SABOTAGE OF A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION
The Minneriya National Park (MNP) was once the site for the “Great Elephant Gathering”. It had gained international repute and Lonely Planet ranked it as “one of the 10 greatest wildlife wonders of the world”.
During the dry season, commencing in May, large numbers of elephants gather on the grasslands of its lakebed, with the peak in elephant numbers reached in September – approximately 400 elephants. They start reducing again with the onset of the rains of the Northeast monsoon, in late October.
With the rains and water released from the cascade reservoir system, the grasslands of the lakebed become submerged – that is until the following April when, with the release of water for agriculture, the grasslands emerge again, and with it, the elephants.
A refuge for hungry elephants
Although the popular myth is that the elephants return looking for water, the scientific reason is that it is the lush grasses of the lakebed that they are really after. With the reduction of the water in the reservoir, fresh grass grows on the lake bed; this is higher in protein than mature grass and draws the elephants to Minneriya. The gradual reduction of water facilitates the growth of fresh grass throughout the drought.
When resources such as food and water are plentiful, elephants, being social animals, congregate in large herds culminating in the “Great Elephant Gathering” in August/September. In addition, the abundance of resources triggers natural biological behaviours in them. It stimulates their sex hormones and it is common to observe females in estrus and males in musth on the plains. The unusual sight of mating elephants and its associated male-male competition, musth posturing, and other interesting elephant behavioural characteristics are seen during this time.
Therefore, Minneriya is the best site to not only observe large herds of elephants, but is also a unique location to observe interesting elephant social interactions. There is no other such site among the 13 Asian Elephant Range States and has been a magnet for attracting visitors, both foreign and domestic, in their thousands. Prior to the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic, and their associated travel restrictions, it was estimated that “The Gathering” alone, from May to October, earned approximately $ 22 million (based on the US dollar rate at that time) for the local economy, and the country, which is a conservative estimation.
Altering finely balanced systems
This pattern of elephant behaviour has played out at Minneriya for over 150 years, ever since the great reservoir of King Mahasen was restored by the colonial British. Any human interference with this unique natural system will result in irreversible, adverse impacts on the “Great Elephant Gathering”.
Since the construction of the Moragahakanda Reservoir in 2018, there have been unseasonal waters released into the reservoir during the dry season that have resulted in a fluctuation of water levels. This has led to a reduction in the elephant population. These unseasonal water releases occurred during the dry seasons of 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021, and are still happening today.
The irrigation authorities responsible for these water releases, into and out of Minneriya, appear to be filling the reservoir up to 70-85 million cubic metres (or 70% of reservoir capacity), which is the water level needed for Minneriya to “spill” water for onward transmission to other water bodies in the Northeast. The irrigation authorities have assured the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) that the reservoir level will not exceed 70% of its maximum capacity, so there will be grasslands available for elephants, though half as much as before.
Elephants, and their movements, are triggered by historical experience. Even the slightest increase in water levels triggers the unexplained movement of several herds out of Minneriya, regardless of the available grasslands. Data on elephant numbers have been collected, on a monthly basis, since May 2016. Observation of their numbers during the peak of the “Elephant Gathering”, in September, reveals an alarming decrease:
Based on the above counts, it is clear that Minneriya is dramatically losing the “Great Elephant Gathering”. Since 2018, there has been an approximate reduction of 50% at its peak, with 2021 showing a drastic 95% decrease in numbers. Inevitably, in addition to the phenomenal loss of tourism revenue that this will cause, the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the surrounding areas has exponentially increased.
The tragic price of failure
As the DWC and the irrigation authorities seem to have competing interests, it is unreasonable to expect a resolution to be found at the level of the two departments. Government intervention is needed to resolve their competing interests to agree on a national policy on the water management of Minneriya for the greater good of Sri Lanka’s economy. There are engineering solutions in existence to ensure water transmission to the Northeast, without increasing the Minneriya water levels, the adoption of which will help save the economy, and the lives of people and elephants.
Just a few days ago, the carcass of an elephant calf, less than a year old, lay out on the plains of Minneriya, exposed to the scorching sun and the attention of scavengers. A post-mortem conducted by the veterinary division of the DWC discovered that the cause of death was malnutrition.
This sad death was, perhaps, not an isolated tragedy. At this age, elephant calves begin eating grass and foliage but are also still dependent on the milk suckled from their mothers. For this baby to die, not only would the nutrition of the foliage she consumed have been insufficient, but her mother would have not been producing enough milk to keep her alive.
Many of the herds have elephants in poor physical conditions, and researchers have observed both calves without mothers and mothers without calves wandering the plains. What a tragedy, not just for today but for the future, and to the world at large, if “The Gathering” is allowed to die!
(Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya is the former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He has personal research interests in elephant conservation and addressing the human-elephant conflict, and has been working on elephant social behaviour in the Yala, Minneriya, and Kaudulla National Parks and their surrounding landscapes. Rohan Wijesinha is the former General Secretary of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) and currently an invited member of the society’s human-elephant conflict sub-committee. He is also the Immediate Past Chair of the Federation of Environmental Organisations [FEO])
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS). At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third-oldest non-governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).