Peanut Farm on Panama Road, Pottuvil is a famous breeding ground frequented by elephants, particularly tuskers, in the east coast. However, there is rising apprehension with regard to these patches of land, having preserved a semblance of wilderness being encroached by human settlements.
A major issue expressed by wildlife enthusiasts in and around the area is the nature of the interactions between the population and the elephants. Peanut Farm in particular is flanked by the Navy camp and the Air Force camp on either side. The officers settled in these areas would often interact with the animals that come to Peanut Farm, which is still quite rich in greenery. The nature of their interactions, however, have raised some concern.
We spoke to Nihal Hewapathirana, a local in the area, who shared that the elephants enjoy this patch of land called Peanut Farm because it is currently one of the only spaces that is not fenced off. He said that he has seen an elephant that used to frequent the ground and would actually lay on the ground to sleep, which is something elephants do not usually do unless they were born there or it is their home. This shows how comfortable they once were with this land. However, after some time, locals in Panama using various methods like firing “hakka patas”, illegal explosives inserted in food for animals to consume, have driven some of these elephants away.
Hewapathirana also shared that there is an even more pressing matter in these areas, especially with the Navy settlements, where the officers have made a habit of feeding elephants pineapples. This, he said, gets the animal highly addicted to this fruit.
“The animals get addicted to pineapples; it is the nastiest thing you can do. The military camps here bring their families and show off these various tuskers and elephants who come near the property. To share one incident, there was a tusker with her babies and one Navy officer used to feed the mother chocolate cake, and this is something you absolutely should not do. With human foods like this, you can turn elephants into junkies,” he stressed.
He said that people want to feed these animals thinking they are helping in some way, but the best thing humans could do for the animals’ betterment is to create an elephant corridor where the elephants could move around freely without getting in the humans’ way. These elephants would invade paddy fields, etc. if they are provided a proper elephant corridor.
We also spoke to Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) Director and former Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) President Rukshan Jayewardene about the concerns raised by the people in and around the Panama area, which he too confirmed to be a pressing issue.
Jayewardene stated that Peanut Farm is one of the closest remaining land stretches that have maintained a bit of wilderness. It is also a coconut land where tuskers could come to feed. “There are less settlements (in the Peanut Farm area) and it is closer to the shore. Traditionally, the elephants would roam up to the borders of Pottuvil. However, there is military presence in those areas now, blocking off some of the coast,” he said.
He said that this is in fact a “land grab” and was done by the previous Government, adding that these camps, however, still remain and the military bases have made it so that it is inaccessible to even locals. It is a large stretch of land under military control, he said, also pointing out that the beach is a public space and you cannot block off the beach to the public.
With regard to feeding elephants, it is one of the many reasons that have contributed to the so-called human-elephant conflict. He added: “It is true that elephants can get addicted to these foods like pineapples; it is a crop that is not naturally occurring in these elephants’ natural environment.”
Looking at Udawalawe, there is the double fence where elephants come and park themselves there to be fed; they are fed what we would call “human food”. The natural food they eat is coarse, fibrous, and not sweet, and therefore they would happily consume human food that is cultured to suit our palates. This in turn transforms them into mammals that have to suffer common human medical conditions like high sugar and cholesterol, whereas naturally they are used to a balanced diet.
Jayewardene shared that a wild animal interacting with humans is never a good thing; this is when miscommunication takes place and the elephant pays the price in the long term. He said that on the Thimbul Ketiya and Thanamalwila Roads, there are elephants waiting to be fed and people too go and interact with them, feeding them by hand and taking photographs. He said that people may think it is meritorious to feed elephants and wild animals. He said the country’s leaders themselves are the ones leading by bad example.
Eventually, he added, when this exotic food supply gets cut off and they happen to wander off beyond the fences, “crop raids” occur, albeit (elephants) never having done so before. Elephants are sensitive to smell and recognise crops like banana patches people may have in their homes, and they would wreak havoc as they now prefer these crops. Even when it comes to rice, it is sometimes the human’s neglectfulness, where farmers would leave their rice lying around, that leads to unpleasant consequences. Jayewardene finally noted that this issue can escalate even on a local level by feeding one elephant at a time and then labelling them as pests when they are actually innocent.
PHOTOS Pradeep Dambarage