- Ground reality of elephant conservation in Sri Lanka
When the Government first published the gazette to declare the Hambantota Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) in April 2021, animal lovers and activists alike rejoiced with hopes that it would be a milestone in human-elephant conflict (HEC) mitigation and elephant conservation in Sri Lanka.
In conversation with Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle Convener Supun Lahiru Prakash, he told Brunch that the struggle to declare Hambantota as a MER was a decade-long one and it was accelerated by the farmers’ organisations in the Walawa Left Bank irrigation project in the Walsapugala area without any doubt.
Prakash told The Morning Brunch that now the MER gazette has become a white elephant and the authorities lack any motivation towards solidifying the MER concept in the country.
In April 2021, which was also around the same time that discussions on removing encroaches from the lands belonging to the MER and converting them to be suitable for elephants proved to be an obstacle the Government had to deal with, environmentalists and conservationists found an issue on the size of the declared MER when compared with the size of the MER proposed in the Greater Hambantota Development Plan 2009.
On the topic of why the project does not seem likely to take off, Prakash said that the process of gazetting the MER could also be debated as the gazette was signed by the State Minister, and not the Cabinet Minister, which in an ideal situation, should have been vice versa.
The Farmers’ Movement Secretary Saman Sudarshana shared with Brunch that since elephants have a strong bond with their home ranges, it is not possible to remove them from their traditional home ranges. “If we try to do so through drives, only the herds consisting of females and calves could be driven while the males remain and continue causing damage. Therefore, drives have no impact on HEC mitigation.” On the other hand, he pointed out that herds driven to the protected areas are suffering due to a lack of resources and starve to death. “It badly affects elephant conservation in Sri Lanka. That is why the MER concept was introduced to protect the elephant home ranges outside the protected areas,” he added.
On the same topic, Prakhash noted: “We assumed when the MER was declared, it could be a great achievement in elephant conservation and HEC mitigation in Sri Lanka as it forces politicians, officers, and the general public to think out of the protected areas in elephant conservation and HEC mitigation in Sri Lanka.” However, about 70% of elephant home ranges in Sri Lanka lie out of the protected areas.
In the past decades, authorities have tried to drive those elephants into protected areas and fence them up in order to mitigate HEC, but the pressing concern caused by HEC during the same period clearly shows that the method is completely unsuccessful. Prakash explained that this attempt led to increased aggression of elephants towards humans, which ultimately resulted in Sri Lanka becoming the country with the world’s highest elephant deaths due to HEC and the second highest human deaths.
Now more than ever, Sudarshana stated, that it is clear that the Government did not do anything other than publish the gazette notification and encroachments are going on as usual. “There are a number of granite quarries inside the MER and these need to be removed in order to make it a suitable elephant habitat,” he said, explaining that it is tragic that the authorities issued more permits for granite quarries inside the MER instead. The improper usage of lands belonging to the MER is also continued by the Government.
Prakash concluded, saying: “We know that the MER will not mean much in terms of elephant conservation and HEC mitigation; however, if the Government honestly tries to maintain it properly, it undoubtedly should cover a significant amount of the national programme of elephant conservation and HEC mitigation.” Then, from there on, he explained that this concept could be implemented to the other areas where elephants live outside the protected areas, which, in his opinion, will generate more productive results.
Unfortunately, these are simply all dreams of the general public suffering day and night due to the never-ending HEC and activists looking for a conflict-free environment for both parties. Prakash explained that is why the National Action Plan for the Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict was pigeonholed for more than one year and the same thing has happened to the MER gazette for more than eight months. “I think that the general public should understand this reality and come into a common front against these curmudgeons,” he concluded.
Attempts to contact a representative at the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) were not successful as they were unavailable for comment at the time.