Elephants in the wild: A villager’s infinite perspectives | Sunday Observer

Elephants in the wild: A villager’s infinite perspectives

A semi-naked modified tourist conveyer packed with wide-eyed city folks, aiming their pricey I-phones and cameras left and right, cut through the savanna spotted with leisurely feeding elephants on the forest’s edge circling the Minneriya tank. The tourists consider these docile, yet parenthetically speaking, thieves, as a sight to behold. If you ask, that’s not the definition that residents of a village near Habarana, would give.

A few hours ago, leaving the delusory ‘Elephant Walk’ chorale and cuteness in the savanna, a congregation of these truculent rogues went on a rampage in the village and stripped bare its fledgling coconut and banana groves. The herd first sneaked into the village compound in the cover of night. This is when the elephants are at their essence. While the rest is eating up the garden, one followed the scent of paddy bags in a mud-daubed house. Stealthily he inserted the trunk through the eaves sniffing the bags of paddy only to pull back when a terrified and angry woman inside thrust a fire brand into its nostrils. Angry at being belittled, the elephant got even by pushing the little house aslant and walked away pulling out a few more young coconut plants and a mature sour sop (katu anoda) tree.

When the silvery dawn inched over the tamarind-colour night, the marauders were gone. Only the defiled hamlet stood reliving the terror visited upon them earlier in the night.

If anyone seeing this herd later in the savanna calls it a sight to remember, he is pandering to the devil. This is the villagers’ full arc of thinking as invasion of elephants around our isolated communities has become unbearable. But to the tourism industry, the Government’s elephant management concept and conservationists, who are all leagued together, the elephants are saintly. To this league, the destruction that elephants bring to villagers on a nightly basis is as miniscule as something weighed on a jeweller’s scale.

Just two months ago, two children were killed by an elephant in Mahiyanganaya. With dramas like this playing out every night in Sri Lanka, not the snake, the python nor the mapila, but the elephant, has earned the distinction as the villainous animal that causes greater harm and instils moribund fear in my village.

We are wondering when this menace would end. Since late, we don’t remember a fledgling coconut tree in the garden rising above five feet. The old coconut grove touching the clouds in gammedda was fortunate to grow to its full age and height without any harassment from elephants. This grove was lucky to spend the youth at a time when elephants were not an infestation.

These trees are aging in sombre expectation that the new fledges would soon catch up to take their place. But a fledgling coconut tree will die within weeks when molested by an elephant (or cattle).

Contrary to the popular belief that misery and suffering rule their ranks, all rotund and liberal bodies of elephants we see visiting our village show little of that, but signs of comfort and luxurious living. So shedding tears for elephants in the name of conservation and culture means not knowing the full spectrum of this moiety – us and the elephants.

A couple of weeks ago, a baby tusker was shot dead by the roadside. In 2010 a full-grown wild tusker in Galgamuwa was asphyxiated at the hands of man, no less, while being transported in a truck with defective floorboarding. Weekly scenes of grotesquely mangled bodies of elephants lying strewn by the train tracks get the same interpretation from villagers on the explosion of elephant population in this small island. Traps, guns, poisoned pumpkins, deadly battas, agri-wells, our own cultural ethos that have elevated the elephant to symbolic status calling it a ‘national resource,’ and even camera-toting tourists have joined forces creating our own reality show Darwin called natural selection.Every dead elephant gets the same seal of interpretation by the villagers who see them as a menace. For the villagers, a dead elephant is nature’s indomitable show of its working. Their land area is decreasing while humans clamouring for land are increasing. Where are our resources and know-how to curb this problem?

Under extensive conservation programs started by the authorities in the early 80s, elephants were given free hand to forge through romancing opulence resulting in an outburst of progeny outpacing humans, bringing the two parties to contest the dwindling land space, and rocking the peace that existed between these two for ages. As proof, I see more elephants now in our wewa ismatta than I ever saw half a century ago in my youth. Around our villages, there was a time when elephants were so shy, seeing a lighted tinder stick was enough for them to go into hiding.

There is a reason we call elephants rogues, sometimes. It’s not the same as a majestic elephant, caparisoned, emblazoned, vivaciously swinging and stepping to the drum beat, smiling with children sitting on the curb-side on a perehara route; and a deceitful rogue, a member of a wrecking cartel and a syndicate, sneakily descending upon a sleeping village in the cover of night and ransacking it, wracking villagers’ terraqueous and personal wealth.

I agree, elephants in Sri Lanka are a unique treasure to be proud of. But daily demise of their numbers with most unfortunate and preventable causes tells another story. So, sitting in my home in the village, I can only think, what if we reduce some elephants from the wild in a non-destructive and sustainable manner. Many African countries have thought of lately to arrest the threat of extinction of this extraordinary creature by introducing elephant contraceptives. Jomo Kenyata, Kenyan President ordered an armed detail round the clock to protect Kenya’s regal tusker, Ahmed, until the day he died. We have only about 100 tuskers in the wild. I propose units of STF to guard each and every tusker in the wild round the clock. A commando battalion of about 700 can do the job day and night with three each for a shift. Don’t we protect politicians round the clock with more armed details? I wonder why no one thought about this.

The way the government and conservationists see the problem is as if their eyes are located where the ears are: evincing a partial and incomplete view.

If it is not the case, how in the world do they miss the most obvious: the existential need to reduce the number of elephants so that they can lead a harmonious existence with the villagers; the need to allow aggressive participation of well to do citizens of the country who implore for opportunity to domesticate and own wild elephants which will, again, remove elephants from the wild, introduce a program to slow the reproduction of elephants by using contraceptives; introduce steep fines for those who incite by offering food to elephants near train tracks and roadways; incentivize villagers with schemes of elephant insurance to get compensated for property damage by the elephants. As in aircraft, attaching transponders to the engine car of the trains running on forested routes and to each matriarch of elephant herds frequenting the area is a splendid idea. A basic transponder costs about Rs.375,000, a little over the price of a three-wheeler. A very conservative cost of a BMV car imported for a Member of Parliament is only about Rs. 20,800,000!

Thailand which has a land area of 200,000 mi2 has close to 8,000 elephants and 50% of them are domesticated, whereas in Sri Lanka, our 25,000 mi2 land has an eye-popping 6,000 wild elephants while only a measly 10% or less are domesticated. Thailand’s is a sustainable elephant management program while ours is a confusion of mammoth scale at the expense of peasantry in the villages. We surely have a problem!

We must not only appreciate this mammoth creature roaming among us but be acquiescent to the danger of causing its annihilation.

Extermination of majestic beasts has been a widespread occupation of man. Nobody wants the elephant to be Sri Lanka’s Dodo. So, Sri Lanka is not alone. But we understand the truth of maintaining a judicious balance between rightful claimants to this land of ours, and theirs.

At present a painfully true and palpable Faustian method of management and conservation is in the works about our elephants and their critically impacted partners - the residents of isolated villages in the elephant-inhabited areas.

Let me explain why this is a Faustian idea. We Sri Lankans have sacrificed the wellbeing of the villagers by promoting the unchecked growth of elephant population while only highlighting their cultural share and tourism value.

Recently when this issue came up, a Colombo suburbanite friend asked me why people build houses in (and near)jungles where there are elephants. We must be ashamed living in the midst of such preposterous minds.

To the villager, all that purported pride elephants evince, all that monomania of beauty they carry in our national narrative, all that quasi-sacred status they have been ascribed to, all that majesty and awe they exude, and all that definitions they invoke upon the nation’s history and culture have no meaningful sum after nightfall which literally obfuscate all that, and take ghostly shapes as vicious and unbearable as the repulsive vapors of an acidic vial.

Despite the difficulty they face from elephants, the villagers’ vox populi – the popular cry, is that no culture is worthy of its grain of salt if it harasses, harms, or violates the free and safe living of one segment of its members by allowing other forces to roam free.

Villagers believe elephants must have a fair hearing. But villagers also think that labelling the elephant a national treasure (jathika sampatha) and a cultural symbol are appellations little over the line.

If such labelling holds true and apt, then how is it with us? Are we villagers a national burden? A bothersome national inconvenience? From the point of view of villagers, it is not a stretch too much to say that elephants have become a problem, an imprecation of unimaginable inconvenience and threat to our lives.

We worry more about the welfare of mangrove patches and shrimps and crabs inhabiting beneath their rotting roots than the inhabitants of villages tessellated across the elephant-infested rural Sri Lanka. This is not only an affront but twist of a nation’s thinking about difficulties of the villagers who share land with wildlife in their midst.

Villagers are not antithetical to elephants. We and they can live like a contrapuntal duet, but it needs participation of all, and all our creative thinking. Do we have the appetite to tackle this problem? 

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