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Elephant problems are our problems

Sep 2, 2011 2:55:16 PM - www.ft.lk

Sri Lanka elephant population is safe — for the moment. That is what the first ever countrywide wild elephant census has told everyone. Yet this should not be confused with the view that the environment for these majestic elephants is safe.
According to the data that was released on Friday morning Sri Lanka has a wild elephant population of 5879. Of this 1107 are baby elephants meaning that the future of the herds is safe. There are also 122 tuskers in the wild that need to be protected at all cost. Observers had noted that these elephants were healthy and at least on paper the prognosis looks good.

The primary reason for the census conducted from 11-14 August was to obtain the data to conserve these unique animals. The elephants of Sri Lanka are an indigenous species and if they are lost to this country then they are lost to the whole world for all time. Scientists have pointed out that Sri Lanka houses one sub species of the Asian Elephant and as such need special attention.

In dollar terms elephants are a massive tourist attraction. They also have a special bond with the traditional and cultural practices of Sri Lanka. This means that in the topic of conservation the biggest attention needs to be given to human-elephant relations.
Even though the number of elephants revealed through the census is larger than was expected an average of 200 elephants die every year from man induced causes. Moreover several hundred more are threatened by habitat loss. This latter phenomenon is growing as Sri Lanka looks for fast tracked development and in this case the elephant stands to lose heavily.   
Recently there has been much media censure directed at government plans to open up buffer zones around national parks for hotel builders. Environmentalists charge that many species, especially elephants prefer the grasslands around protected reserves and therefore would face the most damage from such moves. There has been equal ire against opening up the entire Yala National Park as this would increase poaching and harass animals extensively. In addition reports indicate that there are as many as 200 elephants that have been displaced as a result of the construction happening in the Hambantota District.
In such a scenario it is clear that wildlife authorities spearheaded by the Minister should take strong action. However disappointingly the Wildlife and Environment Ministers are not engaging with the media or other organisations that raise concerns. An attitude change where environmentalists are seen as an important part of the development process and not as a nuisance needs to be cultivated. Stronger emphasis needs to be placed on the environmental drawbacks to development and steps should be taken to ensure that these are minimised.     
The only positive outcome of the war was that Sri Lanka’s wildlife was saved to a certain extent from rapid and thoughtless development. It cannot now be sacrificed at the altar of economic growth. Sustainability needs conservation and this should be an important part of the country’s development drive, for otherwise Sri Lanka stands to lose its most precious asset.    

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