Editorial | Sunday Observer


Elephants, forests and humans

Last week, in the nick of time, President Maithripala Sirisena responded swiftly to the calls of nature conservationists and the local population and stopped the capture and transfer of the last two wild elephants living in the world famous Sinharaja forest reserve. Whether these Elephas maximus maximus will be allowed to remain in their homeland or whether these two animals will finally be trucked out to another habitat depends on either a holistic conservation plan or another whim of local and national politicians.

Elephants have lived on this land long before the arrival of Homo sapiens in this part of South Asia. In fact, long before the spread of humans, various types of elephants roamed much of Asia, ranging from the Tigris-Euphrates river valley to China and South East Asia. Today this animal survives only in South and South East Asia.

Their lives and human life became intertwined from the most ancient times and our history richly portrays in text, inscription, beautiful rock carvings and illustrations the inter-relationship between Human and Elephant. Today, it is with pride that we recall this tradition of co-operation between humans and elephants, whether in economic logistics such transport and heavy lift, in warfare (the ancient equivalent of modern battle tanks), in royal ceremony and, in religious rituals and festivity. It is with much flourish that we continue the traditional relationship not only in our religious festivals but also in introducing the increasing numbers of tourists to this much-loved creature.

Sadly, the country’s modern economic development dynamics brought this animal to a state of near-extinction until alarm bells were rung by nature lovers in the 1960s.

Today, the biggest enemy of this usually gentle giant is the rapacious Human in the form of farmers hungry for land, timber consumers encouraging deforestation, gem miners digging up virgin forests and, tour operators and hoteliers exploiting our last-remaining scenic natural environments.

The Sinharaja Forest, the sole remaining stretch of virgin tropical jungle on the island, exemplifies all of the above human depredations. The growing number of farmers on the edges of the Sinharaja reserve has resulted in encroachments of the forest itself, thereby reducing the habitat available for these wide-ranging creatures. Tour operators and hoteliers have added to the encroachment.

At the same time, unlicensed gem miners and lumberjacks, backed by an unscrupulous politician-business nexus, have been probing into the heart of the forest reserve, not only disrupting the animal habitat with mining and timber-felling – wholly illegal – but also disturbing the peace of the jungle with a constant loud cacophony of chain-saws and mechanical diggers.

Sinharaja – not withstanding our proud boasts – has dwindled drastically in extent, depriving its elephants of an adequate homeland.

Human-elephant conflict is now widespread in many parts of the country. Thus, the transfer of these two creatures to other ranges is not a guarantee for their survival. Worse, the change of their habitat from the familiar hot-wet forest of Sinharaja to the more dry and sparse jungles in the Dry Zone could likely shorten the lives of these creatures, as our eco-activists warn.

It is up to the highest political authorities to ensure that those in charge of nature conservation implement suitable wild life conservation programmes that will, firstly, protect Sinharaja’s last remaining extent and, secondly, guarantee that both the local communities as well as the forest creatures – especially the free-roaming elephant – are allowed to co-exist with mutual benefit, as it has been throughout our history.

Sangha and secular punishment

The conviction by the Homagama Magistrate last Thursday of the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena for the crime of intimidation and harassment is a test of the will of the country as a whole to ensure the security of citizens on the one hand and, the highest standards of religious practice on the other.

Certainly, the venerable Bhikku has the right to appeal his conviction and sentence of six months’ rigorous imprisonment. But if the rule of law is to reign supreme over this land, then the verdict of guilt must be acknowledged until disproven through appeal.

It is vital then, that this conviction is taken very seriously by the religious order to which the venerable Bhikku belongs. In the recent decade, the Bodu Bala Sena has become just one of several Bhikku-led organisations that have been notoriously linked to numerous incidents of mob violence, intimidation and harassment. While much of this violence has targeted the country’s non-Buddhist communities, there have been instances in which people critical of this kind of thuggery, including even Buddhists and those belonging to the majority ethnic community have been subjected to threats and harassment.

It is imperative, therefore, that the religious authorities put in motion comprehensive programs to eradicate the menace of religiously-inspired social violence, from whatever source. There needs to be a serious and sustained effort at strengthening and building of internal mechanisms and discourse within the Sangha and other ecclesiastical establishments that counter such fundamentalism and virtual heresy among our clergy. At the same time, the laity of all religions also needs to share in the spiritual challenge by refusing to sponsor such irreligious activity by their clerics.

Finally, whatever regulatory or administrative role that the state plays in religious establishments must actively facilitate such a genuine spiritual revival in this ‘Dhamma Dveepa’. The one conviction must be the spark that helps rekindle the flame of true Liberation. The fires of fanaticism, hate and intolerance must be overcome.