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Returning IDPs Face Jumbo Squatters

Jul 14, 2010 12:44:20 AM - thesundayleader.lk

MAHAWEVA, 8 July 2010 (IRIN) – Internally displaced persons (IDPs) returning to Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province face a big problem – elephants which have taken a liking to abandoned homesteads.

Since the decades-long civil war ended in May 2009, thousands of residents who fled the area in the 1980s and 1990s have been returning to their homes only to find that the jumbos, which had lived in the area previously, were now wreaking havoc in farmers’ fields.

In Mahaweva village, for example, a herd of three dozen elephants including at least four bulls are now regular visitors to the once abandoned homes. Residents say they are used to elephants nearby but have never seen them enter their communities so regularly before.

In June at least a dozen elephant attacks were reported in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, many parts of which were deserted during the war.

Wilfred Wickremasinghe, a 72-year-old villager who returned, after 26 years, to Kithuluthuva in Trincomalee District, about 330km east of Colombo, knows firsthand how deadly the wild elephants can be: Last month one of his neighbours was killed and his nine-year-old son badly injured.

“It was right next to the wall of the house,” Wickremasinghe said. “The animal was not used to humans, so it panicked and knocked down the wall.”

In Rukam, a village in Batticaloa District, the elephant threat is also there, though villagers have so far avoided serious injury: Athanayake Banda, 52, is happy to have returned to his home after 19 years, but he and his wife now sleep in a tree house about 10 metres off the ground to avoid the daily visitors.

“There is no stopping them. They just come from the jungle. Sometimes they don’t wait till it’s dark. By the afternoon they are in my plot.”

Much of his harvest was lost to the beasts, he said, gesturing towards the few remnants of maize left scattered about after the animals had finished feasting.

“I was in the tree. We just watched. They are not scared of sounds or anything,” Banda said, including the firecrackers he lit in an effort to drive them off.

School food targeted

At nearby Pillumallai Roman Catholic School, a herd of elephants attacked a classroom where sweets and cakes had been left after an official school function in May. Fortunately no children were around at the time, officials say, although the animals tore apart a window, ripping off its grille before helping themselves to the booty.

Animal experts say that when people moved out of the villages, the elephants simply moved in, lured by the ample food.

“Elephants love secondary growth; they relish it,” Jayantha Jayewardene of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, told IRIN.

“After the villagers moved out, their plots were filled with secondary growth that the elephants prefer to branches,” he said.

The animals got used to roaming about without fear of confrontation, Jayewardene said, advising that the only solution – by no means an ideal one – was the erection of electric fences around crops.

Deadly encounters between elephants and man are nothing new in rural Sri Lanka. In 2009, over 220 elephants and 50 humans died in various encounters, Deputy Minister of Economic Development Ranjith Siyambalapitiya told Sri Lanka’s parliament recently.

Meanwhile, for some IDPs returning to their homes, the elephants remind them that some things have never really changed in their communities since they left: “They were here then. They are here now. We have to agree to live together,” Wickremasinghe said.

Article syndicated from www.perambara.org