No move to drive jumbos from Hambantota: Official

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

As perturbed conservationists flexed their muscle, a top level WildLife official was categorical in his rebuttal of 'proposed moves' to drive 200 elephants from the Hambantota area to make way for the infrastructure that would support Sri Lanka's bid for the Commonwealth Games.

No elephants will be driven from Hambantota, for it would not only be detrimental to Sri Lanka's bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018 but it is also against current thinking, stressed the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director-General (DG) Chandrawansa Pathiraja.

When the Sunday Times contacted the DG over the storm brewing with regard to this issue, he was quick to point out that a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) with the specific identification of a Managed Elephant Range (MER) was already in place for Hambantota.

Conservationists say elephant drives can have disastrous consequences

"We have stopped elephant drives and translocations," said Dr. Pathiraja, explaining that only a 'small' drive would take place close to Anuradhapura at Ulukkulama, far away from Hambantota, as there were elephants in this village creating a problem.

The Sunday Times understands that under the SEA carried out by the Central Environmental Authority, the MER in the Mattala-Bundala-Wilmanne area would cover 300, - about 30,000 hectares. This environmental assessment was part of a 'zoning of land' for the Greater Hambantota Area by the Urban Development Authority, taking into consideration all development needs until 2030, as well as conservation issues.

The MER where elephants will be free to roam will be demarcated by a perimeter fence which will be maintained by villagers, it is learnt. Ironically, this was the main pilot project under the now scuttled Eco-Systems Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) for which the World Bank was to extend a zero-interest credit line of US$ 30 million. ESCAMP regrettably was cancelled just before the Memorandum of Understanding was signed after some Sri Lankan authorities holding the suicidal view for the country that 'conservation was not a priority' wanted 'fundamental changes' in the project proposal, it is understood.

Explaining what an MER is, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research said that it is not a 'Protected Area' in the traditional sense and that excludes all development activities. Instead, activities compatible with elephant presence will be allowed within it. The objective will be co-existence between humans and elephants, instead of human-elephant conflict (HEC).

Currently there are 300-400 elephants, around 10% of the elephant population in the country, using the MER area, the Sunday Times understands. The herds in the area are mostly limited to the MER area. Adult males who are responsible for most of the conflict also use the surrounding developed areas. To manage HEC, electric fences are to be constructed between the MER and developed areas, which is the boundary of scrub/forest habitat and permanent settlements and cultivations. Therefore, the fences will prevent elephants venturing into settlements and cultivations.

The MER would also be an excellent opportunity to develop and promote elephant-viewing based tourism, it is learnt, while construction of tanks and habitat management could be carried out to decrease conflict.

However, the Sunday Times understands from several sources in the Hambantota area that widespread encroachment into the MER has already begun, with the commercial cultivation of papaya and banana taking place which could very well lead to an escalation of the HEC.

Meanwhile, another conservationist dealing with elephant drives focused on the disastrous experiences in the past. Citing the example of the drive undertaken in 2005-06, he asked what happened to the 200 elephants driven from Hambantota to the Lunugamvehera National Park at a huge cost of Rs. 160 million.

Half of them died on the way and the other half died of starvation after being incarcerated at Lunugamvehera, he said, adding that subjecting elephants to drives is futile and a criminal exercise.
"All the battering and bruising they get during a drive when thousands of flares and 'thunder crackers' are lit and they are shot at with live ammunition makes the ones who survive the ordeal more aggressive. Some elephants escape the drive while some who go, ultimately come back to their original habitat. These increase the HEC," he said, a view echoed by many conservationists.

Elephant drives, if they 'succeed' kill elephants. Such drives are the last nail in their coffin, lamented another conservationist. On the other hand, elephant drives when they 'fail' kill people as the elephants become more aggressive. In most cases they partly 'succeed' and partly 'fail', to the detriment of both elephants and people, he added.

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