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Sri Lankan elephants in danger from mines and repopulation

12/02/2010 14:22:29 Elephants in North also need peace

Courtesy of the Sri Lanka Sunday Times
February 2010. The war is over and people are being resettled, but could the North and East become another theatre for human-elephant conflict, asks Malaka Rodrigo?

It was the height of the war a year ago. The sounds of shelling heard from a distance, did not deter this elephant that lived in the jungles of Vakarai. But in the end the reality of war caught up with it. Its foot was blown off when it stepped on an anti-personnel mine laid by the LTTE.

A Sri Lankan elephant that died after stepping on a land
mine. Credit Sunday Times of Sri Lanka.

The wounded elephant had dragged itself to a nearby water-hole, but as infection set in it had little chance of survival. Wildlife Department vets were notified about the dying elephant. With the help of the armed forces, they tried to save the elephant but to no avail.

"An elephant's foot is always in contact with the soil and dirt, making it very hard to treat a wound. An injury often causes an agonizing death," said a veterinary surgeon that treats such landmine victims. Unable to find food and with infection setting in, the Vakarai elephant suffered a slow and painful death.

Thousands of mines
During the height of the conflict, there were several such cases as thousands of anti-personnel mines were laid by terrorists to slow down the advancing troops. Even after the war finished, several elephants became victims of landmines, with wildlife vets recording at least 10 landmine victims annually over the past few years. One elephant had lost part of its trunk while sniffing a landmine.

Resettlement could lead to more human-elephant conflict
With the war finally over, mine clearance has begun, focusing on populated areas. Resettlement has started and people are going back to the villages that were abandoned for more than 20 years. Massive development projects are also coming up, even in areas inhabited by elephants. Could this be the beginning of a fresh battlefield for the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), ask wildlife enthusiasts.

"Yes, we are seeing the early signs of a developing problem in some of the resettled areas," says Ajith Silva, the Environmental Ministry's Policy Planning Director who also handles the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) alleviation programme -- the ‘Gaja Mithuro'. During a visit to northern territories, Silva and his team received complaints from those who had been resettled in Seelawathurei and Masai about threats from elephants.

Massive agriculture development
A massive agriculture development programme is also planned for the North/East. But whether the environment factor has been taken into consideration at the planning stages of these projects, as in the case of the Kandakaduwa livestock farm on the border of the Somawathie National Park, is debatable. It is utmost important that development programmes like ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya' and ‘Negenahira Navodaya' should be carried out in consultation with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to avoid another kind of conflict.

This situation could get even worse in the so-called border villages where the majority of the inhabitants are paddy farmers. Some abandoned their fields years ago but cultivation will soon restart with the rehabilitation of irrigation tanks. In their absence, the overgrown fields were perfect foraging grounds for wild elephants who have roamed these lands for more than 20 years.

Management & research required
How then can the situation be managed? This could perhaps include abandoning farming in some areas where there are many elephants, say elephant experts, pointing out that elephants too need to be given space. "There should be some corridors left for elephants to move from one area to another," says elephant expert Jayantha Jayawardena. "Blocking these traditional elephant paths aggravated the problem in other areas and we need to learn from those mistakes," he says. The other problem is that little is known about the elephants in the jungles of the North and East. A rapid assessment needs to be done to understand the behaviour and the elephant population in this area.

Gaja Mithuro coordinator Ajith Silva says they are planning to put into operation several plans to deal with the Human-Elephant Conflict in the North/East. One of priorities under these plans is a habitat-enrichment programme for seven protected areas, including Chundikulam in the Kilinochchi district, Kokilai in the Mullaitivu district, Madhu Road, Giants' Tank and Wenkalei in the Mannar Districts. Rehabilitating old irrigation tanks in these protected areas is a major part of the habitat-enrichment programme. This will make food and water abundant within the protected areas, so the elephants' need to venture into villages will be minimised.

100 km-long electric fences
W.S.K. Pathiratne, the Deputy Director heading the Elephant Conservation Unit of the DWC, says the department was also setting up more than 100 km-long electric fences in selected areas in the Eastern, Northern and North Central Provinces. They also set up an Elephant Control Unit in Batticaloa recently to monitor elephant movements and keep the elephants out of villages.

The human-elephant conflict cannot be handled solely by the DWC. Other ministries involved in development and resettlement too need to give their full support to the DWC to avoid another battleground and allow both human and elephant in the North and East to live peacefully after a 30-year war.

Elephant experts believe the DWC should go beyond restricting elephants to protected areas. "Educating the local communities on how to deal with elephants too is important," says elephant expert Jayantha Jayawardena.

Some of the resettled families are returning to their villages after 20/30 years and the new generation might not know how to deal with elephants. A young boy was killed by an elephant recently while coming home around 4 a.m. Such incidents can be avoided through a proper awareness programme, says Jayawardena.

This will also help prevent unwanted elephant deaths. Among the resettled people are home-guards and members of Civil Protection Force who are armed with automatic weapons. Whether they will think twice before shooting a jumbo at sight is a question that needs to be asked, as in the tragic death of the gentle Kumana cross-tusker, which was shot by a home-guard a few years ago.

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