charitha Herath who is a senior lecturer at the Peradeniya University is released on secondment to the CEA as its chairman.