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17th June 2001

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Thoughts from LondonVictory for Blair, defeat for democracy!

It was as predicted in the opinion polls. Labour coasted to an easy win. So Tony Blair remains at No. 10, setting a record for the Labour Party. He is the first Labour leader to be assured of a full second term. One cannot grudge Mr. Blair his victory. After all he won with a majority of 167 seats holding on, more or less, to the one he gained in 1997.

While Mr. Blair and his party stalwarts rejoice, Conservative Party leader William Hague threw in the towel and resigned from the leadership. While he, like Achilles, sulks in his tent somewhere, the Tories face the major task of finding a new leader who can pull the party up by its boots-straps and rebuild it. That is a formidable task.

Mr. Blair has his own house cleaning to do and he has already started demoting some cabinet ministers and promoting others. He has also finally plucked up enough courage to get rid of the Minister for Europe, Keith Vaz, who had become an utter embarrassment.

Keith Vaz's reputation has been sullied time and again by allegations about influence peddling, not declaring certain monies and properties to the Parliamentary Commissioner dealing with the conduct of MPs, trying to obstruct the commissioner's inquiries and trying to influence the granting of British passports for the wealthy Indian family, the Hinduja brothers, already facing charges in India over the long standing Bofors arms deal, and other matters.

Mr. Vaz, the only Asian to hold a ministerial position, claimed that he was a leader, if not the leader, of Britain's Asian community, an insult not all Asians were ready to stomach as letters to the media showed.

Having unloaded such unnecessary and tainted political ballast, Mr. Blair is preparing to fulfill his promises regarding the revamping of Britain's public services, particularly health, which are said to be the worst in Europe.

During the month-long campaign, Mr. Blair pleaded with the electorate to give him another 10 years to restore Britain's former prestige as a caring society.

The danger is if Mr. Blair thinks he has indeed been given a 10 year mandate, he might well postpone much-needed necessary reforms for another four to five years, and then come begging again for the vote. In fact this election has been a bitter blow for democracy. It is democracy that has lost.

Mr. Blair and his Labour Party spin doctors-new ones are likely to surface this time round- can claim that the party's massive majority is a public endorsement of New Labour policies.

A majority, yes. Nobody would deny that Labour has managed to save many of its marginal seats and create history by winning a second full term.

But Labour should not run away with the idea that the British public has given it a ringing endorsement.

After his election Mr. Blair referred to this "remarkable and historic victory" as a "mandate for reform". The prime minister might have reform on his mind. In fact he had reform on his mind before the 1997 election too, though some of those reforms now lie by the wayside, like the later promise of an "ethical foreign policy".

Before one year had passed the promised foreign policy turned out to be more mythical than ethical.

To say that he received a "mandate" is to stretch political truth to its limits. It is true that the Labour Party won the election with a huge majority. In that sense Mr. Blair received a mandate. The people preferred the Labour Party to the Tories.

But therein is the unfortunate distortion in politics that arises from a disproportionate electoral system.

The total electorate was over 44 million. Of that less than 60 per cent voted at the June 7 election. A massive 41 per cent of the electorate decided to stay at home or whatever and did not vote.

The 59.2 per cent that did vote was almost 12 per cent lower than in 1997 and the lowest since 1918.

Even the 1918 election is not a fair comparison because 100 MPs were unopposed in that election and therefore there was no need to vote in those constituencies. For a turnout lower than this year, one needs to go as far back as 1885, the first time that all male Britons- male mind you-had the right to vote.

So only by harking back to the beginning of limited adult franchise in Britain can one find a lower voter turnout.

I cannot think of a single election in Sri Lanka since independence when the voter turnout was so low. If I remember correctly even at the 1989 election when the JVP was riding high and threatening to disrupt the polling by shooting the first voters and the election officials, the Sri Lankan voters showed more interest and courage than the British did on June 7.

From the 60 per cent or so who voted, the Labour Party secured only a little under 11 million votes. In effect it got only around 25 per cent of the votes cast.

Surely it would take a bladder full of gall for any person to claim a "remarkable" victory on the basis of a 25 per cent support.

It might be good enough for the United States, that great democracy and sole super power, to have elected presidents who cannot garner 40 per cent of the total eligible poll.

But to think that Britain is now going the American way is hardly a pleasant thought for those who had kept faith that the democratic system would prevail.

Currently the British people are simply disillusioned with politics and others are angry that politicians have let them down. They don't trust politicians to do the best by the people. One only needs to look round the world to understand why.


Majestic disaster

The lack of proper documentation on breeding habits, feeding patterns and general behaviour of elephants at Uda Walawe could very well spell the end of the road for this species, environmentalist Srilal Miththapala warns.

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Is Uda Walawe an elephant time-bomb wait- ing to go off? Is the social strata among the elephants changing? Most crucial of all are the herds roaming this national park eating themselves out of Imagetheir habitat?

These are the issues which nature lover and elephant watcher for over a decade, Srilal Miththapala is concerned with, having been a regular visitor to Uda Walawe long before human hordes began to invade it.

Uda Walawe Park, of course, has been in the news in recent weeks following the killing of a tracker reportedly by an elephant in must and its subsequent closure to visitors. "There seems to be more to this incident than meets the eye. Only the three parties who were witness to the incident are privy to the right information. Unfortunately, the poor tracker is no more. The elephant, now dubbed a killer, cannot talk and we hear only the side of the visitors," says Mr. Miththapala.

He explains that 'madha kipuna' elephants (those in must, when they become sexually active) are aggressive when in captivity because they are kept tethered and thus restrained. But the free-roaming elephants, like those in Uda Walawe, can give vent to their feelings and are generally not that aggressive. He recalls, a meeting with such an elephant.While he was at the park a few years ago, an experienced tracker had urged him to hurry to a certain spot if he wanted to see an elephant in must. They went quite close to it and saw the secretions pouring from the glands near the elephant's ears. They could also get the animal's odour.

"When I asked the tracker how he knew that the elephant was in must, he told me that it was from the way it walked, aggressively and arrogantly. That's the lesson there. The trackers' observations are important and they should be asked to enter in a log what they see whenever they spot the elephants," stresses Mr. Miththapala.

But the tragedy is that no one especially the authorities has taken the trouble to document the behaviour of these elephants, which are unique to Sri Lanka, being a sub-species not found anywhere else in the world.

Uda Walawe is a classic example. There is no proper park management. No census of elephants has been taken. Their behavioural patterns have not been recorded. Neither waterholes nor roads are maintained. Trackers lack motivation because all the income from the park including the service charge goes into the government kitty.

The sheer numbers visiting the Park, sometimes as many as 25 vehicles a day, including large coaches, are bound to cause tension and put pressure on the elephants. Many are the problems there. There are no rules, there is no code of conduct for trackers and also no proper training for trackers. "Animals should have the right of way. The elephants are the residents, we are the intruders," says Mr. Miththapala.

And trackers are a valuable asset in documenting the behavioural changes of the elephants, which Mr. Miththapala, a keen elephant watcher, has seen.

A decade ago, when he visited the park the vegetation was richer. "Of course, during the different seasons, dry and wet, the vegetation changes. I'm not referring to that," he explains. The elephant population has also grown, and feeding patterns have changed. Why? he does not know.

Elephants themselves seem to be degrading their own habitat. "Elephants have foraged in the teak plantation at the entrance to Uda Walawe to such an extent that they have destroyed it. I have seen them pulling down the tender shoots of the teak trees. However, the dietary changes of the elephants have not been monitored. There has been no analysis. I just jot down the things I see as a nature lover, I am no expert."

Habitat degradation is also caused by the heavy growth of lantana (gandapana), which is of no use to any animal, with only birds feeding on the berries.

There are eight to 10 herds in the Park. They move in and out. A beautiful tusker had been sighted on and off. Now it is seen no more. The trackers could have easily monitored it. In other countries, especially Africa, individual herds are tracked and documented, he says.

There are also indications that the elephant social strata are changing. "Now more and more young fellows are seen on their own. It is a practice among elephants that young bulls are chased out of the herd to prevent in-breeding. Once they come of age, and become sexually mature, they join another herd."

Do such changes indicate the end of the road for these majestic beasts? The lack of interest on the part of the authorities, may well be the beginning of the end for the Sri Lankan elephant.


Muzzling the rabies threat

By Harendra Alwis

The threat of rabies, though largely underplayed in Sri Lanka continues to take a high toll. Last year alone, it claimed 115 lives. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, which means that it is transmitted from animals to human beings. It is caused by a virus that could infect any warm-blooded creature and humans have never been an exception.

According to Dr. Chandani Galwaduge of the Central Province Health Department, a human who is bitten by a dog, monkey or cat potentially could carry the virus. Yet if the wound is thoroughly washed with soap and the patient rushed to hospital and vaccinated against rabies, there is a good chance that he or she could survive. But the virus can stay 'under cover' for up to 90 days within a human being. It only travels through the nervous system, so if the bite is deep or in a critical place like the head, palm or heel, a few hours is all it takes to get to the brain of the victim and cause fatal damage.

Patients are now given the 'Verotab' vaccine which is more effective than the "21 injection scheme" that was used in the past. According to Dr. Galwaduge, the government spends more than Rs. 29 million rupees on anti-rabies treatment annually.

In Sri Lanka, dogs are the main carriers of this virus and the control of rabies thus mainly involves controlling the population of strays. The process of preventing rabies, according to veterinarian Dr. S. R. Jayasinghe of the Kandy Municipal Council, involves four steps. It is necessary for dogs to be vaccinated annually against rabies, to make sure that they don't get infected and become carriers of the disease. For this to be successful, at least 80 percent of the total dog population of the country has to be vaccinated annually, but this is a target that is rarely attempted, let alone met.

The second step according to Dr. Jayasinghe is the prevention of unwanted births to control the dog population. This is done through sterilization of both male and female dogs. This simple surgical procedure, that takes 15 to 30 minutes on an average, costs Rs. 200/= per dog. The cost has greatly inhibited this practice among the low income pet owners, and controlling the stray dog population has become increasingly difficult as a result. Public protest over inhumane methods of killing have also increasingly been spotlighted. Dr. Jayasinghe claims that a 'painless' injection is used to kill these dogs, but Dr. Eileen Pethiyagoda, a consultant physician and a pharmacologist disagrees. She says that the chemical 'Strychnine' (pronounced stri-ch-ni) that is used here kills the dog by making its gut muscles contract, a very painful process. Outside the Central Province, more brutal methods are allegedly being employed to destroy stray dogs apart from the use of 'Strychnine'. The methods allegedly employed are suffocation with carbon monoxide gas (and sometimes even kerosene fumes as it is much cheaper) and electrocution. It could take well over five hours for the dogs to suffocate and die under kerosene fumes.

Comments Dr. Pethiyagoda, these "hit and run" methods of killing dogs have brought us to a "no win situation" in the battle against rabies. Dr. Pethiyagoda says that since dogs are territorial animals, they do not let other dogs enter their territory. If a stray dog is removed from a certain area, another will soon occupy the vacant spot, thus making it impossible to eradicate a certain stray dog population by simply killing the dogs. So the only effective way of controlling the stray dog population is to sterilize them so that they will not be able to breed and to vaccinate them against rabies.

Secretary to the Governor of the Central Province, H. M. Samathilake says the law permits local authorities to catch stray dogs and destroy them after three days if they are not reclaimed by their owners. Lacking funds to carry out sterilization camps, the municipalities and local government bodies resort to killing these animals as a means of controlling the risks they pose to the community.


To dogs with love

The Kandy Association for Commu- nity Protection through Animal Welfare (KACPAW), a group of animal lovers in Kandy have dedicated themselves to animal welfare, mainly the plight of dogs since their inception in 1999. They are engaged in rabies prevention activities through humane methods of controlling the stray dog population. KACPAW members believe that sterilization and rabies vaccination is an alternative and more effective method of rabies control. They have conducted sterilization clinics with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at the University of Peradeniya and the Kandy Municipal Council with the patronage of the Governor of the Central Province.

About 600 dogs have been vaccinated under these projects. It has been calculated that a couple of dogs could potentially breed and multiply into a population of 67,000 in three years. This makes it feasible to assume that it will be more economical to sterilize the dogs than to kill all of them in the long run. With this in mind, KACPAW has initiated its 'flagship' "Red Collar" project, in the Central Province where dogs are caught, vaccinated against rabies (and sometimes sterilized) and a Red Collar is put on them as a mark of identification. The Kandy Municipal Council and the local authorities have agreed not to destroy dogs who wear this Red Collar.

Secretary of KACPAW, Champa Fernando told The Sunday Times that educating the public is of prime importance, if rabies is to be brought under control. Her organization rejects the "merciless and inhumane methods of killing stray dogs", and runs a dog pound where a limited number of dogs are vaccinated and kept. KACPAW could be contacted on 08-223378

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