ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 10

Don’t make national parks ghettos for our elephants

Jayantha Jayewardene, Managing Trustee of the Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust offers some points to ponder on the human- elephant conflict

The conservation of a species necessitates the provision of all resources (habitat, security, food, water etc.) necessary to maintain a stable population into the long-term future. Conservation has two aspects; one is the protection of the species and the other, scientific management of the species and the resources necessary for its conservation. The continued existence of the Asian elephant in the wild is threatened not only by the actions of some but also due to others not taking any action.

In May this year the Minister of Natural Resources Champika Ranawaka brought together many of those concerned with and interested in elephant conservation. It was to a great extent, a fruitful meeting in that the present situation with regard to elephant conservation in general and human elephant conflicts in particular, were discussed in detail. The Department of Wildlife Conservation made a presentation of the work that they had hitherto done. More importantly Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando made a presentation of the results of the research on wild elephants that he and his team had carried out for the last eight years in the southern part of the island.

Dr. Fernando’s research results are important in that they disprove some of the perceptions that our conservation activities have been based on for a long time. For instance his findings with regard to elephant corridors and home ranges are different to what we had assumed earlier. In his presentation he also gave us new options that we could use as strategies for our elephant conservation planning and activities in the future. The Minister, at this meeting, stressed that it was a priority of the Ministry and the Department of Wildlife Conservation to carry out pilot projects to test the new strategies. This, I think, is a positive start.

One of the major setbacks to the conservation of the Asian elephant, in all its range states, is the fact that almost in all cases, the governments of those countries have to play a major proactive role and give leadership to the efforts that are being made by conservationists. In the case of most governments the conservation of elephants is not one of their priorities or even a part of their policy. Sri Lanka is an exception in that elephant conservation is given highest priority by the government as well as the non-governmental conservation establishment in the country. However, the non-availability of acurate data on which to base management plans, has been a major drawback in Sri Lanka as well as the rest of the range. Consequently, management actions have been based on outdated beliefs handed down from colonial times.

One need of the hour is to activate the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group or to consider the formation of a body comprising representatives of all the Asian range states, together with those experienced and knowledgeable on the Asian elephant, coming in from all over the world. This organization has to be dynamic and give Asian elephant conservation a lead and a new direction. It has necessarily to deal with governments if the conservation programmes are to be effective. It has to look at the scientific management and research needs of each country, prioritise them, seek sufficient funding and ensure the proper implementation of each project. A great effort by many from many places is necessary to ensure the continuance of the Asian elephant in the wilds.

There was an extensive elephant research project carried out by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1960s. This research programme which was led by eminent foreign scientists such as George McKay and John Eisenberg brought Sri Lanka into the forefront of elephant research. However, with the ending of the Smithsonian programme, the scientists returned to their countries and there was no continuation of the work by Sri Lankan scientists. Since then for a long period there was no significant research on wild elephants in this country, with a few sporadic exceptions such as the work by Ishwaran.(?) While the following decades saw massive development and changes in the country that had immense impacts on elephants, Sri Lanka’s elephant conservation and management remained mired in traditional approaches that had no scientific basis.

In recent years, a team led by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and consisting of Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, Manori Gunawardene, Dr. Eric Wikremanayake, H.K. Janaka and L.K.A. Jayasinghe have carried out research on various aspects of elephant behaviour – their biology, ecology, ranging patterns and the human-elephant conflicts that are prevalent. Their research done over the past one and a half decades has been mainly concentrated in the south of Sri Lanka and also in the North Western Province. Their research findings have been significant but unfortunately the Department of Wildlife Conservation has been slow in adopting these new found results in their elephant management and conservation strategies.

Some of the new facts that are now available to elephant managers and conservationists are;

  1. Even though it was thought earlier that elephants migrate long distances seasonally, this does not happen in Sri Lanka. Instead, they have distinct home ranges of about 50-150 km2 to which they show a high level of attachment.
  2. Herds of elephants are made up of related females and their young, which could be from five to 10 animals or even going up to 20 to 25 in number. Adult males are solitary and join a herd only for a short time to mate. They may also form loose associations among themselves forming ‘male groups’ especially when raiding crops.
  3. Management is necessary if the elephants are causing problems or if they have a problem. Most problems for people are caused by the males. In many cases actions such as elephant drives and electric fencing used to mitigate such problems are ineffective against the males. However, the herds suffer from these actions. Therefore, elephant management needs to be conducted based on monitoring the impacts management activities have on elephants as well as the effectiveness of such actions in mitigating the problem. Herds have home ranges that are fixed. They never go outside their home ranges. Some home ranges are big and others are small. The size of a home range depends on the rainfall and the size of the herd. The higher the rainfall, the smaller the home range. If there is less rainfall, then the home ranges are extended. This is because the rainfall, to a great extent, determines the availability of food. A home range is a function of habitat quality - better the habitat, the smaller the home range. Not only do elephants stick to their home ranges but they use the same routes and paths in their seasonal movements, within the home range, each year or season.
  4. Till recently, the practice has been to drive elephants into national parks such as Yala and Lunugamvehera and surround them with an electric fence so that they cannot escape and raid crops. However, now it is confirmed that home ranges of over two thirds of the elephants lie outside protected areas. We also know that national parks are not zoos. Animals must be free to move in and out according to their requirements of food, water, etc. As a result of trapping too many elephants in Yala and Lunugamvehera many animals, particularly females and young, have died of starvation and malnourishment. It is not uncommon now to see elephants walking around in Yala looking like skeletons. Our national parks should not become ghettos for animals. We should not try to brush the problem into the parks. We need to find ways and means of having elephants live within human-modified landscapes, such as shifting agriculture areas, since it has been shown that such landscapes provide the optimal habitat for elephants. To make this a reality, we have to devise ways of benefiting people who share habitat with elephants, who currently derive zero benefit from elephants but bear a heavy burden.
  5. Obviously it is naïve to say we have to stop development and allow elephants to be in all jungle habitats. However, what has been happening is that when the jungle habitats of the elephants are taken up for development purposes, major elephant drives have been undertaken which drive elephants from areas to be developed as well as from extensive areas of state land that is not to be developed, and where elephants could remain for the future.

The Lunugamvehera drive conducted in 2006 is a prime example of this. Although the development area was only a little more than a 100 km2, elephants were driven away from over 500 km2 of state land. When development takes place it is not necessary to drive the herds of elephants, living there, as was done during the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme and more recently from Suriyawewa to Lunugamvehera. A close evaluation of these activities over time has shown that the herds of elephants will move away with advancing development activities, leaving only the lone males behind. Such lone males are the ones that create problems and cannot be driven anyway, therefore will have to be dealt with on a case by case basis.

It is easy to criticize what others, including the Department of Wildlife Conservation are trying to do in terms of elephant conservation, especially if you have not tried to do much yourself. However the need of the hour is for all concerned to get together, cooperate and make a concerted effort to save our elephants for their long term future. Otherwise, as is happening now, whilst we are criticizing, bickering and fighting, elephants in the wild are dying by the day.

What we must strive to achieve, in our efforts at elephant conservation, is to make quite sure that our populations of wild elephants will continue in adequate numbers, in different locations, and are in a position to reproduce the numbers that would ensure their conservation into the future.

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