Second fence coming up inside Uda Walawe Park

  • Kataragama pilgrims lose opportunity of making unique wayside stop to feed jumbos
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

A fence within a fence to sever a unique bond between human and wild animal, which is probably never seen anywhere else in the world. In a ‘crackdown’ that many see as an exercise in futility and a waste of public money, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is erecting an electric fence, costing Rs. 10 million 17km long, about 50m inside the Uda Walawe National Park from the boundary fence bordering the Thanamalwila Road, the Sunday Times learns.

This is in a bid to prevent thousands of men, women and children on pilgrimage to Kataragama or for some other work making a brief stop to buy bananas and komadu (water melon) from the wayside stalls that have sprung up to feed the majestic elephants, all males, and go their way.

It is a dangerous thing, pointed out a DWC source, explaining that it is their duty to protect the animals and the humans. Those opposed to this second fence are the people who send their
cattle to graze inside the National Park. The cattle eat up much of the elephants’ food here, according to the source.

However, conservationists point out that if one fence does not stop cattle even two will not. If the DWC is serious about addressing this issue, it could easily prosecute the offenders as the cattle trails from the ‘gala’ to the park are like major thoroughfares.

Relating what he had seen last week, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research said that “a lorry stops on the road at Uda Walawe, three men in their thirties get out, buy three bunches of bananas and ‘offer’ them to the mighty jumbos who in turn accept them with dignity, jump back into their vehicle and resume their journey”.

These were ordinary men in sarong, like the many thousands of people who have a wonderful and unforgettable experience with the mighty wild giants, he said, explaining that for some it would be the only interaction they would have with a wild animal.

This phenomenon of wild elephants standing at the fence and people feeding them has been going on for about 10 years, the Sunday Times understands. This may be the only place in the world where wild bull elephants stand docilely and take food from passers-by, said Dr. Fernando.

Conservationists pointed out that such large amounts of public money spent on putting up the fence should be channelled to more burning issues with regard to the human-elephant conflict (HEC).
“Elephants being fed at the Uda Walawe fence seem to be a non-issue while the DWC is not grappling with the bigger issues,” said Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, a Senior Lecturer at the Colombo University who has been involved in elephant conservation.

Both Dr. Weerakoon and Dr. Fernando, along with many other conservationists, were of the view that there were two schools of thought on the Uda Walawe fence elephants. A minority, along with the DWC, seem to think it is a bad thing, while the thousands who feed the elephants and the fruit-stall owners on the park boundary as well as the elephants themselves think it is a good thing.

Another argument for, is that the Uda Walawe Park is losing revenue as foreigners and locals who see these elephants do not buy tickets and enter the park. Conservations, however, point out that foreigners come on pre-planned tours and if they were visiting a National Park that would be pre-arranged. It would not change even if they see elephants at the fence.

With regard to locals, most of those who feed the elephants never have and never will visit a park. Those who visit parks will do so anyway as it is an entirely different experience. So the assumption of loss of revenue for the park is erroneous, a source pointed out and asked how many people would need to visit the park to generate the millions of rupees spent on constructing the second fence.

Another contention is that feeding wild animals changes their behaviour or they may fall ill and die. But, argue conservationists, these “fence elephants” feed in the park at night and come for “human food” only during the day as an additional titbit.

“The elephant numbers increase during the holiday season and decrease when there is no food as in the night and when the road was being repaired,” said Dr. Fernando, adding that the numbers are directly linked to the food available.

“There has been no evidence of elephants falling sick after eating these fruits, which are very nutritious,” says Dr. Weerakoon, while Dr. Fernando adds that elephants on all the other sides of the Uda Walawe Park itself eat “human food” raiding homes and fields without anyone having fed them.

“In those areas the elephants do it by force, killing people, breaking down their homes and getting killed in the process, so is it a bad thing that here they accept what people willingly give them,” asked
Dr. Fernando, also pointing out that just half a km away, wild elephant babies are bottle-fed at the Elephant Transit Home by the DWCitself in a much more ‘intensive’ human-elephant interaction.

The most negative is that humans can get injured during this interaction, the Sunday Times learns, and the DWC has not only put up boards warning against feeding and threatening prosecution but has also regularly thrown fire-crackers at the animals and even shot them with rubber bullets to chase them away from the fence, with no impact.

Although there is a potential danger, there has been no incident where a fence elephant has attacked a human in the past 10 years, pointed out both Dr. Fernando and Dr. Weerakoon. A much simpler and far less costly remedy would be to draw a strand of barbed wire three metres outside the fence, suggests Dr. Fernando.

Other conservationists said it was a laughing matter that Sri Lanka seems to be the only country in the world where there are fences between protected areas of the DWC and the Forest Department which make ‘no sense’. Now we go a step further and build fences within fences inside DWC areas themselves.

Why can’t these million of rupees be used to protect the communities around the rest of the park and who suffer from elephant issues daily, a source asked. Usually, people in remote areas view elephants as trouble-makers or devils because the only interaction they have is with raiding elephants, said Dr. Fernando, a view echoed by Dr. Weerakoon, but in this interaction a unique relationship has come about.

This would also be a good chance to link conservation to the people living around the park by mobilizing the stall owners to keep an eye on those feeding the elephants and even in maintaining the fence, in return for gaining an economic benefit from conservation for a change, a source said.

This perfect example of human-elephant co-existence could also be taken to a different level by establishing a small leisure area here like along the waterfront in Colombo. People could stop, feed the wild elephants, have a picnic and go on their way. The elephants would be happy, so would the people, the source added.

It will be a positive human ‘brush’ with the largest wild animal on land which could even turn out to be a major tourist attraction.

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