Nandimitra is a beautiful young tusker that lives in the Yala National Park. He habituates the vicinity of the Sithulpahuwa Temple as, over the years and despite caution, the residents of the Temple and the pilgrims who visit it have been feeding him and any the other elephants that come near. This is a clear breach of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) but no action has been taken.
Having been conditioned to expect food from people, Nandimitra now demands it of them and has taken to harassing pilgrims and damaging their vehicles in search of this previously proffered, easy sustenance. The Temple authorities have now decided that he is a menace and, as per media reports, have requested the political hierarchy to capture him and imprison him in the so-called Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground. This is despite Nandimitra still being in the confines of a National Park and not having any conflict with human habitation and cultivations outside of it. Surely if the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is forced to do this, it will be another ‘first’ for Sri Lanka – the first time a wild elephant is to be relocated to a containment facility from within a National Park.
Sri Lanka has very few adult tuskers left in the wild. Human-elephant conflict and, to a lesser extent, poaching has seen the rapid diminishing of their number. Whereas India has over 30% of its male elephants having tusks, in Sri Lanka, only about 6% do and they are under threat.
The Crimes of Nandimitra
In setting out a case for the imprisonment, and possible execution, of a human, a Court has to establish guilt and set that against any mitigating factors in reaching a just sentence. Surely Nandimitra deserves the same. So what are his crimes?
Previously fed, continuously and in breach of the Law, by the Temple and its pilgrims, Nandimitra has been conditioned to expect food from people. He now demands it of them along the roads that lead to the Temple all of which are completely within the National Park. Is he to blame?
Nandimitra lives within the confines of the Yala National Park. National Parks have been established by the Government of Sri Lanka to be safe havens and sanctuaries for wildlife. Nandimitra has not created any problems for humans outside of the Park by crop raiding or killing people. Should the DWC whose mandate it is to conserve and protect wildlife, on behalf of present and future Sri Lanka, be forced to translocate and imprison this elephant in Horowpathana?
As per media reports, the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground no longer holds the number of elephants that have been imprisoned in it. On the other hand, the DWC reports that the substantial fence that encloses this place has been breached just two to three times at most. In which case, what has happened to the elephants that were there? Scientists and researchers have constantly reported that the habitat in this place of elephant incarceration does not have sufficient fodder for a high number of elephants. In fact its location was made by political decree rather than scientific advice. So it is safe to assume that most of the elephants there have starved to death. In which case, if this proposed action is taken, Nandimitra is being condemned to death.
Should sense prevail?
Nandimitra harasses and, sometimes, damages vehicles in search of fruits he has been habituated to receive from the Temple and its pilgrims. So what can be done? Nandimitra has been conditioned to behave in this way and needs de-conditioning. This can be achieved as follows:
Nandimitra spends more time on the Yodakandiya – Sithulpahuwa Road than on the Katagamuwa – Sithulpahuwa Road. The former is 18 Km long and is through the forest whereas the latter is just 6 Km long. If the Yodakandiya – Sithulpahuwa Road is closed for a period of six (6) months, he will soon learn to rely on the forest for food as there will be no pilgrims to provide it.
During this time, pilgrims could use the much shorter Katagamuwa – Sithulpahuwa Road. Since it is just 6 Km in length, the DWC could undertake regular patrols, even with their limited staff and resources, to keep pilgrims safe. In addition, if the scrub by the side of this road was cleared to a distance of 25 meters, it would ensure that Nandimitra could not ambush a vehicle if he chose to come to this area, and thus would again be deprived of easy pickings.
The Law is enforced and the Temple and its pilgrims be prohibited from feeding wild animals. If not, how many more elephants is the Government prepared to capture and imprison from within a National Park for picking up a habit taught by humans?
Where is the promise of science and reason?
His Excellency, the President, gave conservationists much hope when in his election manifesto, and pre-election addresses, he assured the public that prominence would be given to science and research in finding a permanent solution to the human – elephant conflict that would not only keep people safe, but also ensure the continued survival of an endangered species. This proposed action, and the resulting compromise of the very founding principles of the DWC, is not a course of action that conforms to these promises. Would the Minister responsible, or those higher, be held accountable should Nandimitra, a tusker no less, die in Horowpathana? Is this the justice we can hope for?
We call on His Excellency the President to please intervene in this matter and let sense prevail.
The Elephant Conservation Coalition comprises of elephant researchers, conservation groups and individuals who are concerned about the future existence of elephants in the wilds of Sri Lanka.
Nanaimitra image by Avijja Fonseka