You have said, in some brief comments made to the Ceylon Today in its 4 August 2014 edition, that the national plan for solving the human-elephant conflict, proposed by the Wildlife Department at a cost of five billion rupees, has zero probability of success, and that it flies in the face of all scientific evidence. Would you elaborate?
A: Based on the Ceylon Today’s article of 4th August, the plan is to ‘link’ a number of wildlife parks with ‘corridors’ and drive all the elephants into them. This presumably is based on the belief that elephants migrate long distances from park to park. Over the past two decades, together with the Wildlife Department, we have radio tracked 40 elephants in their natural home ranges and not one of them has migrated.
Is it not possible that elephants used to migrate but now they cannot because of development and that the Wildlife Department plan will restore these traditional migratory paths?
A: If elephants want to move long distances they still can. Radio tracking trans-located elephants has provided ample evidence of this. Whereas the ‘normal’ home ranges of elephants in Sri Lanka are a couple of hundred square km, after release in parks far from their home ranges, some trans- located elephants have walked hundreds of kms to get back ‘home’ and ranged over areas a couple of thousand square km in extent.
Q: So, the corridors are not useful?
A: Since they are for elephants to migrate from park to park and elephants don’t do that it is hard see the relevance. Most of the identified ‘corridors’ in the plan are strips of land through existing elephant habitat. So, calling them ‘corridors’ will not change anything on the ground for the elephants, will not restore anything and certainly does not mitigate the human-elephant conflict.
Q: What is your reaction to a proposal of limiting the elephants to the protected areas?
A: At present, over 70% of elephant range and a greater percentage of elephants are outside the protected areas of the Wildlife Department. The better habitat for elephants is disturbed forest – which is mostly outside, rather than the mature forests in protected areas. What the plan envisages is to chase all these elephants away from their home ranges and into the Wildlife Department protected areas. It is like trying to put a bus load of people into a three wheeler.
Q: But if the Wildlife Department’s plan is somehow carried out and the elephants are put in the parks and fenced, would it not solve the human-elephant conflict?
A: Yes, it would solve the human-elephant conflict, by turning the protected areas into ‘concentration camps’ where elephants are starved to death (as is already happening in Yala, Lunugamvehera and Tabbowa) and killing over 80% of the elephants in Sri Lanka. If we wanted to kill most of the elephants in Sri Lanka we do not have to spend Rs 5 billion and subject them to a slow death in the most inhumane manner.
Q: But part of the plan is to provide food for the elephants that will be put in the parks by growing grass and other food…………?
A: To increase food availability for elephants, you have to manage very large areas, which are very costly and has to be done forever. On a very conservative estimate, to provide food for one wild elephant you have to manage around 30 ha which costs around Rs 750,000 a year. So for 4,000 elephants we would have to spend 3 billion a year and manage 120,000 hectares. If the plan is to provide elephants with cultivated crops, one would need over 800,000 kg of crops a day.
Q: So, if the plan is implemented, would 80% of elephants be killed?
A: Mercifully no! That is only because this plan can never be implemented effectively. The Wildlife Department has tried very hard for over 55 years to restrict elephants to protected areas. After an immense effort, spending many billions of rupees, over 70% of elephants are still outside. So throwing another Rs 5 billion at it in the next three years is not going to make much of a difference. While it will not kill 80% of the elephants, it will kill a significant number of elephants especially females and young ones. So one must ask whether this is what the Wildlife Conservation Department should be doing.
What would happen to the human-elephant conflict if we attempt to implement the plan?
A: It will result in severe escalation of the conflict. The lynchpin of the plan is the driving of all elephants into Wildlife Parks. Drives can chase some herds into parks where they will be fenced in and will die. However, this will not positively impact the human-elephant conflict, because it is not the herds that cause conflict. In elephants, females and the young live in herds and adult males are solitary. Most human-elephant conflict incidents are caused by some of these adult males. Elephant drives cannot remove such males. Drives can also remove only some of the female herds.
But, even if only a few innocent elephants are removed, why would the conflict escalate?
A: Elephant drives are conducted by lighting thousands of ‘elephant firecrackers’ and shooting at the elephants with live ammunition. Drives subject all elephants to intense sustained conflict for weeks or months on end within the forests where they are hiding. As a result elephants become aggressive and refractory to being chased from cultivations and villages, ‘problem males’ become killers, ‘innocent’ females and young become ‘problem’ animals. Consequently the conflict escalates. Implementing the proposed plan will mean increasing drives by tenfold, so the human-elephant conflict will also increase at least tenfold!
Q: Then what can we do to mitigate the conflict?
A: The conflict arises because of development in areas with elephants. Of course as a society, as a country, development is essential. However, when we do development in areas with elephants, we need to take appropriate steps to prevent and mitigate the conflict that will arise. Long-term we need to prevent human-elephant conflict from arising which requires land use planning that reconciles development needs and elephant needs, and strict implementation of those plans. For this to happen we need developers, researchers, conservation and planning agencies, political, administrative and regulatory authorities, and communities to work together.
Q: But, what can we do about the existing conflict?
A: In the short-term, the main issues are crop depredation and human deaths caused by elephants. Most traditional crop protection methods such as shouting, throwing things, use of fire crackers and shooting at elephants, are confrontational, to which elephants respond by becoming aggressive towards people. As a result, even if it provides some immediate relief today, it creates a bigger problem tomorrow. The only effective tool for long-term prevention of crop depredation by elephants is electric fencing. However, it is effective only if it is located in the correct place, built to adequate specifications and maintained properly. The proper place for electric fences is the boundary of settlements and cultivations. If fences are so located, they are very effective and can easily be maintained by the communities that are protected by them. Such fences can be permanent or in the case of crops such as paddy, seasonal.
Q: How much of fencing is needed and who should do it?
A: Since we have already done extensive development without taking the necessary steps, we have a huge backlog. Because in many cases communities cannot afford the initial cost of fencing, the government needs to help them. The local government administrative and political authorities are best placed to help villagers implement protective fencing. Institutions such as the Economic Development Ministry can help. In the case of cultivations, Irrigation, Agriculture and Agricultural Extension Services Departments, Mahaweli Authority and so forth need to come on board. The political authorities can motivate the people, giving leadership for such programmes and allocating funds. Administrative, regulatory and police officials need to see that such fences are not misused. Awareness programmes need to be conducted at all levels. So basically all stakeholders in human-elephant conflict have to play a role in its mitigation.
Q: What about negating human deaths, which has gone on for too long?
A: Human deaths by elephants are mostly preventable but only by the persons who get killed. The majority of such incidents occur due to negligence, drunkenness and bravado. So increasing awareness and taking responsibility for one’s actions, is the key to solve that issue.
What is the role of the Wildlife Department in human-elephant conflict mitigation?
A: Currently the only thing we do with problem males is catch them from some place and go and dump them on some other poor unsuspecting people’s doorstep. The department needs to develop a more responsible way of managing these ‘problem elephants’. The ‘holding ground’, which the department is working on, is a step in the right direction. Similarly the department needs to figure out how to manage elephants that break properly located and maintained electric fences.
Q: Is there no place for limiting elephants to protected areas?
A: In certain situations it may be possible and necessary to limit elephants to particular areas, which may or may not be protected areas. However, when that is being done by the Wildlife Conservation Department, they need to do it in a way that minimizes detrimental effects on their wards. For this we need to first find out what areas elephants use, what the critical resources are how they use them and what the movement patterns and paths are. The only way to obtain such information is through radio tracking. One of the 18 corridors and one conservation area – the Mattala area, in the Wildlife Department plan have actually been identified based on such data, for which the Department should be commended.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: The human-elephant conflict is a very complex issue. Its mitigation necessarily has to be equally complex and involve all stakeholders. If we live in, work in, or do development in an area with elephants, we need to understand and accept that there are certain disadvantages and costs. We cannot do everything the way we do it in an area without elephants. We have to take appropriate precautions. If we do that we can decrease the conflict to very low levels. If not, we need to understand that we may pay a price. It is our choice.