ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44

Driven to death

Is the very move – relocating elephants in the national parks – aimed at protecting these majestic animals killing them? Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports on a visit to the Lunugamvehera National Park where elephants appear to be dying of starvation.

Are elephants starving to death? Not outside but in the very place they have been driven to in the name of protection and safety – the Lunugamvehera National Park.

Several of the elephants, about 250 herded into the Lunugamvehera Park, under two phases of an elephant drive that began in 2005, may have died for lack of food, resulting in malnourishment and disease, The Sunday Times learns, after a visit to the area this week. What will be the fate of the remaining elephants, considering that the dry season is just starting?

Skin and bone, a dead elephant at the Lunugamvehera Park

“I saw three elephants dead in the park,” says T.A. Ajith Kumara, 18, who lives just outside the boundary, explaining that their carcasses were by the bund of the Lunugamvehera tank, in the jungle.

Giving a time period of one and a half months, just after the tank reached spill level, he says others in his village have seen another eight or ten dead elephants.

Recently, the elephants were always near the electric fence, put up at the boundary, but they are no longer here because wanajeevi (wildlife) people have cut a massive drain, he says, pointing to a large swathe of earth churned up by bulldozers.

A long stretch of the park off the Wellawaya-Tissamaharama Road is now barricaded not only by the electric fence but also this deep drain. At night, the fence is guarded by wildlife officials from temporary cadjan-thatched open huts. The fence is also hung with small kerosene containers which are lit at night to keep the elephants beyond and within the park itself.

Electric fence put up at the boundary of the park

Ajith says recently he counted more than 150 maha evun and pataw (big ones and babies) one night, adding that some elephants had wounds and rashes and most of them were godak kettu (very thin). “Some of them who used to come with babies later came alone, most probably the babies may have died,” he says, explaining that wanajeevi people come in regularly to treat the elephants, when informed.

“Even last night, I saw a very big cow elephant with a baby that was thin and weak,” says Ajith while his mother and brother confirm that even wanajeevi people have mentioned that the elephants do not have enough food in the park. The elephants also fight each other, with most confrontations occurring between the resident park elephants and those who have been brought in.

A short walk into the park through an opening in the electric fence left for the fresh-water fishermen to have access to the Lunugamvehera tank comes as an eye-opener.

The land is already parched and this is only the beginning of the dry season which would extend up to the end of September. The only scrub left without being touched are those that cannot be eaten by the elephants. The andara (thorny) bushes, the fodder of elephants, have all been stripped to the core.

The thorny bushes: Stripped by
hungry elephants

Several kilometres away, in their home, with the main road on one side and the electric fence of the Lunugamvehera Park on the other, husband-wife W.K. Anurasiri and H.G. Dayawathie are only too willing to explain the plight of the elephants while also pointing out that Wildlife Department officials are trying to do their best amidst many problems.

“Yes, the elephants don’t have anything to eat and we have been feeding them kehel bada through the fence,” says Anurasiri, blaming the shortage of food within on the people who are using the area as grazing grounds for large herds of cattle which add up to many thousands.

The cattle eat up all the grass on the tank bed, leaving nothing for the elephants. Then the elephants attempt to breakthrough the electric fence and forage for food in the villages close by. That’s the problem in this area. When the electric fence is on, the thin and gaunt elephants walk up and down along the fence looking for food, waiting for whatever we can give them, he says.

“We heard of the deaths of three elephants within about a month very recently. We need elephants. Do you know that in the Maha we cultivators know that it is going to rain in about six-seven days when the elephants get together and keep trumpeting for a while,” he says, also pointing a finger at the fishermen who frequent the tanks inside the park for disturbing elephant habitat.

His views are echoed by many in the area including Kusuma Senarath Abeywardena, who runs the family boutique along the Wellawaya-Tissamaharama Road, close to the park.

All wildlife officials The Sunday Times spoke to declined to confirm or deny whether elephants were dying of starvation in the park.

What has gone wrong at Lunugmavehera? Is this a problem only at this park or is it reflected elsewhere in places such as Yala and Wilpattu, where elephants have been driven and imprisoned? Should Sri Lanka continue with elephant drives to collect these animals from areas that are their birthright and then put them into parks where already there is a resident elephant population?

Several wildlife officials told The Sunday Times that the department maybe rethinking its policy about elephant drives in the light of new developments.

“What can we do?” questioned one, explaining that the moment there are one or two incidents with elephants, there is a lot of pressure from people and politicians to “do something” about it, with strong signals that the elephants should be removed from those areas.

The Sunday Times understands that under the drive conducted last year, elephants from forests around the left bank of the Walawe, mostly Forest Department lands, covering more than 350 sq km. were herded to Lunugamvehera Park which is around 250 The park itself may have had about 100 elephants and around 250 have been added to this number. There is a large number in the park but the spadework necessary to accommodate them had not been done before the drive.

While this may have already resulted in some elephants dying from lack of food, yet another drive was done two weeks ago into the same park, where another 100 elephants were driven in from state lands around Pelawatte, north of the park. The Sunday Times learns that another drive is to take place into Wilpattu soon.

The Director-General of the Wildlife Conservation Department, Dayananda Kariyawasam was unavailable for comment as he was in the field, both on Wednesday and Thursday.

The need of the moment is for the department to launch an immediate investigation to ascertain whether elephants are dying of starvation. If these majestic beasts are facing death and disease for lack or shortage of fodder, urgent steps are essential to save them right now before the dry season takes its toll on these hapless creatures.

As the guardians of a heritage that belongs to the whole country, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has a responsibility to find out and inform the public of the wellbeing and fate of the elephants that have been driven to Lunugamvehera, an operation which cost over Rs. 160 million in public funds.

The people of Sri Lanka demand answers.

Things have only got worse: Villagers

In the throes of death. A long and belaboured intake of breath, then an equally shuddering exhalation. No massive struggle, just the forelegs pushing the earth and the eye glazing over.

A giant has been felled. We were witness to a heart-rending death – the death of a majestic bull elephant surrounded by concerned villagers on the dried up bed of Tammennawewa in Lunugamvehera just before noon on Tuesday. The villagers had covered the dying elephant with large leafy branches to ward off the noonday heat while bringing water in small plastic buli (cans) to wet it and also pour into its mouth.

This was yet another death due to gunshot injuries, the villagers told The Sunday Times while a young woman carrying a baby sighed sadly and said, “We are angry with elephants when they crash into our chenas or home-gardens but very sad when we see them drop like this.”

She had put the human-elephant conflict in a nutshell, giving voice not only to the situation the men, women and children in the area are faced with but also to the plight of elephants.

The dying elephant close to Tammennawewa: Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

During a day’s walkabout in the area from which elephants were driven into Lunugamvehera Park, we talk to knots of people. Three men about to leave on their bicycles looking for kuli weda are vociferous about the ali karadara.

“We are awake the whole night because the elephants, especially the young males come to our doorstep. Last year one elephant charged the wall of a hut and killed a woman,” says A.G. Siripala very critical of the drive.

Adds K.G.A. Nishantha: “Even if a small child falls ill in the night we are unable to take him to hospital for fear of elephants.”

The consensus is that kisi hevillak, belillak nethuwa (without checking out), the drive was carried out. While a majority were herded into the Lunugmavehera Park, many were left behind and are creating a bigger problem than what villagers faced earlier, because now elephants are familiar with the ali wedi and thunder crackers used to chase them.

According to U.G. Jayalath elephants from other areas have been brought to the area and this has caused numerous problems to the villagers numbering about 70 families. Not only are W. Gamini and M.A. Sirimawathi willing to talk to us but also take us around their large plot of land to show jumbo footprints. “Can’t grow a thing here,” says Sirimavathi, adding that she met an elephant face-to-face in the garden in the gloaming and was so scared that she rushed into their tiny hut and shut the door. “I didn’t step out until the next morning.”
Come walk in the wela and see what destruction the elephants have caused, suggests H.S. Dahanayake relating an incident where the previous night his neighbour had to leave his hut and hide in the bedda because an elephant very nearly pushed the hut’s wall down.

Most of these villagers have also helped in the elephant drive. D.J.S. Weerasuriya gives details of the drive. “The elephants were rounded up from areas such as Ridiyagama. Madunagala and Suriyawewa and brought close to Lunugamvehera in August 2005, when the drive had to be called off due to heavy rain. Then in August 2006 it was initiated once again and about 350 elephants were rounded up and led to the park. But about 175, among whom are about 45 thaniyas ehe meha vuna (the loners moved away),” he says giving the final verdict that the drive was a 99% failure.

While those days the villagers had to contend with only about four to five elephants now they have to deal with a large number, he says.

M.K. Gunapala who keeps vigil in his tree hut high up, protecting his melon crop against elephants, says after about 6 in the evening people are frightened to get out of their homes.

All these complaints and grumblings are from the area elephants were driven from. While it is crystal clear that the drive has not solved the problems the villagers had with elephants, it seems to have aggravated the issue. While most villagers lay the blame for a “failed” elephant drive squarely at the door of the Wildlife Conservation Department, others claim wildlife officials are doing their best in a difficult situation.

Those in the fifth colony warned us against going to the next village, the sixth colony, as my colleague was in khaki slacks. “People may mistake you for wanajeevi……they are waiting for them to come,” said U.G. Jayalath.

Leaving recriminations aside, what needs to be done is damage control and implementation of effective long-term remedies, not only for the protection of humans but also of elephants.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.