Where do missing tuskers go? | Sunday Observer

Where do missing tuskers go?

Walagamba-Tusker at Kalawewa Pic: Rajiv Welikala
Walagamba-Tusker at Kalawewa. Pic: Rajiv Welikala

The sight of a tusker is a thing of beauty. It is a rare treat and a precious memory to treasure forever. However, with the killing of Galgamuwa crossed tusker, Dala Poottuwa, certain questions were asked and certain conversations have begun, on the plight of tuskers in the land. It is agreed that without immediate action and more conservation efforts, the tuskers in this land would face extinction.

Within a short span of time, three tuskers met with their tragic and untimely deaths. These include Dala Poottuwa, the victim of poachers and their greed for ivory, the tusker shot at Thabbowa by a chena cultivator and the single tusker who died by poisoning in the Galgamuwa, Puttalama range. In addition to the number of tuskers found dead, some more have gone missing over the years. According to Environmentalist, Sujeewa Chandana, a few tuskers have vanished from sight during the past few years. These include Walagamba from the Kala Wewa range, known as king of kings and around 10 other tuskers from Kala Wewa, Yala, Udawalawe, Somawathi and Kawudulla areas.

What can be their fate?

The reasons for disappearance of these tuskers can vary. But, in the wake of the Dala Poottuwa incident, concerns have been raised whether more tuskers have been victims of poachers. Sujeewa highlighted the importance of investigating what happened to these tuskers, to find out whether they are still alive or have fallen prey to poachers.

Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera requested anybody with evidence on these missing tuskers to contact the Dept. of Wildlife, so that necessary action can be taken. “I request any individual possessing information on these missing tuskers to come forward. We can offer them a reward for the information,” the Minister said.

The Minister said an in depth investigation will be conducted into the killing of the tusker, Dala Pootuwa, to find out whether it was part of an ivory racket that has been in operation.

“We want to find out where the elephant pearls have come from, for how long this racket has been going on, the mechanism of their operations and the parties involved. I also want to know whether any wildlife officers are involved in the racket,” the Minister said.

He said, in the trials of the killing of Dala Poottuwa, senior lawyers consider the incident equivalent to the killing of a human being. “The punishments will be on this accord, which would pass a message to those involved in these crimes that they cannot escape justice,” he said.

Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development, Sagala Ratnayaka told the Sunday Observer that he has instructed the CID, to probe into the incident, to find out whether the killing of Dala Poottuwa is the work of an organized criminal network involved in illegal trading of elephant tusks.

Minister Ratnayaka said this suspicion has arisen in relation to several incidents reported in the recent past. Accordingly, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), is currently conducting investigations the killings.

Minister Perera said, blood ivory from Sri Lanka is in demand internationally. “Also, there were three incidents where baby elephants have been tied up in Udawalawe, Gonagal Aru and the Manik Ganga area. We suspect they were tied up for the purpose of smuggling them across international borders.”

To counter these activities, Cabinet approval will be given next week, to allocate members of Police, Special Task Force (STF), Tri forces, to every wildlife park and sanctuary, to patrol and capture poachers and any other individual committing wildlife crimes, alongside with a wildlife officer,” he said, explaining that these measures are taken to address the obstacle of limited manpower faced by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

Speaking on tracing the missing tuskers, DWC, Director General, M.G.C. Sooriyabandara said, due to limited manpower at DWC, it is difficult to trace every single one of them. “However, respective officers in each area are aware of the roaming areas of these elephants and coupled with data from the 2011 elephant survey, these can be used to trace some of the missing tuskers. The migration patterns of the tuskers make the task difficult,” he said.

Sooriyabandara added that poaching elephants for tusks is rare and the human-elephant conflict is the main reason for the death of tuskers. According to DWC officials, 250 elephants and 60 human beings die per year due to this.

“As part of the human elephant conflict, there are deliberate attempts by humans to shoot, poison, electrocute and use hakka patas to get rid of the elephants and tuskers. In the recent past, the use of hakka patas has become popular and has been recorded from Anuradapura, Polonnaruwa and the South,” he said.

Sooriyabandara added that the issue of human elephant conflict is becoming critical day by day, with the clearing of elephant habitats for development projects.

The President of the Species Conservation Centre, Pubudu Weerarathna, echoed Sooriyabandara in his views. “Ivory trade exists in very low levels at the moment, but human elephant conflict is a major contributor to the deaths of elephants. In this day and age, all elephants walk with a large number of bullets on their body” he said.

Also, there was a recent incident in the Ritigala area, where an elephant was killed by an electrocuted fence. The owner of the property had used electricity from his house on the fence, as protection from wild animals,” he said.

Minister Perera said, it is the duty of the Ceylon Electricity Board to take action against those using electricity for these purposes.

How to prevent tuskers from disappearing

In addition to investigating what happened to missing tuskers, there is also an urgent need to protect the rest. Elephants are a key species, where a range of other species are dependent on them. They provide a niche for other species. Thus, the killing of elephants results in the destruction of habitats of a range of species. As per the DWC survey in 2011, there were 5,879 sighted elephants in the country, with less than 60 tuskers and 35 sub adult tuskers.

As per the data, a number of elephants die each year, due to various causes, including the human elephant conflict, poaching, and accidents. In 2016, a total of 276 elephant deaths were recorded and in 2017, there have been 212 deaths.

Monitoring elephants via radio collars has been a popular suggestion made by most environmentalists to protect these gentle giants.

Minister Jayawickrama Perera recently told the Sunday Observer that every tusker will be monitored via a radio collar to ensure their safety, and that this motion will be implemented soon, but currently, there is a limited supply of radio collars.

The Minister added that monitoring via radio collars is not 100 per cent accurate. Weerarathna said, in tranquilizing elephants to insert radio collars, there is a 50 per cent risk to the tusker.

“It is important to ensure that the trunk does not slide underneath the body, making the respiration of the elephant difficult, and that the elephant does not fall into a risky position,” he said.

He added that real time anti poaching radio collars, which notifies of gun shots to the animals, is in research level and therefore cannot be used yet.

Minister Perera said, to minimize human elephant conflict, he is proposing a crop insurance scheme to be extended to paddy, chena cultivation and other crops damaged by elephants.

“This is to prevent the farmers from shooting the elephants feeding on their crops and to bring harmony between the two parties. We are proposing to offer Rs 25,000 as maximum compensation as per the recommended valuation,” the Minister said. The proposal is due to be taken up by the Cabinet, next week.

Weerarathna said, protecting migration paths of the elephants and elephant corridors, as well as observing their migration patterns, are some of the measures that can be taken to prevent tuskers from going missing in the future.

Is the current legal protection adequate?

According to Environmentalist and Attorney- at – Law, Jagath Gunawardana, Sections 12 to 24 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance of 1937, affords legal protection to elephants.

“Under section 12, it is an offence to kill or injure an elephant. Provisions on section 22A state it is an offence to keep tusks of elephants or parts of tusks illegally. This is also considered an offence under the Public Property Act,” he said.

Environmentalists have raised concern that the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance does not capture key issues and that elephants are not adequately protected under the Act.

Speaking on this, Gunawardana said the present situation of elephant killings has arisen as a result of the non implementation of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance and the Public Property Act. “ To me, it is not a weakness of the law, but an ineffectiveness of its implementation, which has encouraged people to commit offences,” he said.

Ginawardana added that until offenders against elephants are dealt with appropriately, without fear or favour, and regardless of the social stature of the individual, the effectiveness of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance will be minimal.