Habitats for elephants? | Sunday Observer

Habitats for elephants?

In 2017, the Human Elephant conflict has been responsible for 84 human deaths and over 150 elephant deaths. Driven from their home ranges, confined to small patches of forests near villages, wild elephants are left with no choice but to fight for their home ranges and food.

Human elephant conflict is a contemporary development, which surfaced as a consequence of the reduction of forest cover due to cultivation, development and resettlement.

“The human elephant conflict in Sri Lanka emerged in the 1980s, with the development projects, e.g., the issues in Wayamba Wildlife Zone began with the Mahaweli Development project, which remains todate,” says Environmentalist Sujeewa Chandana. Sujeewa says, the inhabitants of the villages submerged as a result of the project, were resettled in Mahaweli C and H zones in the Anuradhapura and Mahiyanganaya areas.

These villages were created in a vast area of woodlands in the Rajanganaya, Galgamuwa, Ehetuwewa and Kalawewa regions. Consequently, the elephant corridors running through these areas were obstructed, disrupting their migration patterns and hence the food and water sources of the elephants.

“There has been an elephant corridor, running from Wilpattu National Park to Kaudulla, Minneriya, Somawathi, Maduru Oya and Yala. These were closed as a result of the new villages. There were traditional villages located within these forests, but they were harmonious with nature and did not apply pressure on wildlife,” Sujeewa says.

At the same time, Jaya Ganga was built to supply water from Kalawewa to Tissa Wewa. Villages were built on adjoining lands and farmers were cultivating along the shores in the Mahiyanganaya and Girandurukotte areas. Sujeewa says, as a result, elephants lost their home ranges, as well as elephant corridors, and were restricted to patches of scrub forests left between the villages. He adds that Galgamuwa is one such area, where the elephants are trapped in scrub forests, surrounded by villages. Also, the building of the Senanayake Samudraya in Uva gave rise to similar problems, he says.

Another contributor is when forest areas are offered to multinational companies for cultivation. Sujeewa says, a classic example is the establishment of the Pelwatte Sugar Industry in Handapanagala, which resulted in a large elephant drive. “Handapanagala was chronicled as an elephant paradise by the English in the 1940s. However, due to the sugar factory, the elephants in the area were driven to the Lunugamvehera National Park and were surrounded by an electric fence,” he says.

The elephants found it difficult to survive in an alien region, and roamed along the electric fence looking for a place to escape. “Some of them died of starvation, standing near this electric fence,” Sujeewa says.

The President of the Species Conservation Centre, Pubudu Weerarathna says another such example is letting Dole Food Company plant bananas in the Welikanda and Wellawaya areas. He says, in Wellawaya, a vast area was cleared, and covered by electric fences. As a result, the elephants roamed into nearby villages.

Elephants are wired in such a manner that they do not leave their home ranges. Also, they do not migrate along new pathways, but stick to the traditional elephant corridors that has existed from the past. “Elephants require approximately 150 kg of food daily and need to walk around 35 kilometers. At the same time, they are selective of food,” says Sujeewa. Therefore, when food is scarce, they wander into the villages, and feed on chena cultivations, creating a conflict with the villagers, whose main source of income depend on the chenas.

Sujeewa says, in addition to feeding on grass, elephants need to intake minerals from soil. “The Bogahapattiya area in Yala is one such area, where elephants eat soil to obtain the necessary minerals,” he says.

Human elephant conflict today

Elephants wandering to villages create an animosity with the villagers, who attempt to rid of the wild elephants that wander into the villages by shooting, poisoning, electrocuting and planting hakka patas. It is said, many wild elephants that roam the forests today carry large numbers of bullets within their bodies. As per statistics provided by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), in 2017, from January to September, a total of 31 elephants died from gunshots, 18 from electrocution, four from poisoning, three from train accidents , 28 from hakka patas, 25 from accidents, 14 from natural causes, 47 from unknown causes and 11 from other causes.

According to Sujeewa, the arbitrary development projects in the country are responsible for the ever increasing reports of human elephant conflict. “In the Mattala and Hambantota areas currently it is a pressing concern. The land used for the Hambantota Port project and Mattala Airport Project was home range to the elephants.These stranded elephants have nowhere to go and roam through the villages in the area. Also, there is an elephant that is often found on the Mattala runway,” he says.

As Sujeewa says, it is the lack of a master plan and the unsustainability of development projects that leads to these situations. “As a result of land encroachment in Wilpattu, human elephant conflict has emerged in recent times,” he says.

With the development of irrigation systems in the country, the pattern of paddy cultivation has changed. Weerarathna says, this change also contributes to the human elephant conflict. “In the past, paddy cultivation was only during Yala and Maha seasons, which left an ipanella rich in food sources for the elephants. But, today paddy is cultivated throughout the year, and these food sources have been lost,” he says.

The development of the Southern expressway has contributed to the conflict in several ways. Weerarathna says, the extraction of gravel to build the expressway has reduced grass land in the area, which in turn has reduced food sources for elephants. Further, the highway divides the elephant corridors. “If the highways were built elevated from the ground, the elephants can use the underpass. For this, we have to protect the habitats, identify existing elephant corridors and create elephant corridors to mitigate the conflict,” he says. Weerarathna notes that declaring more protected areas and having a land use plan is important, and says that currently Sri Lanka has no land use plan, and right now human settlements, protected areas and areas for development projects are not strategically segregated.

Measures to mitigate Human- Elephant conflict

Weerarathna says, more than 40 per cent of wild elephants live outside protected areas, so that there has to be collective programs by the DWC, Forest Department, Department of Irrigation and so on, to address the issue. “Different regions are under different departments, however elephants don’t understand this,” he says.

Weerarathna emphasizes that the country can earn from tourism by protecting these natural resources, without having to spend a single penny. To mitigate human elephant conflict, the DWC is currently applying bio fencing, where a repellent plant has been planted as a natural barrier. “This includes plants like Hana, but this method is not 100 per cent successful,” he says.

He explains, habitat enrichment is another method by which the issue can be addressed, and includes increasing the quality of the elephant habitats. “One example is Udawalawe, where we remove lantana species and plant Guinea grass, which is preferred by the elephants,” he says.

Adding to this, Director General, DWC, Chandana Sooriyabandara said, food and water availability in the habitats will be improved. “We will also be removing invasive species of plants and woody species, encroaching into the grasslands. The majority food component of elephants is grass, supplemented by leaves and other sources,” he says. Further, the DWC will be improving water availability by digging water holes and renovating abandoned tanks. Another issue created by human settlements is the dumping of garbage near shrub forests. Due to the lack of food sources, elephants feed on garbage, and end up feeding on polythene. “There are over 50 places in the country where this takes place. This includes, the Digampathaha, Kanthale, Buddangala and Pollonaruwa areas. The solution for this is just a matter of developing a proper waste management strategy,” Weerarathna says.

Speaking of the issue Sooriyabandara says, the solution lies with all stakeholders, including Urban Councils, Municipal Councils and Pradeshiya Sabha. “The DWC alone cannot address the elephants eating polythene if these administrative units cannot manage their own garbage. All the parties have to collectively make an effort to manage the garbage,” he said.

Technological solutions

Railway tracks are another man made system which lies across elephant corridors, especially, in the Northern and Eastern areas. There were tragic incidents in the past, where elephants were killed by moving trains, while they attempted to cross the railway track. Currently, a system has been developed to prevent such incidents.

Speaking of the system, Irosha Perera, Technical Adviser to Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife said, this includes three stages. “First is identifying the train, the next, removing the elephant from the pathway of the approaching train, by emitting an elephant repellent frequency. The devices which emit these frequencies are buried near the track. The third stage is sensing the elephant on the track and informing the driver, at a reasonable distance,” he says. Perera adds, a pilot project of the system is already installed in Chettikulum, Mannar.

Another system developed to detect elephants approaching the villages, is an electric fence installed, surrounding the villages. “This detects and informs the villagers, Police and the Civil Defence Force, of elephants within near proximity and of any fence breakdowns.

This is done via a thermal infrared imaging system, infrasonic sensors, SMS and a siren,” he says. Perera says, at present, a pilot project is being conducted in the Galgamuwa area.

This man made conflict between humans and elephants have lasted for decades and is worsening day by day. Hopefully, the advancement of technology can help mitigate the issue and establish the long due harmony between elephants and humans.