Sep 18, 2017

"Wild animals a major threat to villagers" Response by the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS)

Island – Opinions, of September 12

Mr. Gunasekera Hiripitiya, in attempting to defend an irresponsible statement made by a Deputy Minister that wild elephants should be caught and sold, even to those overseas, has, regrettably, jumped on to that politician’s bandwagon of ignorance that claims that the numbers of wild animals, particularly elephants, are increasing exponentially, and that their removal from the wild, by whatever means, are the only way of removing a supposed threat they pose to villagers who live on the edges of protected areas.

In fact, had Mr. Hiripitiya bothered to research the problem of the human – elephant conflict prior to being emboldened to commit his views in print, he would have discovered that the major cause of the conflict is the illegal encroachment by people into protected areas that results in the displacement of elephants from their natural habitat. This unlawful trespass is usually sanctioned by local politicians to perpetuate their own agendas; but they are quick to distance themselves from any responsibility when their unscrupulous actions result in the deaths of their electorate. They then blame it on the elephants - the four-legged kind, that is, that are unable to answer for themselves and, most importantly, do not have a vote.

In the sad count of annual losses, on both sides of the human – elephant conflict, over four times more elephants are killed every year than are humans. In India, six times more humans are killed by elephants due to human - elephant conflict and to date there has been no call there for the capture and sale of elephants as a solution to the problem.

The official counts over the years average at about 250 elephants a year in Sri Lanka but, in fact, this number may be close to 400 with many animals retreating into remote parts of the jungle to die from their wounds. A recent study undertaken by the Centre for Conservation & Research concluded that at least 50% of all young elephants in the Ruhunu National Park (Yala) die before reaching the age of adolescence. They succumb mostly to malnutrition thanks to another politically expedient decision to fence them into the park and away from their traditional foraging grounds on Forest Department (FD) land. This is to enable politically patronized illegal encroachment into the FD land that is, ironically, also a protected area but less enforced than those of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

This is all happening in a National Park that rakes in Rs. 3 – 4 million a day for the State coffers, most from foreign tourists. At this rate of attrition, it does not take a mathematical genius to work out that the wild elephant in Sri Lanka will be extinct in a short time, however many there are claimed to be in existence today.

In fact, it is the people who should have fencing around them; to protect them better. Villages and cultivated fields should have electric fences placed around them for human protection, while the elephants are allowed to roam outside on paths that they have walked for centuries before humans even knew how to cultivate land. These methods have been tried and tested and found to be successful, and all it needs is the political will to implement it where it is needed; to stop the needless deaths.

If Mr. Hiripitiya wishes an economic rather than altruistic response as to why elephants should not be killed or imprisoned in local and foreign containments, he should consider the case of Minneriya and the world renowned ‘Gathering’ of wild elephants that takes place there for 4 - 6 months every year, during the drought. A calculation has been done that as a minimum, the wild elephants of Minneriya earn a staggering Rs. 1.25 Billion for that region every year! This, however, is under threat as a politically motivated decision has been made to make Minneriya a holding tank for the waters from the Moragahakanda Reservoir. Should this happen, then the tank will always be full and the fresh grasses that grow on the receding tank bed, and attract the elephants, will no longer be available. Where will the elephants go? Around 600 in number! You guessed right, Mr. Hiripitiya, into villages, home gardens and cultivated fields in desperate search for food; all due to irrational decisions made by humans.

And what of the Rs. 1.25 Billion a year, a fair amount of which percolates to the local communities? Well, it will disappear. Perhaps the small hotel and guest house owners, jeep drivers, safari guides and shop owners will have to take up farming, for the added water might enable an extra harvest a year. Will this extra crop earn Rs. 1.25 Billion for the area every year? Past reports indicate that there was no market for even the second harvests gleaned from here in the past.

This same story of wildlife supporting and enriching local communities can be replicated at Yala, Uda Walawe, Kaudulla and even down in Kumana. In fact, there are economic arguments to suggest that communities living on the periphery of protected areas could benefit far more if they were made partners in conservation and reaped the benefits from Responsible Nature-based Tourism. Such possible distribution of wealth and resources and the raising of the financial status of communities would, of course, not be popular with politicians who rely on poverty and debt to bolster their positions and powers, as they buy their popularity from their gestures of largesse largely obtained from purloined sources. If example were needed, what better than the recently concluded ‘Sil redi’ Court Case?

The Deputy Minister is, no doubt, beating the drum for his colleagues who are on the point of legalizing the sale of baby elephants stolen from the wild back to the very rogues who stole them. An ingenious way of filling the Government coffers and, if pursued in human society, might circumvent the need for Prisons with their exorbitant cost to the taxpayer. First, allow a thief to steal. Then catch him and sell what he stole back to him, at profit. The victim, of course, is left with nothing. In the case of the baby elephants, the victim is this country and its future!

Also in so doing, the country would be in breach of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to which it is not only a signatory, but is to host its Conference of Parties in 2019. Trading in Asian elephants is contrary to the CITES convention. It certainly would be a first in the history of Sri Lanka, and of CITES, as the host country is thrown out of the Convention at the convention that it hosts for violating the conditions of the Convention!

As for Mr. Hiripitiya’s claim that villagers are in fear of other animals, the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary. In fact, most of the larger animals are under threat and their numbers are diminishing, some at alarming rates. Once again, apart from poaching, habitat loss due to illegal encroachment and ill-conceived development planning are the biggest killers of wild animals.

This is just a brief response to Mr. Hiripitiya who wished some facts to counter the need to shoot endangered species in order to protect villagers. In fact, villagers do need protection but not from elephants and wild animals, but from the policymakers who place their lives in daily jeopardy through unplanned development and political expediency such as some of the housing projects that are even now being constructed in elephant dominated landscapes.

Sri Lanka’s wildlife and wild places are one of its greatest assets that if adequately protected can provide this country with a sustainable income for generations to come. If the profits from them are shared equitably with local communities, they have the capacity to lift these people out of the trap of poverty they are doomed to at present, to a position of economic self-sufficiency.

As Mr. Hiripitiya, himself, has rightly, concluded and we quote,

"Each one has a right to safeguard one’s life and assets. We should not allow anyone to destroy them."

Especially our elected representatives!