By Ravi Corea
It was encouraging to find out that the Department of Wildlife Conservation has made a decision to do away with translocating of elephants. Yet, there seems to be no definite plans as to how the current population of elephants in Sri Lanka will be managed over the long term.
According to an article it seems the only solution that is still advocated by the Department of Wildlife to address the intensifying human-elephant conflicts island wide is to erect hundreds of kilometers of electric fencing. With the country on an escalated development drive, it becomes vitally important that we address issues such as human-elephant conflicts and elephant conservation with a long term focus, goals and objectives in mind. Palliative efforts, such as erecting electric fences are not a long term solution especially if they are used to fence elephants in areas.
While electric fences can be effective there are limitations to their application and they are also hampered with issues in regard to their maintenance, operations and effectiveness. If an electric fence is not properly maintained it quickly becomes un-operational. Most importantly, if an electric fence is not properly planned and erected it could unnecessarily obstruct elephants from accessing vital resources. This is especially so when the aim is to fence elephants in a specific area. If that is the aim then it is vitally important to find out whether that area has the carrying capacity to maintain whatever the number of elephants that are being fenced in that area.
This means to develop effective long term strategies and measures to resolve human-elephant conflicts and for the successful management of elephants scientific research is vital. Basic research which is the key to knowledge-basic research provides vital information especially to identify specific research needs as well as to provide baseline data to develop effective management measures and to take informed decisions. A point to keep in mind is that over time the elephant population will increase. Therefore it bodes well for the relevant authorities to pay a lot of attention now itself as to how the increasing number of elephants will be managed. This will be a huge challenge and a very difficult management decisions will have to be made and adapted to address this issue.
Today human-elephant conflict has transcended from just being a wildlife management problem to one of the worst environmental and rural social economic crises in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. The reason for this problem is attributed to the fact that 70% of our wild elephant population live outside the Wildlife Protected Area network and share land with rural people. But there are other contributing factors as well. A primary issue is that, there is no proper land use and land management policy being implemented. Unregularised land tenure has fragmented vast tracts of forest, making it a nightmare to address environmental and socio-economic issues and concerns such as human-elephant conflicts, poverty alleviation and rural youth unemployment.
The Northwestern Province is a prime example where elephants and people live in a homogenous habitat. The elephants in the Northwestern Province basically live in fragmented forests amidst a sea of humanity. Unfortunately, today many other areas are also quickly moving towards a similar situation―especially in the north and east of the island where accelerated development drives are in place. Another factor is land use where farmers are practicing agriculture that is incompatible with sharing land with elephants. The challenge is, even though human-elephant conflict is as a result of unregulated agriculture, the solution to mitigate it to a certain extent has to be based on alternative agriculture practices. Providing farmers with alternative agricultural practices should be part of the efforts to mitigate human-elephant conflicts.
The magnitude and intensity of the human-elephant conflicts, which are escalating annually, can be assessed by the following statistics:
1. Human-elephant conflicts are prevalent in 51 of the 325 Divisional Secretary Divisions, in 13 of the 25 Districts and in 8 of the 9 Provinces in Sri Lanka.
2. These conflicts affect over 3 million people.
3. From 1992 to 2010, 1045 people were killed by elephants and 2,792 elephants had been killed by people-mostly farmers in retaliation for crop raiding.
4. From 2004 to 2007 a total of 3,103 homes were destroyed by elephants.
5. In addition to the above losses, the damage caused by elephants to paddy fields, home gardens, maize and other cereal cultivations and coconut plantations in many parts of the Dry Zone has been estimated to cost Rs. 1,100 million (US$10 million) annually.
The increasing rural poverty among Dry Zone farmers due to agricultural losses, damage to house and property by elephants and the equally increasing number of destitute families due to a breadwinner in the family being killed by elephants, makes this a very serious socio-economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Human-elephant conflicts are a crisis that requires urgent government as well as private sector attention if mitigation and management measures are to be effective.
What needs to be done?
Future mitigation strategies should be based on sound data and information on:
Land area and land use.
Elephant populations, their distribution and ranging patterns.
Human demography and rural livelihoods.
This is taking into consideration the following:
Elephants survive in large numbers only in the dry zone. This is the only and last habitat left for them. Therefore any future development plans for these areas must balance development goals with elephant conservation. A good example is Hambantota where the new city development could have integrated the protection of the elephants and other wildlife and their habitats into the master plan to create perhaps the first Wilderness City in the world.
The results of such an approach will prevent the large and unnecessary expenditure on mitigation methods that have mostly failed.
In addition to ensure the success of such an effort it is also important to create policies for the public sector to engage with the private sector. Considering the magnitude and scale of the problem it is highly doubtful that one or two public entities could resolve human-elephant conflicts. To achieve this level of coordination a solution could be to appoint an independent Competent Authority. The Competent Authority’s primary responsibility will be to ensure that all discussions pertaining to elephant conservation issues have had the participation of the experts that have been identified from the government and private sectors.
The Competent Authority will bring together all the stakeholders from the private and public sector including representatives from government departments such as, Agrarian Services, Agriculture, Social Services, etc. for planning and implementation of elephant conservation measures at a landscape level. This will ensure that the strategies and plans that are designed by the forum are implemented so that there will be maximum benefits to the affected communities whilst ensuring the long term conservation of the endangered Sri Lankan elephant.
Translating the 2006 Cabinet approved National Policy for Elephant Conservation and Management to a comprehensive action plan for elephant conservation with a time line for implementation is also vital to ensure the success of these efforts. Human elephant conflicts can be resolved successfully by developing a series of mitigatory, adaptive and preemptive strategies and approaches, but to do so we need to first consider it as an issue of national importance and approach it from a land use and landscape management outlook. It is also critical to get the support from the highest office in the country and also to develop public private partnerships to ensure the success of these efforts.