In whom do we trust?
By Rohan Wijesinha
According to a media release of 8 December 2021, the Director General (DG) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) announced that steps were being taken to build second barriers to the existing electric fences in areas where human-elephant conflict is common. Deep trenches are to be dug along their length. Several of them have already begun to be excavated, near Wilpattu and Uda Walawe, and inside the Lunugamvehera National Park, around its infamous Elephant Holding Ground. Of considerable surprise in this media proclamation is that the DG of the DWC was a member of the Presidential Committee appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to formulate a National Action Plan for the mitigation of the human-elephant conflict (HEC).
The excellent proposals presented in this plan, as one would expect from those who have dedicated their lives to the science and research of elephants, and by those representing the communities where HEC is prevalent, express the following about the use of trenches (Section B 2.1);
The use of trenches as a barrier for elephants is based on the premise that elephants do not jump across obstructions therefore, when faced with a trench, elephants will try to get over it by striding across it. If the trench is too wide for an elephant to stride across, it will try to get in and climb out of it. Therefore, the principle in the construction of trenches as elephant barriers is that it should be too wide for an elephant to stride across and too narrow for an elephant to get in. However, elephants come in different sizes and it is not possible to figure out a width that works for all.
Trench construction over long distances is difficult because of variations in soil conditions. Trenches may also obstruct the drainage of surface water, leading to issues with irrigation. Additionally, it is not possible to construct trenches across roadways, waterways etc. Elephants will cross through any gaps left in a trench system, negating the effectiveness of trenches. Trenches will also obstruct the movement of other animals, hence, will have a wider impact than just on elephants.
The biggest problem with trenches is that they fill up with water when it rains and the sides cave in. Elephants will also put weight on the sides of trenches and actively break them down. Elephants can also go down and clamber up very steep gradients by sliding down on their backs and using their knees to climb up. Lining trenches with concrete can stabilise the sides and prevent the sides from caving in. However, such stabilisation tends to be very expensive, in the order of tens of millions of rupees per km.
Trenches have been tried in combination with DWC electric fences, but have proved ineffective.
Who is pulling the strings?
One wonders as to who the real champion of this initiative is, with the arrogance to go against the weight of science and research, and the shared knowledge of the primary stakeholders in the conflict.
It is also reported that the contracts for the excavation of these trenches are being given to those who make a living from sand and soil extraction. In other words, the resources of a national park or other protected area, fiercely protected by the wording of the law, are to be extracted for commercial gain and by whom?
What of the law?
How is it that such development can be executed within national parks without Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), with all their public discussions, and controls? While the DWC appears to think that EIAs are not necessary for development activities within protected areas, as they are the “project developer” and “project approver” for an EIA, they fail to realise that they are only looking at the regulatory aspect of an EIA. They seem to have ignored that an EIA is not only a regulatory tool but, more importantly, it informs the “project developer” of the environmental consequences of its development activities so that remedial action could be taken. The DWC has an ethical obligation to ensure that any developments undertaken within protected areas have minimal or no adverse impacts on the wildlife and wilderness that they are the custodians of, on behalf of the public of Sri Lanka. Had such developments taken place outside of national parks, then EIAs would have been a must. So, the answer is that the law, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), permits it; the Director General (DG) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has the discretion to authorise them.
These particular laws were formulated in a different age, when the civil service was not so politically controlled as it is today and was administered by those dedicated to the mandate of their respective department, in this case, the conservation of the wildlife and wilderness of Sri Lanka. Today, conservation management decisions are made at the political and not institutional level, and where once the hierarchy of the DWC would stand up to their political masters to ensure that right might prevail, they now seem to actively enable environmental wrongs to be perpetrated.
Why not do what works?
There are solutions that work. As the protection of people should be paramount, community fences should be erected around villages and their cultivations, as successfully pilot-tested by the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) in over 60 villages and 40 paddy tracts. This is a key recommendation of the Presidential Committee.
It appears, however, that the National Action Plan submitted by the Presidential Committee is being ignored and actions considered ineffective, based on past experiences in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, are now being pursued instead. It is no surprise that HEC keeps increasing annually and that there appears to be no end in sight.
In whom do we trust?
These are just examples of detrimental developments happening now, under the present system, and more can take place, without any legal recourse to prevent them from happening. When a comprehensive mechanism like an EIA is available to ensure that there is no destructive development outside of a national park, within its confines, why do the people of this country have to rely on the final judgment of one man, the DG? Recent performance does not inspire confidence that these decisions will have conservation at their heart. The law must change. An EIA process, with all of its mechanisms for transparency and public input, must be drafted for developments within national parks, and other protected areas. For in this day and age and with all that has happened and is still happening, who can we trust?
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-Governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
(The writer is the former General Secretary and member of the Human-Elephant Conflict sub-committee of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society [WNPS])