The Sunday TimesPlus

11th August 1996




Elephant walk

Handapanagala herd is now is driven to Yala. But conservationists still have doubts about the drive’s success

By Tharuka Dissanayake

The Handapanagala tank was bare. Reflecting the bright noontime sunshine the blue waters of the tank serenely lapped against its bank. Few people were bathing or fishing there. Cattle grazed on the grassy banks, beneath the rocky outcrops around Handapanagala . It was picture perfect except for one thing. There were no elephants splashing around the picturesque tank. Last week the Department of Wildlife Conservation, in a single operation drove some 175 elephants who habituated the area, into the jungles of Yala National Park.

The villagers in the colonies and settlements around the tank are breathing easy. Their nightmare with the elephants , they believe, is over. For several years the village people feared for their lives and crops as the hungry jumbos rampaged the villages for food at night. Now, they hope that fear which was ever present in their lives has disappeared for ever.

The Handapanagala herd was a hotly debated topic in the arena of conservation in the recent past. What should be done about the herd - which is really a conjugation of several small groups of elephants- was a controversy which was yet unresolved at the time of the drive. Most NGOs involved with the effort to conserve the herd at Handapanagala opted for the corridor which was earmarked for the elephants during President D.B. Wijetunga’s time. The biggest problem with the drive was that its modus operandi was kept strictly secret, leading to much speculation among NGOs and media. While the conservationists campaigned for the corridor, the Department was gradually preparing for the big drive-storing food, camp gear and men at Handapanagala. Then, unknown to many, the Department of Wildlife Conservation went ahead with the drive last week.

“It was not a drive, it was an elephant walk,” said Deputy Director, Nandana Atapattu who spearheaded the effort, at his campsite near the Handapanagala tank. “There was no need to use force. The elephants moved, sometimes without our coaxing towards the determined area.” He said that the drive-or walk- was much more successful than he expected.

The Director of the DWLC, who was also at the site said quite confidently that the herd had crossed over to Yala , save for four or five lone animals who are still roaming the jungles around Handapanagala. “These animals will later be tranquilised and taken to Yala,: Atapattu said.

The Director said that although the budget for the drive had been Rs. 3.5 million, the department had managed to stay below that limit.

For the people no news could be better. “Now I can start cultivating again.” said D.M.G. Menika. Her brother was killed some years ago by rampaging elephants. Menika said she cultivated sugar cane for Pelwatte Sugar Company. “Last time my crop was totally destroyed by the elephants. I have taken from the company a loan of Rs. 28, 000 for that crop. Now I have to cultivate and pay it back.”

R.M Sriyani lives by the electric fence at Handapanagala with her husband and two young children. They came from Passara seven years ago to cultivate in the area. “Every night we have to watch out for elephants. When they come into the garden when my husband is away the children and I wait as quietly as possible until they move away.”

The villagers formed a society for those threatened by the elephants in the settlements. The president of this association, D. M. Podiappuhamy said the drive was a great thing. “If the elephants could speak, they too would say that it is the best thing that had happened to them.” It would indeed be interesting to see what the jumbos would have to say, if they could speak. The human elephant conflict at Handapanagala had claimed the lives of well over 150 elephants and 74 men, women and children during the past 15 years.

The problem with the drive as many see it, is the cloud of secrecy which seemed to have enveloped it last week. Nobody was allowed to view the drive outside those immediately involved in the operation. Journalists who arrived at Handapanagala were told that they could not go to the site of the operation. This was contrary to the promises made by the Minister in charge, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and officials of the Department, earlier this year that the media would be very welcome at the drive. The announcement of the start of the operation on Friday (August 2) was totally inadequate for one of that magnitude.

But Dr. Attapattu says that press releases were sent out to all the newspapers regarding the drive before commencement.

The method of driving was to induce the elephants to travel towards water along a predetermined, electric fenced route to Yala. To do this their normal sources of water were blocked using humans as a shield. A line of shouting men with fire crackers prompted the “walk” from behind while vehicles prevented the jumbos from going astray. They had entered Yala at a point called Demodara in Yala block 4. Soon the entire Yala border with the sugarcane land of Pelwatte and villages will be sealed off with an electric fence and this will be manned to prevent jumbos coming back, said Atapattu.

“The biggest problem in Yala is the lack of water.” said Nalin Ladduwahetty of Mihikatha Trust Fund . Ò Yala block 4 and 5 are two of the most arid areas and there is already an elephant population . The Department should have driven the elephants only after ensuring that there is enough water in this area.”

The habitat in these areas, which lies North of the visited block 1, is known to be arid and lacking in water resources, which is something essential to the jumbo. Some new tanks were to be built by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, with funding from the Pelwatte sugar company. But this has not been done as yet.

“There is enough water in the area for even 500 elephants, Ó Dr. Atapattu said. Ò In September the monsoon will come and there will be enough water in the tanks.”

“The drive’s success has to be time tested.” Lal Anthonis, former consultant to the Department said. “If the elephants are contained within Yala all is well. But we have to wait and see. The elephants will definitely try to come back because they will remember the water and the sugarcane and try to break through the fence.

Indeed the success of the drive will have to be time tested. Even the villagers in their euphoric state, spoke of fears that the jumbos might find a way to return to Handapanagala, where water and food are aplenty. In the words of a conservationist- “Now that it is done, we can only wait and see.”

Tying and untying the knot

“But words do matter, and the idea that there is ‘no fault’ involved in divorce is a dangerous moral myth. It invites peoples to live in delusion”.


Vinoth Ramachandra

Last month a new Family Law was passed in the British Parliament. The Act, which will come into effect in 1998, will scrap “quickie” divorces and introduce “no fault” divorce after an 18 month waiting period to allow “reflection and consideration” for couples to consider whether they really want to divorce. England and Wales have the highest divorce rates in Europe, and the British government believes the new Act will reduce the acrimony of marriage break up and make it easier to resolve issues such as the welfare of children.

There is much to be said in support of the Act. From a legal point of view, its aim is reasonable. It expresses a desire to simplify what legally is often a “messy” and expensive affair in the courts, and to bring about a smooth end to a broken relationship between a husband and wife.

But words do matter, and the idea that there is “No-fault” involved in divorce is a dangerous moral myth. It invites people to live in delusion. Telling the child, whose father’s adultery and desertion has left her emotionally bereft and financially stranded, that there was “No-fault” is to confuse her sense of what is right and just and to add insult to her injury. There is often real injustice, dishonesty and cruelty involved in marriage break ups. Many marriages are destroyed by the persistent unfaithfulness and betrayal of one partner.

The husband who steals his wife’s savings and gambles it away in casinos, or has already squandered most of his pay packet at the local tavern before returning home has no one but himself to blame when the family deserts him. Many wives or husbands are discarded by spouses to whom they have been faithful through many years of marriage, and in this kind of break up the pain of rejection can linger for many years. The trite phrase “No-faultÓ glosses over the human tragedy that brings hurt, depression and poverty in its wake. Not to mention deep emotional scars left in the children.

In many marriages where there is no obvious injustice involved, breakdowns occur when faults on both sides come to the surface. Marital counselling takes this for granted. When Mr. & Mrs. Perera constantly bicker over the children, money, parents in law and a host of things that they find irritating in each other, there are faults in both partners.

When Mr. & Mrs. Silva become slowly distant from each other once their children have grown up and left home, it probably indicates poor communication from the beginning of their marriage which child rearing happened to disguise for a while. In very few couples does one partner have a monopoly on goodness and reasonableness. We may find it easier to blame the other and excuse ourselves (especially if we are males), but we rarely fool others. Tragically, we can get locked into patterns of guilt denial and supression that make any possibility of restoring a spoilt relationship futile.

So a far more accurate description of what goes on in most marriage break-ups (whether it be Britain or Sri Lanka) is not "no-fault” but, to employ a term from tennis, “double faultÓ. Helping couples to see the “Double faultÓ that may lie behind their divorce is far more helpful than kidding them that there was “No-faultÓ on either side. What may be legally convenient may also be morally disastrous. For if there is "no-fault", neither partner needs to change.

I don’t need to repent, to ask for forgiveness, or to offer forgiveness. Acknowledging openly that we have sinned is a deeply humbling experience. Yet it is an experience which is essential not only for coming to terms with my past, but also for my relationships in the future. Genuine human community is impossible without it. To deny that fault exists on my side, even in law, is to remain imprisoned in hopeless delusion.

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