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7th June 1998

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Talking jumbo: they all came

By Tharuka Dissanaike

The speakers were many and the topics, varied. But the best thing about the Symposium of the Conservation and Management of the Elephant was the large crowds of people it drew together.

Attending the two day symposium were scientists, researchers, academics, officials from the Wild Life Department, NGOs, wild life enthusiasts, animal rights campaigners and many others who came out of genuine interest and /or love for the elephant.

The papers presented at the symposium varied from technical to experiences on the field to academic research and legal matters pertaining to the conservation of the elephant species.

Topics ranged from the human- elephant conflict, citing specific instances like Kahalle- Pallekele and Handapanagala, to elephant lore in India and Sri Lanka, to domestic elephants and captive breeding programmes to DNA fingerprinting to test paternity among jumbos etc.

The aim, as the organisers - Jayantha Jayewardene and Prof. Charles Santiapillai- said was to bring together an entire gamut of research that has been done on the Sri Lankan elephant. An unprecedented move to gather and publish these research documents so as to serve as a reference in the future. Among the speakers were former Wildlife Department Director and ex- Chairman of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Lyn de Alwis, Present Chairman of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Dr. Raman Sukumar, researchers Dr. Eric Wickremanayake and Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and Dr. Nandana Atapattu, Deputy Director ( veterinarian) of the Department.

The work of the symposium did not end as its final session closed on a legal note last Saturday (May 30). During the symposium a questionnaire of sorts was circulated among the attending public, who were asked to write in their own solutions to the human elephant conflict and their ideas on what is best for the conservation of the species. Jayewardene said that around 150 people had replied during the symposium. The next step would be to vet and tabulate a series of policy options based on these suggestions, which will be circulated among all who left their addresses.

The organisers hope that the final document will give comprehensive, long ranging policy on elephant management. Finally they wish to present it, possibly to the President, as a management plan by which the Department of Wild Life Conservation be guided in future conservation attempts.

"We hope the President and the Minister in charge of Wild Life Conservation can be persuaded to initiate a Task Force for Elephant Conservation," Prof. Charles Santiapillai said. He said that at present the extent of elephant conservation has been confined to trouble shooting. When problems crop up in a particular area, the Department moves in and deals with that one instance. But there is no long term plan or vision for elephant conservation. Every week, at least two elephants are killed in the country.

B. Jayasekera, Director, Department of Wildlife Conservation said that they would consider the suggestions offered by the Symposium. "These are all individual opinion. People are entitled to their own opinion. We are very open to any suitable proposal to help in the conservation of elephants."

The Department of Wildlife Conservation is in the process of drafting a replacement for the Fauna and Flora Protection Act. They hope to tabulate it before Parliament by end this year. The public is invited to send in their own recommendations for the new act, based on the present Fauna and Flora law.

Dr. Raman Sukumar speaking at the end of the sessions said that Sri Lanka should do well to map out elephant distribution and conflict areas as a first step towards understanding the problem.

Both organisers expressed satisfaction at the turn out at the symposium. "It was beyond our expectations," Jayantha Jayewardene said.

Prof. Santiapillai commented on the large number of ìnon- academics and young peopleî present. "It is a positive sign for conservation," he said.

"There was a lot of interest generated in the public," Jayewardene said."People are still calling me up to give advice and information about elephants."

Making use of the tremendous enthusiasm among young people, Jayewardene hopes to launch a programme to educate school children in the Southern district of Hambantota. Youth will volunteer as teachers. "These children see the elephant as a marauding nuisance- sometimes a killer. It is important to change this mindset by educating the younger generations about the other aspects of the elephant," he said.

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