- Abandoning conservation for control: The political destruction of the DWC
By Prasanna Weerawardane
The dictate of politics not conservation
Elephant holding grounds (EHGs) apparently exist to appease politicians who seek a “quick fix” to please the immediate needs of their voter base, irrespective of whether it is the right thing to do or not. Rather than follow the evidence of research and scientific understanding in seeking a long-term solution to the problem of human-elephant conflict (HEC), building “elephant prisons” is what they want.
At a public consultation meeting hosted on 27 November 2018, to discuss the proposed Lunugamwehera EHG, even the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) accepted that an EHG has no conservation benefit, but is needed to satisfy political and social pressures. Sadly, and for many decades, the hierarchy of the DWC has bowed to political whim, and assumed the role of wildlife controllers, rather than that of wildlife conservationists, contrary to the fundamental mandate of their being.
The first EHG was constructed at Horowpathana. It was the electorate of the then-Minister for Wildlife. As per a former Director General of the DWC, “…if an EHG is to be established… it has to be designed… to support a high density of elephants… The site for the EHG should be predominantly grasslands and scrub jungle with some sections of primary/secondary forest for shade. However, the EHG at Horowpathana comprises of predominantly primary and secondary forest.”
Elephants, especially mature bulls who are the targets for these penal enclosures, need large amounts of fodder for a day, which they obtain by foraging over extensive areas, thereby not denuding a particular area of its grasses and foliage – a practice of natural habitat management.
As such, the DWC, as stated at the aforementioned public meeting, stipulates that certain measures have to be taken. “Habitat management should be regularly conducted within the EHG or else external feeding of elephants held in the EHG is needed.”
In addition, most of their captives suffered injury, either sustained before or after capture. As such, the necessary veterinary health facility did not exist at Horowpathana, and the DWC admitted: “A soft release area is needed for caring for elephants that have been injured, prior to being released into the larger EHG.”
A monument to the failure of conservation
Horowpathana has been a disaster, as far as conservation is concerned. As per a recent newspaper article, 64 elephants were placed here between 2015 and March 2021. As of today, the remaining number within the EHG is less than a dozen, the rest either having died or escaped. And yet, the facility is still in use. Rambo was to be sent there.
Not only this, but another larger such facility is being built, this time within a national park, at Lunugamvehera.
If such a construction was to happen within one mile of a boundary of a national park, something that would alter the habitat of the region, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) would, by law, be necessary. As this new “elephant prison”, now referred to as a “Problem Elephant Rehabilitation Centre” (PERC), is to be built inside a national park, only the consent of the Director General of Wildlife is necessary, and unsurprisingly, he has given it.
This new PERC has even more negative repercussions for conservation, not only because it will remove a large extent of land for use by the present populations of wildlife of the area, but also because a deep trench is being constructed around it that will not only prevent the movement of elephants, but also that of all other animals. They will either be locked in or locked out. In addition, this large “moat” is going to seriously alter the area’s drainage lines, which will impact not only the collection of water within the national park, for times of drought, but also its flow downstream. This is an environmental disaster in the making.
Based on a report by the National Audit Office of the Government of Sri Lanka (Performance of the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground, Report No: IEN/F/DWC/19/PR/11, National Audit Office 2019/20), the DWC incurred an expense of Rs. 159.48 million from their budgetary allocation in 2012 to construct 16 km of reinforced electric fence to surround 997 hectares (ha) of the EHG in Horowpathana.
Of the elephants translocated to the EHG, the report stated that: “…it was observed that the health condition of the elephants retained at the holding ground remained at a poor level and no follow up action had been taken on the health of these animals…. Accordingly, it was observed that such elephants had been deprived of the needs integral to their lives and an appropriate environment to express their natural behavioural patterns.”
The greatest indictment is in the conclusion of the report, which said: “In taking into consideration all the matters referred to the above, it was observed that the objective of the establishment of the Horowpothana elephant holding ground could not be achieved.”
Under these circumstances, why is the DWC spending close to Rs. 1 billion of public funds to replicate a failed initiative? Would it not be better to rectify the problems at the Horowpathana EHG, since the capital costs have already been incurred, rather than waste more public funds to create an environmental disaster in the Lunugamwehera National Park? If the EHG in Lunugamwehera does not achieve the objective of constructing an EHG similar to Horowpathana, who would take the responsibility of wasting Rs. 1 billion of public funds by not heeding the Auditor General’s observations? Accountability is essential.
Waging war on elephants
A previous Minister for Wildlife decided on a military solution to the problem of HEC by driving all elephants into protected areas and keeping them there with miles of electrical fencing and armed personnel to ensure that they did not break out. Any Ordinary-Level biology student could tell you that this was a sure step to ensure the extinction of the wild elephant in Sri Lanka.
Locked into confined areas, which are currently at or near its carrying capacity of elephants, they would soon run out of food and those who did survive would breed with their mothers and siblings, both avenues leading to terrible, lingering deaths, and ultimate extinction of the species. Yet, the hierarchy of the DWC agreed to implement this and it was only a sudden prorogation of Parliament that prevented it from being implemented.
Conservationists had reluctantly agreed to the construction of this additional holding ground as, it was recognised, the politicians needed their proverbial “pound of flesh”. They, however, canvassed unsuccessfully for it to be built outside of the park, in its buffer zone, without effectively removing approximately 3,500 ha from it – an area that is currently used by the park’s existing herds of elephants, and other animals.
The construction of a deep trench around it was not a part of the original plan, and it is reliably learnt that it is being built due to the intervention of a military advisor to the Ministry of Wildlife. The principles of war are to be waged against elephants once more. This trench not only removes an additional area from the park, but also has serious consequences on the conservation integrity of the park.
- What happens to the other animals enclosed within the PERC?
- What happens to the herds of elephants that already use this area?
- Will they be pushed to find food outside of the park, in adjacent cultivations, thereby increasing the already serious HEC in the area?
- What effect will this have on the drainage lines of the area?
EIAs are generally done to get answers for questions such as these. Isn’t it incumbent upon the DWC to undertake an EIA to ascertain the impacts of removing approximately 3,500 ha of prime elephant habitat from the elephants presently residing in the national park?
This has nothing to do with EIA regulations, but an ethical and moral duty of the DWC that is mandated with the conservation of wildlife, as there is a good chance that displaced herds may die of starvation as evidenced by previous short-sighted decisions that led to restricting the range of elephants.
Is there a future for wildlife?
In the vindictive environment that is Sri Lankan politics and the political control of the civil service, it is easy to understand the lack of backbone of the hierarchy of the DWC. Should they stand up for principle and risk being removed from their posts on some charge or the other, and lose their hard-earned pensions, or be transferred to some less desirable assignment? Yet, the DWC has had ethical officers, some of whom stood up for values and even resigned from their posts rather than cower to the unprincipled whims of politicians.
As reported instances of deforestation increase, and the DWC abrogates its mandate of conservation for control, is there a future for wildlife in Sri Lanka?
(Prasanna Weerawardane is a member of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society [WNPS])
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.