By Pavani Jayasinghe Munagamage
Justice for Animals (a community project under the Sri Bodhiraja Foundation) conducted a press conference on 9 October at Ramanna Nikaya Headquarters to bring focus and attention to the recently surfaced problematic issue of Sri Lanka’s elephant crisis.
Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, Shashikalana Ratwatte, Sujeewa Jayasinghe, and Rukshan Jayewardene addressed the media.
The conference was a rather loud but humble plea to the Ministry of Tourism Development, Wildlife, and Christian Religious Affairs to notice the rapidly growing threat and to take immediate measures to minimise the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in Sri Lanka.
The cause of the deaths is majorly unknown. An investigation conducted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation uncovered that the cause of death for the seven elephants that died in Hiriwadunna was a result of poisoning. However, this is still under speculation and is not yet medically proven, although that hasn’t stopped it from spreading like wildfire.
When this issue was addressed at the conference, it was unravelled that a similar incident in the same locations occurred about three years ago, but to a group of pigs and cows.
Unfortunately without a valid report, all we can do is speculate.
Sri Lanka is home to almost 6,000 elephants in total, as at the census carried out in 2011. With cohabitation with these peaceful, yet harmful if provoked, animals being a key component to living in the island, questions are being raised as to why more attention and time is not spent on this problem, and if it is, why is it failing?
Breaking the issue down into parts, it was revealed to the media that hundreds of elephants are displaced from their traditional homelands due to different governmental resolutions adopted in the very recent past. The panel of speakers joined forces to shed light on many of these issues.
For several season-related reasons, Sri Lanka’s tank-based environments such as Minneriya and Kala Wewa, which are also suitable grazing lands for elephants and other herbivores, are known to dry up allowing grass to grow on the banks. Elephants are seen gathering here for decades now in search of food, water, and a habitat for mating and raising their young. This is known as the “Seasonal Gathering” of the elephants and is believed to be the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world which also attracts thousands of tourists.
However, problems have started to arise since the Government of Sri Lanka has now decided to fill these tanks with water from artificially built reservoirs. The result of this is that elephants get displaced from their traditional homelands as they go in search of food and water in unknown territories, including villages. This, in turn, causes HEC in Sri Lanka.
Another issue the conference spread light on is the fact that the Ministry of Tourism Development, Wildlife, and Christian Religious Affairs had neglected its duties and refrained from gazetting the Kala Wewa sanctuary as a national park, even though a Cabinet decision to do so was made in January 2017. This legally transferred power to local officials, enabling them to prosecute those engaged in illegal activities in specific protected areas. With the given information and so much more, it is only reasonable to question as to why this issue has prevailed, hidden from everyone’s eyes for so long.
Issues like this and so much more are said to have resulted in the loss of over 319 innocent elephant lives in 2018 and 295 elephants and counting over the nine months of 2019, according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
During a briefing in August 2018, the Cabinet Spokesperson announced that approximately 35% of the country’s agricultural products are lost every year due to crop raiding by these displaced elephants and over 375 human lives were lost over five years.
Therefore, now more than ever, as a cry for help if not a plea, Justice for Animals joined by a panel of judges requested from the Ministry of Tourism Development, Wildlife, and Christian Religious Affairs to:
- Take immediate action to restore Kala Wewa and Minneriya as suitable environments for elephants to reconvene in again
- Immediately gazette Kala Wewa as a national park
- Take immediate action to protect the available tusker population in Kala Wewa
- Establish a monitoring mechanism of movement of tuskers
- Launch a study on the declaration of migratory routes for residents and migratory elephants
- Establish a pilot “crop damage compensation scheme” to minimise the adverse impacts caused due to the raiding of crops by elephants
- Establish suitable mechanisms for minimising HEC based on scientific research and evidence
Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thera ended the press conference, saying: “The way we treat these animals is a sin. Look at how sensitive these creatures are and how they have values we humans have forgotten. These incidents should be taken seriously now more than ever and a public cry should go out addressing these issues immediately!”
Ratwatte commented, saying: “In this situation, where are the authorities? Why is this problem still prevailing in Sri Lanka? What have they done to resolve the situation?”
photo Saman abesiriwardana