ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

Bonding through chena

A pilot project aims at making chena cultivators, the elephants’ number one enemy, their very protectors.

Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports..........

For thousands of years the human-elephant conflict has dogged Sri Lanka. The plaintive cry in any dry zone village would be: “Aliya gahala merune” or “Ali ape kumburu vinasha kara”. (Died after being charged by an elephant or our cultivations were destroyed by elephants)

The pilot project is to be initiated in the south adjacent to the Yala National Park, The Sunday Times understands.

It will be implemented as soon as possible, said the Director-General of the Wildlife Conservation Department, Dayananda Kariyawasam.

Is there a permanent solution not only to this elephantine problem but also concrete measures that could be taken to conserve this majestic beast, which Sri Lankans are passionate about but at the same time shoot or harm mercilessly to die after much agony and suffering?

Startling new research indicates that the very humans, in many instances the much-maligned chena (slash-and-burn) cultivators, who come into conflict with elephants, could be made partners in the protection and conservation of these animals they consider their enemies. And this thinking, based on scientific research is about to be tried out as a pilot project in the south by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and scientists keen to see the elephant survive in a country that lays claim to being the home of a huge 10% of all Asian elephants.

Having found that chenas are the ideal habitats for our elephants, the department along with conservationists is attempting to set up a model just outside Yala where already there are chenas, though illegal, to get the cultivators heavily involved in the conservation effort, explains Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research, adding that the most crucial factor in the recently introduced National Policy for the Conservation of Wild Elephants is finding a viable solution to the human-jumbo conflict.

Elephants and chena cultivations are inextricably linked, says this research scientist – who studied elephants for his thesis and is involved in radio-tracking of these animals as well as studying their ecology – stressing that the human-elephant friction and elephant management and conservation are complex issues.

Delving into detail, he says in Sri Lanka humans have unintentionally created the ideal habitat for elephants in the form of chena cultivations, over thousands of years.

What do elephants need, he asks. “Food and water.” Elephants don’t do well in dense forests because they cannot reach the thick canopy above for their food, while the undergrowth is too sparse for their fodder. The chenas create regenerating vegetation on which elephants thrive.

Preparations for radio-tracking

On the issue of water, Sri Lanka sans even a single natural lake, has hundreds of thousands of man-made lakes (wew or tanks). So, the argument holds that in fact it is humans who have created the environment for elephants. “The elephant is a low-density species,” says Dr. Fernando, “which means that even in such enriched habitat only about 3-4 elephants can live per square km and in thick forest, only around one per square km. What is most important for elephants is the area they can be in. If, for argument’s sake, 80% of their range is lost you will lose 80% of the elephant population. The thinking, because it is difficult to count them and get an exact number, is that there are around 4,000 elephants in the country.”

With the knowledge that elephants like disturbed or secondary habitats, such as chenas, has come the planning for the model in the south. As people near the Yala boundaries are already into chena cultivations, the department is hoping to create awareness among them how they could become elephant protectors.

If we are to limit all elephants to National Parks, the option would be to do ‘habitat management’ of an area, like a thousand within the parks themselves which cover 6,000 The cost would be prohibitive, in the range of billions of rupees and it would result in a massive loss of biodiversity, says Dr. Fernando pointing out that it is better to use the chenas which are already being worked at no cost to the government.

The modus operandi would be to empower the chena cultivators who are among the poorest of the poor in Sri Lanka, as they do not have any access to facilities such as bank loans or even a proper means of marketing their produce.

Citing the pathetic situation they are faced with Dr. Fernando says as soon as the yield is collected they can get about Rs. 35 for a kilo of string beans but gradually the price drops to about Rs. 2 a kilo, sometimes leaving them with huge losses. Dealing with the simple patterns of chena cultivators, this researcher who spends much time in the south, says the whole process takes only about four to five months. The ground is cleared just before the rains and crops cultivated around mid-October with the harvests being gathered by February.

During the rainy season, the elephants have food aplenty outside the chenas but the crops could be protected using ancient methods such as guarding the fields from a uda pela (tree hut) and demarcating the areas with a pita weta (fence), together with modern methods such as electrified fences. After the harvesting, the chenas could be left to the elephants, and could continue to bring revenue for chena farmers through initiatives such as eco-tourism.

The cultivators need to be provided incentives such as loan schemes, tied to elephant conservation, to make them feel that they are beneficiaries while protecting and conserving elephants and not handouts, says Dr. Fernando adding that they would need to be supported also to market their produce.

Such a belt of chenas would ensure that the elephants themselves would keep to these areas, as fodder would be available, and avoid permanent human settlements, which could be protected by electric fences, he says.

Maybe this model replicated all over the country would enable those coming many generations after us to continue to see the elephant in the wild and marvel at the majesty and wonder of this largest land animal.


Human-elephant conflict: Drives not the best option

Elephants, left behind by the drive carried out last year in the south are stranded in the Lunugamvehera area, The Sunday Times understands.

There are about 20 problem animals and two herds with about 30 animals left behind but they will be taken to the Lunugamvehera National Park this dry season which is in July-August. However, we were able to guide to safety over 350, explained Wildlife Conservation Director-General Dayananda Kariyawasam.

The Lunugamvehera drive

“We have prevented these animals from getting shot or maimed,” he said adding that though drives may not be the best method of management, in the interim it is an option that needs to be considered. “We’ve saved them from development pressure.”

The elephants were driven from the Walawe left bank, from areas like Suriyawewa, Madunagala and Gonnoruwa within two and a half months over about 45 km with 100 people and volunteers, he said.

A wildlife official in the area who declined to be identified said the drive had to be carried out taking into consideration that there are babies.

When asked whether the stranded elephants are facing starvation, the official denied it is so and said the area has plenty of food and water.

Conceding that in some areas the electric fence has not been maintained by the department he also said that in others, villagers had removed the poles and cut the wires enclosing the elephants. “Thereafter, the villagers complain of elephant attacks,” he said.

“The plan to drive the elephants was developed after consultation with different groups under the Walawe left bank programme about 10 years ago when there was not much scientific-based research on elephants in Sri Lanka. Now the information available indicates that drives maybe generally unsuccessful in solving the human-elephant conflict or conservation of elephants,” says research scientist Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, echoing the Director-General’s thoughts.


Explaining that elephants roam 60% of the country’s land area in the south, excluding the National Parks, he says that of this area, only half has herds which comprise females and young ones, with most other areas being the range for lone males or thaniyas as dubbed by villagers.

Usually the animals which are driven from one point to another are females and young ones. But the problem is with the adult males, because after 10-15 years, males leave the herd and forage and roam as loners. “These lone males are more prone to aggression and raid villages and crops, causing the human-elephant conflict. It is rarely that a female herd is seen doing such things and rarely has such an incident been recorded from the south of Sri Lanka,” he says.

However, there is immense pressure on the authorities to do something about elephant attacks and in the past drives seem to have been the answer.

In the case of loners, even though studies are ongoing, they are still in the early stages and no conclusions have been drawn whether all of them raid villages or only some of them; whether they do it throughout the year or at certain times only.

Facing this dilemma, conservationists with the support of the department have been engaged in radio tracking of animals to study not only their movements but also their behavioural patterns, since 1995.

“So in a drive, you move the herd but not the animals that cause the problems,” Dr. Fernando adds.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.