Growing elephant herds, a healthy trend - Santiapillai (Sri Lanka)
Growing elephant herds, a healthy trend - Santiapillai (Sri Lanka)
By Dhaneshi YATAWARA, Sunday Observer
September 4, 2011
Today we know that this island nation is the home to more than 5,800 Sri Lankan Elephants (‘Elephas maximus maximus’). According to wildlife experts it is significantly high, considering the total population of Asian elephants. ‘Elephas maximus maximus’ is the largest of the Asian kind. These elephants have the longest gestation period of any land animal, which is 22 months.
The article ‘Strategy for the conservation of elephants in Sri Lanka’ written by Charles Santiapillai, Prithiviraj Fernanado and Manori Gunewardene, quoting historical records state that "The elephant has been protected in Sri Lanka since the l2th century AD. Wild elephants in the Sinhalese Kingdom were the king’s property and so they could not be captured or killed without his permission.” This proves that these gentle giants have been our flagship species for over centuries. Today more than 5800 elephants are living in the jungles which is about 14 percent of the 65,610 square kilometres – the total land area of the country. We are yet to find out whether this forest cover is enough for these magnificent animals to roam.
According to Professor Charles Santiapillai – a senior elephant expert in the country speaking to the ‘Sunday Observer’ said that the present survey is an improvement on earlier surveys carried out in 1993, 2004 and 2008. “The present survey is the first national survey of wild elephants in Sri Lanka and covered as much as possible the geographic range of the elephant in the wild. This is also the first time, the department of Wildlife Conservation has enlisted the services of an experienced Statistician from the University of Peradeniya to analyse the data so that errors due to double counting of elephants could be reduced.
In addition to the observers placed at these observation points, the DWC also used a number of mobile patrols to cover large areas,” Prof. Santiapillai added explaining his first hand experience in the Survey that was conducted from 11 – 14 August this year in all wildlife regions. In the Northern region, where a survey has never taken place for nearly two and a half decades, observers found 233 elephants. Santiapillai said this survey was planned to get information on the population structure and composition but not solely meant to be a census of elephants, as the latter is almost impossible in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia given the dense and tangled nature of the vegetation.
Elephants, given protection and access to food, water and cover, would increase. “No other country in Asia offers such a rich and diverse habitat for elephants like Sri Lanka. Thus the long-term survival prospects for the elephant in Sri Lanka are good provided we control or minimise the human-elephant conflict,” he added.
According to the Director General of Wildlife Conservation, H.D. Ratnayake in earlier statistics 5,350 elephants were counted in Sri Lanka. The count excluded the Northern and Eastern parts of the country as terrorist threats existed a few years back. “Sri Lanka is divided into seven wildlife regions and with the support of more than 3500 observers the entire area,” Ratnayake added. “The number of calves, which is 1107, is a significant factor considering the survival of the elephant as a species,” he explained. “If the count showed a large adult population it would be a sign of a problem in the survival of this animal but fortunately the elephant population is growing and this is a healthy trend,” Ratnayake said.
Elephants live in a structured social order. The social lives of male and female elephants are very different. The females spend their entire life in tightly-knit family groups made up of mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. These groups are led by the eldest female, or matriarch. Adult males, on the other hand, mostly live solitary lives.
“More calves in the elephant population means that more female elephants were ready for pregnancy, which shows that there is a conducive natural habitat for these animals to live in,” explained DWC’s Deputy Director of Education and Research S.R.B. Dissanayake. “It is found many researches done in the past that female elephants tend to delay pregnancy if the environment is not good for their survival such as scarcity of food and water.
The environment has to be healthy for the healthy growth of the elephant population,” Dissanayake explained. Elephants prefer secondary forests to live in. As Dissanayake explained this is because in primary forests food is not within the reach of the elephant. In such forests the lush vegetation that provides high nutrition for these herbivores tend to move up towards the forest canopy. Grasslands and plants at low levels do not exist in primary forests, thus, elephants cannot live in every inch of jungle cover.
Many of the forests in the dry zone are secondary forests – other than for a few notable exceptions such as Wilpattu, Wasgomuwa and Yala where high forests are. Most areas of the dry zone of Sri Lanka have come under cultivation at some time in the past. The low country Dry Zone is dotted with thousands of man-made irrigation reservoirs or tanks. These tanks and their associated grasslands provide excellent habitats for elephants and raises the carrying capacity.
The Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program too has created conditions that promote elephant population growth with year round availability of water and access to cultivated crops. These two factors, i.e., ready availability of fresh water and secondary forests, both due to human alteration of the landscape are perhaps the main reasons that Sri Lanka has a very high density of elephants.
Besides its dominant role in the ecosystem, the elephant also highlights many of the ecological, Economical and philosophical issues underlying wildlife management
Living in this small island with a high density of human population and rapidly changing vegetation patterns, elephants-may find it increasingly difficult to live. Elephant herds confine to forest pockets bringing a great threat for survival which eventually lead to the human-elephant conflict. Under the ‘Gaja Mithuro’ program, 15 Elephant Control Units are set up islandwide with the latest in Vavuniya and Baticaloa. “There were only two units at the beginning in 2009, in Hambanthota and Galgamuwa.
Yet the DWC continues to expand Elephant Control Units as a part of the solution to the Human-Elephant conflict,” said W.S.K. Pathiratne, Deputy Director (Elephant Conservation) of the DWC. Up to now nearly 1400 kilometres of electric fences were have been completed at required places in the country and another 265 kilometers are under construction hoping to be completed by the end of this year.
The DWC plans to develop approximately 1000 hectares in Horow- pothana and 2000 hectares in Lunugamwehera as Elephant holding grounds. Approximately 1570 hectares of forest circling the Horowpothana Elephant Holding ground will be upgraded as the Wildlife park.
The Lunugamwehera Holding ground exists in the middle of the Lunugamwehera National park. The electric fences surrounding the holding grounds need to be amended. “The electric fences we plan to put up, would not be merely concrete poles and wire lines.
The concrete pillars would be made stronger and harder with iron bars and towrope cables for the fence along with the electric wire – which are used to build bridges,” Pathiratne said. The pillar will also have a spiky surface in order to stop elephants attacking the fence. “We are experimenting bio fences at the moment which can be grown out side the electric fence,” Pathiratne explained.
As he explained bio fences would take a longer time to grow and can easily get destroyed specially when cattle herds of the nearby villages graze the forest land and trample the plants of the bio fence.
“At the end of the day, the farmer and elephant get injured or killed. We need to save them,” said Wildlife and Agrarian Services Minister S.M. Chandrasena. “What we must show the world is the wild elephant and not the tamed one in exhibitions.
It is the wild elephant that attracts wildlife enthusiasts of the world to our country,” Minister Chandrasena said stating that the elephant’s link to the cultural needs to be protected as well. Minister Chandrasena assured the public that during his tenure, elephants and their habitats will be secured.