When the Cabinet of Minsters sets eyes on an irresponsible decision it almost always gets away with it, irrespective of the protests of the society. The Cabinet decision to do away with circular 5/2001 will  effectively removes large tracts of forests from the supervision and control of elephants. And along with it, the country might be on course for the worsening of the human-elephant conflict.

Unless Sri Lanka takes steps to look for a well planned strategy on this issue, the loss to the national economy, by way of continued destruction of forests, damage to crops, livelihoods and lives of both humans and elephants could be far greater than it already is.

The recent video surfaced highlighting the tragic plight of an elephant.  A bull elephant is seen limping  about in an open land seemingly in excruciating pain, its left leg wounded and with dozens of gunshot pellet wounds all over the body. There is outrage in social media, for a few days before moving on to other issues. In a country where a few hundred elephants are killed each year, this incident was just another piece of news.

Just two days ago, a lecturer attached to the University of Jaffna was killed by an elephant, when she had gone in to visit a shrine in the nearby jungle.In the Kandy district, several villages bordering Victoria reservoir face incursions by lone male elephants ever deeper into the interior of ancient settlements.

Facts speak for themselves. Sri Lanka has killed more than 2631 elephants since 2010 .More than 807 people killed and over 10532 property damages have been the toll exacted by elephants, making this issue be the biggest environmental challenge that the country faces.

Human elephant conflict ravages through a number of districts. At stake are the lives of elephants whose deaths have been increasing each year –last year being the worst with over 361 deaths. Human deaths too, with 96 people being killed in this fight over territory.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is the government entity at the forefront of finding a way out of the tragedy along with a few other agencies such as Mahaweli Authority, and local bodies.

More than 4500 kms of electric fences have come up –enough to fence the entire coastline of Sri Lanka 3 times over. Tens of thousands of flares have been issued. Yet to no avail.  In a highly controversial move the government distributed over 2000 shotguns to farmers, inducted as civil security cadre, just in January, this year. Translocation of elephants has been attempted as well, resulting in the removal of elephants particularly from areas in Kurunegala district. In one instance, Chandi, a single tusker from Galgamuwa returned to home grounds twice, after being transported to Somawathiya reserve and Horowpathana elephant holding ground respectively. There have been nearly a hundred elephant drives done by DWC.

As yet every one of these measures has not reduced, let alone abated the severity of the ongoing war .There are elephants on both sides of the electric fence in many areas. Elephants have lost fear of flares. Translocation and drives have failed as elephants would normally attempt returning to the very forests they were forced out from.

Brutality continues .Several hundred elephants died during the previous decade, due to Hakka Patas, a locally manufactured crude device which creates a blast when the unsuspecting animal eats the food within which the bomb is concealed. Most of the Hakka Patas victims have been baby elephants under 5 .Poisoning have not been uncommon either .In Palugaswewa, Habarana, an entire herd of elephants succumbed due to suspected poisoning last September. Many dozens have been electrocuted. The number of elephants falling victim to train collisions has risen as well. Further, Deaths due to causes unknown have been continuing.

In fact most of the deaths happened during the second half of this decade. During the previous 5 years the number of elephants killed has been over 1500 .This goes to show the sheer lack of effectiveness of the measures adopted. In this decade, the highest number of human fatalities occurred during the previous three years.

Sri Lanka has 18 national parks .However; more than 65%of the elephants live beyond these parks. Elephants roam about 60% of the landmass of the Island. Humans occupy almost 70% of the land. Sri Lanka is home to over 6000 elephants as some estimates put it.

Statistics would show that DWC with mere 1300 officers has an impossible task in hand .Underfunded and under manned the efforts by the DWC in keeping the man and elephant apart has been failing as the sky rocketing figures show.

To add to the tragedy, the increased politicization of the measures has made matters worse. Once, a majestic elephant Galgamuwa Raja tragically died when a hurried attempt at the insistence of a minister failed. Ad hoc steps without a clear strategy such as uncoordinated electrical fencing have made matters worse in places. Lack of a workable plan of action has severely affected some regions such as Galgamuwa and Ehetuwewa etc.

DWC pays compensation to victims of damage caused by elephants - Rs500000 for death Rs75000 for injury and Rs100000 for property damage .Electrical fences might require exhaustive efforts at mending and repair .Increased mastery of the fences by elephants that are highly intelligent as a species is well documented. Due to above reasons and more a substantial amount of funds allocated to DWC is spent for issues not directly related to its mandate and mission which is ‘to ensure conservation and wildlife heritage’.

It’s a common fact that the elephants range many miles in search of fodder. There could be at least 2000 bull elephants in a population estimated to be triple that. With their habit of staying away from the herds and the far bigger range that they venture into, the possibility of direct contact with human settlements remains extremely high. It’s no surprise that male elephants die in far higher numbers than females who prefer to stay within the herds with baby elephants. An elephant may have a range of 50 -100 km2 in order to find upward of 150kg of fodder he may need daily. For this reason elephants prefer shrub jungles, forest patches and lake beds where the fodder is abundant.

At the heart of the issue is undoubtedly the destruction of elephant habitat during the previous decades .Mahaweli scheme opened vast swathes of jungle in the dry zone ,resulting in the reduction of forest cover of the island from 24% in 1983 to just 17% by 2007. The story doesn’t end there. As the decades-long war ended, mass scale projects by the government took away further forest cover.

The list is long .Mattala Airport required the clearing of at least 5000 acres of dense forest. Moragahakanda and Yan Oya schemes inundated over 10000 acres. Illegal encroachments in Wilpattu would cost 4000 acres of wilderness. Polonnaruwa district is set to suffer substantial forest loss amounting to over 50000 acres in Medirigiriya and Padaviya forest reserves, due to multiple projects launched in the previous 5 years. Nearby Maduru Oya Right bank project will put at least 45000 acres to axe .In addition, environmental groups claim that more than 50000 acres of forests have been destroyed for mass scale cash crop cultivation in the bordering forests of the National parks of Yala and Kumana. These figures do not include a large number of relatively small scale destruction due to encroachments, road construction etc such as taking place in the Sinharaja Man and Biosphere Reserve.

Worst affected districts in the ongoing human elephant conflict are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Hambantota, Kurunegala and Monaragala .It’s not an irony that much of the destruction of forests too has occurred in the same districts. It appears that consecutive governments have gone about the ongoing national tragedy without a cohesive strategy and the ever-increasing deaths are ample testimony to the failures of the steps taken.

Further destruction of forests in unprecedented scale is on the cards, with the proposal before the cabinet to remove circular 5/2001 which would effectively remove massive areas of forests known as other state forests from the control of the Forests Department.

Likelihood of damage from such a move is such that over 112763 hectares of other state forests in the worst affected districts could be under threat, thereby causing a significant loss for elephant habitat. When taking into account the fact that nearly 70% elephants live outside the reserves, any further damage to these forests beyond the reserves could further worsen the situation at hand. Some of these forest patches in fact serve as corridors for elephant migration between reserves. In fact 16 such corridors would be in harm’s way if the Government goes ahead with the plan that is brewing in the Cabinet.

It is no understatement that the very solution to this environmental disaster lies with the forests. Thus, the protection of what’s left is the need of the moment as opposed to carrying out strategies which lead to mass scale destruction as the proposal before the cabinet might entail. Sri Lanka needs to learn to live with its elephant population. We need a planned solution that takes into account the realities at play. The disastrous strategy thought out by the former government to restrict them into our limited number of protected reserves is one such example of the string of failures in terms of planning.

Facilitating the possibility of elephant migration between reserves through corridors, increasing the extent of reserves by bringing together all available forests under one institution, a more effective installation of fences, strict enforcing of law against destruction of remaining forests, use of natural barriers and deterrence such as Palmyra, citrus plants, etc and, increasing of the cadre an capabilities of the DWC are all practical options which have thus far been hampered only by short sighted politics, and they, if carried out with vigor, might go a long way in finding a way out of the costliest environmental disaster Sri Lanka faces.  (KS)