drive or destruction?
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.
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.
'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.
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.
just what I was doing," he said.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
are held to ascertain whether it was a drive or whether it was unauthorised,
what of the poor elephants trapped between Handapanagala and Talakolawewa?
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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