Nature also victim of war
She is a tragic reminder of the cost of war. 'Sama', the Pinnawela elephant who lost part of her right front leg, below the knee to a land mine. Today she hops around on three legs to keep up with the other jumbos at the elephant orphanage. Veterinarians fear that her lifespan may be short as she may develop spinal problems due to her abnormal gait.
Wildlife is an overlooked casualty in the country's two-decades-long civil war. Sri Lanka's elephant population in the war-torn areas has increasingly become victims of the war. Since the Mavilaru battle last year, nearly 15 elephants have suffered injuries after stepping on anti-personnel mines in the Eastern Province.
Anti-personnel mines damage the foot of the elephant causing an injury that doesn't heal easily, resulting in most of them succumbing to their injuries. Two elephants had their trunks smashed, maybe while investigating the foreign objects in the soil.
Reports of the wounded jumbos have come from Welikanda, Sonikattamadu, Cadjuwatta, Kanchikudichchiaru, Wadumune, Kanthalai and Vakarai areas. Wounded elephants were also reported from the Toppigala area soon after the battle. The locations of these accidents when seen on a map show that these are along the routes that the LTTE withdrew after being ousted from Mavilaru, Vakarai and Toppigala. While withdrawing, they set up anti-personnel mines that have killed the elephants.
|An injured elephant
The recent battlefields in the East are located closer to some of the populated elephant habitats. Toppigala is near the Maduru Oya National Park, Mavilaru borders the Somawathi National Park and Vakarai is near the Thikonamadu forest reserve. Elephants that know no political boundaries are becoming an unintended target.
Treating these wounded jumbos is a risky mission as veterinary surgeons have to travel to unsafe areas braving enemy fire or the danger of landmines. Often the team needs the protection of an Army convoy.
Veterinary surgeon for the Mahaweli region Dr. W.A. Dharmakeerthi recalls how he had to travel in a Unicorn combat vehicle across a suspected mine field in Toppigala to treat an injured jumbo. The wounded elephants usually go to an open area like an irrigation tank to die. The veterinary surgeons follow the elephant footmarks to avoid stepping on anti-personnel mines that are sometimes washed away when areas get flooded.
Veterinary surgeon Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe who was overseeing the north-western region has come across such injured elephants. The support of the armed forces is always sought and obtained in their treatment missions, which otherwise will be impossible to carry on, he says. However, if the support of a neutral party like the Red Cross could be extended to these veterinary surgeons, the treatment missions may be coordinated more effectively.
Like Sama at Pinnawela, the elephant transit home at Udawalawe also received an injured elephant in 2000. The three-year-old baby elephant had been injured in Thambalagamuwa at Kantalai and lost part of its heel to an anti-personnel mine. Treated by Dr. Suhada Jayawardene, it recovered to a level that it could walk on its own and was later released to Uda Walawe National Park in 2005.
Not only elephants but other animals too become casualties of war. However these cases may not be reported or they may get eaten by predators as in the case of smaller animals. Cattle are also victims of land mines, sometimes driven into the suspected mine fields as a military tactic.
Habitats an overlooked victim
Animal habitats have also been affected by the war directly or indirectly. In the war-torn North and East, the tree cover on both sides of the highways is cleared to avoid the convoys being attacked. Though this is done as a security measure, the wildlife suffers. Clearing a large area fragments the habitat and restricts the movements of the wildlife.
Habitat destruction happens not only in the North-East. Even near the Parliament complex in Sri Jayewardenepura, mangroves and other bushes in the Kotte marshes have been cleared on security grounds. This is one of the remaining wetlands in Colombo and an important habitat.
|Dead Mountain Gorillas in Congo
In many places, the armed conflict has penetrated deep into the protected areas of wildlife. The Wilpattu and Yala National Parks have become the latest victims. Officers assigned to protect the wildlife have also become the victims of the war, Wilpattu Park warden Wasantha Pushpananda among them. Several wildlife officers were wounded in Yala recently.
War often destroys or weakens the institutions that make inclusive and informed decisions about the environment. The northern jungles are totally out of control of the administration of the Department of Wildlife Conservation or the Forest Department. The extent of damage in these areas has not been assessed.
The magnificent tusker known as 'Dalaputtuwa', another indirect fatality of the armed conflict, was shot by a home-guard who was assigned to protect a border-village. Issuing of guns to those who are not given a proper training can be problematic. There is evidence that some of these guns are being used for poaching as well. Sometimes, elephants are being shot in self-defence by armed forces who are engaged in military operations who because of the war have to venture into elephant territory. Hence, until the war finishes, the problem will prevail in these areas.
However, this may be a blessing to wildlife from another angle. When the jungles become too dangerous, it may also keep the poachers out. Human activities also decline and provide a greater platform for wildlife to thrive. However, this is not the case in most areas.
The international arena offers numerous examples of the exploitation of the environment during war. During the Gulf war, dozens of oil rigs were destroyed and continued burning for months. Oil that leaked into the ocean polluted the waters and beaches, affecting marine life and birds. In Iraq, wetlands were drained to avoid rebels using them. During the Vietnam war, the US military carried out a massive herbicidal programme in Vietnam for almost a decade. Seventy two million litres of chemical spray known as Agent Orange were used to defoliate the forests which provided cover for guerrillas. The effects of these are still felt even after the wars are over.
Rare and endangered animals have no escape. Recently in the Verunga National Park in Congo, African rebels killed six gorillas, including their large silverback leader. Mountain Gorilla habitats are limited and this endangered species is trapped in the middle of an armed conflict.
The UN's effort in declaring a day in 2002 for "Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict" is hopefully an eye-opener for all nations caught up in conflict. Amid war's brutality, death and deprivation, the environment may seem a minor casualty. But it is an important link to the survival of the earth.