By Venessa Anthony
Sri Lanka’s wildlife and national park system paved the way for us to become a well-known tourist destination across the world. Home to the largest number of elephants in one particular location, Minneriya National Park has been a haven for Sri Lanka’s wildlife and national park-based tourism industry.
This amazing feat of nature has unfortunately recently been caught in the clutches of development. Every year, during the dry season of August-September, large numbers of elephants, numbering as many as 400, congregate on the grasslands of the Minneriya Reservoir. With the arrival of the dry season, the elephants gather for the fresh grass growing in the reservoir as it gradually dries up, which provides nutritious food for elephants during the dry season. This gathering also helps in the conservation of wild elephants in the area and attracts millions of local and foreign tourists to the park every year.
In conversation with tourism development expert and researcher Srilal Miththapala, we learned that about 35% of all foreign tourists visiting Sri Lanka have visited its national parks. Miththapala added that before the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka, after which the tourism industry started to decline, the share had gone up to 47% by 2018.
An assessment conducted on the financial value of the elephants in the national park through the tourism industry also revealed that during one tourist season, just one elephant that comes to the Minneriya National Park through the gathering of wild elephants brings in earnings of around Rs. 10 million to the country. This includes revenue generated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the safari jeep industry, and tourist hotels, and it is thus disheartening that the gathering of wild elephants in Minneriya National Park is becoming a thing of the past and being taken for granted by authorities.
Severe decrease in numbers
Former DWC Director General and researcher Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya stated that according to his observations, this year, a very small number of around 50 elephants have been seen in the Minneriya Tank field, but emphasised that foreign tourists are still drawn to the park due to the hype, although they are disappointed because they don’t get to see as many elephants as expected.
He also stated that he has observed how the elephants have become emaciated due to the failure to meet the expected food target from this reservoir and that on 30 June this year, one elephant calf, unfortunately, died in the reservoir. He further mentioned that the cause of death of the calf was confirmed to be malnutrition and starvation, while even now, there is a female animal near death in the area due to starvation. Dr. Pilapitiya, who has been engaged in a long-term study of elephants in Minneriya National Park, stated that this situation began gradually in 2018 with the release of water into the Minneriya Reservoir by the Moragahakanda Kaluganga Multipurpose Development Project.
According to Dr. Pilapitiya’s observations on the average number of wild elephants recorded daily in September, 402 elephants were observed per day in 2017. In 2018, that number decreased to 354 and continued to decrease drastically, falling to just 20 last year. He concluded that the lack of food for the elephants is due to the lack of grass since the reservoir is at full water level.
Adding to this observation, on behalf of the Irrigation Department, Irrigation Director (Water Management) Eng. D. Abeysiriwardena mentioned that due to the fuel problem in 2021, more water was released from the Moragahakanda Reservoir for electricity generation, and due to the fertiliser crisis, the cultivation in the Yala season was less than normal. He pointed out that since there was an excess of water, it was not released to the sea, but retained in the Minneriya Reservoir.
Solving the root cause
The question arose over the purpose of retaining the surplus water due to the reduction in crops. This surplus occurs during the dry season, but by retaining it, at the end of the year, the water from the Southwest Monsoon is also in surplus, and thus it is diverted into the sea without any use being made of it.
In conversation with The Morning Brunch, Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle Convenor Supun Lahiru Prakash noted that if the excess water is removed during the dry season and the grasslands of Minneriya National Park are allowed to be exposed, the elephants will not have a shortage of food, and there will be no problem with water. But at present, he noted: “Any uneducated person could understand that due to the work done by unnecessarily hoarding the water, there is a situation of ‘no dance, no drum beat’”, implying that the result is a lose-lose situation.
Eng. Abeysiriwardena added that there has been no communication from the DWC with his department – the Irrigation Department – regarding the effects of this water collection on elephants, but he said that the tourism authorities, wildlife lovers, and the media have investigated this matter based on the inquiries made to him on various occasions and that in other aspects, the activities of the Minneriya Reservoir are going very well in relation to the scope of his department.
As Prakash pointed out, the main objective of the Moragahakanda Kaluganga Multi-Purpose Development Project is to benefit 150,000 people by cultivating 300,000 acres of new land and providing clean drinking water to 300,000 people. However, he noted, the authorities should now identify the priority between cultivating land and losing billions of rupees worth of foreign exchange annually.
“Due to the loss of this traditional dry season feeding ground, elephants facing food shortages can inevitably invade the houses, home gardens, and paddy fields of the local people. It will only cause the innocent poor farmers who are currently suffering from the human-elephant conflict to fall into a more critical situation, and another new group will become victims of unplanned development,” Prakash pointed out.
This is already evident, as the number of human-elephant conflict incidents in the area has increased sixfold by 2020 compared to 2017, according to DWC data. It critically affects elephant conservation in Sri Lanka, and the ultimate result will be the regional extinction of a unique subspecies of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, Prakash noted.
He concluded that it is the duty and responsibility of all responsible stakeholders to pay immediate attention to this conservation and economic issue and take the necessary measures immediately for this “World’s Greatest Wildlife Wonder” to thrive again in Minneriya National Park.