Jumbo drive or destruction?
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Is it a massacre of newborns or a routine elephant chase in the normal line of duty? This is the controversy surrounding part of the famous Handapanagala herd and an alleged elephant drive, begun two weeks ago on October 23, but halted on the directive of the Department of Wildlife last week.

"It was a routine elephant chase. Every month, one or two elephants are shot dead in the area and there is much destruction to crops. To prevent that, I decided to carry out a chase to guide the elephants back to Yala from Handapanagala. It was part of our duties," stressed Wildlife Assistant Director, Southern Range, B. A. Muthubanda.

Though dubbed 'unauthorised' by the Department of Wildlife, Mr. Muthubanda explained that never had permission been sought to carry out such a chase, adding that it was specifically not a drive. This type of operation is done by wildlife officials all over the country, when people complain of elephants rampaging in their areas.

Recalling the first major drive in 1996, when about 150 elephants were herded from Handapanagala to Yala, the Assistant Director said some of those elephants have come back to these areas and every year, the elephant-man conflict has intensified.

At a seminar held as recently as October 4 and 5, where all top officials including the Wildlife Director, Government Agents and Pelwatte Sugar Company were there, it was decided that such elephants needed to be led back to Yala, Mr. Muthubanda claimed.

"That's just what I was doing," he said.

However, conservationists and villagers had contrary views. According to an animal rights activist living in the area, it was a full-scale elephant drive with wildlife officials also getting the assistance of Pelwatte Sugar Company employees. "The drive started on October 23 with a herd of about 25 to 30 elephants including nine pregnant cows being surrounded by jeeps, cabs and tractors and chased with thunder flashes from the Annapallama-Handapanagala area towards Talakolawewa," he said. "The elephants were supposed to be driven across Demodara to Yala's Block 4, covering about 20 kilometres."

But on October 24, the situation changed, when one cow elephant gave birth near Pubuduwewa. The herd had stopped short, and as elephants are famous for doing had surrounded the mother, refusing to budge. The heavy rain on October 27 prevented the drive being resumed, with the elephants going only about half a kilometre.

When plans were underway to start it again the next day, the villagers heard with relief that it had been halted on the instructions of the Wildlife Director.

"Another baby had been born during this time and people in this area say the two newborns may have died because they have not been spotted since then," the activist claimed.

As conservationists and wildlife lovers were preparing to meet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday, a senior wildlife official said a Deputy Director had been ordered to go to the area immediately and hold an inquiry. "We have information that there was some sort of a drive or chase with elephant movements on October 23 and 24. It was not ordered by the head office. An immediate on-the-spot inquiry will be held and if any wildlife official is found guilty of breaking the rules, disciplinary action will be taken against him," the official said.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Foundation has urged that the proposal for an elephant corridor which was discussed extensively be looked into once again as a viable solution to the numerous problems of elephants attacking the sugar cane cultivations and chena crops of the southern area.

On the part of wildlife officials, they are seeking a consensus among all humans involved in the problem, like the department, Pelwatte Sugar Company, conservationists and villagers to bring about an amicable solution to the elephant-man conflict, which will also safeguard these beasts considered a national treasure. "We must discuss and decide what the best option will be," the wildlife official said.

While inquiries are held to ascertain whether it was a drive or whether it was unauthorised, what of the poor elephants trapped between Handapanagala and Talakolawewa?

"They have no food to eat, no water to drink. They are stranded. Already they have destroyed about 10-12 acres of sugar cane," says the activist from the area.

Adds Wildlife Assistant Director Muthubanda "We tried to do our job and save elephants from slaughter. But some people claimed it was wrong and created a problem. They must take responsibility for these animals now."

With Sri Lanka's elephant population dwindling, urgent action needs to be taken to safeguard these majestic beasts trapped among humans for no fault of theirs, near Pelwatte. Inquiries and meetings need to be held but the need of the hour is for those poor elephants to be saved from guns or other harm now. That is the duty of the Department of Wildlife.

"We gave them assistance"
"We were asked for assistance and we gave the wildlife people that, like we do when the hospital requests our help," says Pelwatte Sugar Company Chairman A. Wickramanayake.

Pelwatte Company which has 55,000 hectares of land in the area has a special Estate Protection Unit to chase away the elephants from destroying their plantations. "Everyday about 10 to 15 elephants come into the sugar cane and we chase them out. We don't harm them, but they do destroy our crops," he says.

But he is a proponent of co-existence. "I have asked the authorities to allow us to dredge and clean up the tanks in the jungle at our cost so that the elephants will have food and water within the jungle itself. The elephants come out of the jungle because the tanks are dry. Then they will not come out and attack villages in the area," explains Mr. Wickramanayake. "I am also a foster parent for a baby elephant in Uda Walawe called Rohana, for whom I pay Rs. 10,000 a month."

With regard to the elephant corridor, he queries whether elephants would, like good schoolboys go in line along the corridor, when the sugar cane is within their reach. "Remember the corridor would be through sugar cane."

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