By Rohan Wijesinha
In 2008, a group of men with political backing took it upon themselves to commence the task of having 6,000 ha of Udawalawe National Park cleared and fenced for agriculture and settlement, effectively destroying the Dahaiyagala Sanctuary to its north, which serves as an important elephant corridor between Udawalawe and the Bogahapattiya Forest Reserve. This act of anarchy was against the law of the land, for only a gazette under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, and duly approved by Parliament, can delegitimize a tract of land previously declared as a national reserve (i.e. a protected area).
The Dahaiyagala Sanctuary was declared by a gazette in 2001 and remains so to this day. After legal action was taken by the Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), the courts upheld this principle and instructed that those who had illegally encroached into this area should be relocated elsewhere and that this important corridor be preserved for posterity.
Why is Dahaiyagala important?
Udawalawe is a haven for elephants, especially at times of drought, with the park having the only fodder and water in the area for all of their wild numbers that roam this region. Fundamental to their wellbeing as well as to the reduction of the human-elephant conflict is the maintenance of the jungle corridors based on ancient elephant ranges, along which these animals can move between areas of protection.
The importance of this area for conservation and for the reduction of the human-elephant conflict is supported by an intensive PhD study of the movements of the elephants carried out at Udawalawe. One chapter deals with the importance of Dahaiyagala in the movements of elephants to and from the park.
“Most of this exchange seems to be traffic between the Bogahapitiya Sanctuary and UWNP (Udawalawe National Park) via the Dahaiyagala Sanctuary. An important discovery is that the elephant population making use of Udawalawe is much larger than previously thought. Restricting movement of this population, therefore, means trying to restrain not a mere 500 animals, but well over 750,” it read (S.R. De Silva , Uda Walawe National Park Elephant Population Status Report, University of Pennsylvania).
The advantage of habitat (elephant) corridors is that they reduce the necessity for animals to stray out of the protected areas in search of water and food. With ready access to their seasonal feeding grounds, elephants, particularly the herds of females and their calves, have no need to stray in search of human-grown products, thereby reducing the human-elephant conflict.
These corridors also serve as an important highway for the interchange of genes, which is of as vital importance as sustenance in the preservation of a species. Genetic isolation invariably results in extinction.
Conservation is primarily about people
Good environmental management and conservation is not about the preservation of the wilderness and wild animals alone. Most importantly, especially in this island whose history and future are rooted in agriculture, it is about ensuring a sustainable source of water – the preservation of the forests that attract rain and of the catchment areas that collect and conserve water for use by humans.
Preserving Dahaiyagala is really about the conservation of the people of Udawalawe and all those downstream of the Walawe Ganga (river) who benefit from its waters. Its borders are plagued by seasonal drought, landslides, and the human-elephant conflict. No trees, no rain. No trees, no water. No trees, more landslides. No elephants, no income from responsible wildlife tourism.
Place a fence across the Dahaiyagala Sanctuary and hundreds of elephants, including the majestic tuskers of Udawalawe, will have no option but to encroach on human habitation to find food. The human-elephant conflict in this area would increase a hundred-fold, as will the suffering of both people and elephants. In addition, it would result in a significant reduction in the elephant population in the Udawalawe National Park.
No longer will the tourist brochures be able to boast that it is the one place in the world that the sighting of a wild elephant can be guaranteed 24 hours of the day, for 365 days of the year – so much for Sri Lanka trying to position itself as one of the best wildlife tourism destinations outside Africa.
Freeing a human population from poverty
In the last two decades, the elephants of the Udawalawe National Park have freed the local population from the clutches of poverty and given them an economic status that sustains over 400 safari jeep drivers and over 125 hotels and guest houses. These entrepreneurs and establishments are all there because of the reputation of the national park and its elephants. Twenty years ago, Udawalawe was just a little hamlet with a village shop or two. Today, the national park sustains a tourism industry that provides jobs and incomes for thousands, and has created opportunities for these communities to enjoy a standard of life as well as hopes for the future that are greater than that which they could ever hope for as subsistence farmers.
The importance of the national park has never been better highlighted than by the unfortunate situation prevalent in the country today due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the large-scale unemployment rate that has resulted in the area with no tourists visiting the island. Over 50% of all visitors to this island make a safari to one of the national parks, and Udawalawe gets its fair share.
A blessing to the people
It is not just Dahaiyagala; all habitat (elephant) corridors pay a vital role in the conservation of wildlife in Sri Lanka. Without them, the maintenance of healthy populations within protected areas would not be possible, and the economic benefit of hosting such exotic and diverse species lost to this country.
Dahaiyagala does not just represent an important corridor for the elephants of Udawalawe, but also a vital lifeline for the economy of its people. It is a true blessing from nature.
(Rohan Wijesinha is the former Editor of the WNPS journal “Loris” and a member of the WNPS Subcommittee on Human-Elephant Conflict)