Archive for the ‘Elephants’ Category

Jaw-breakers endangering lives of children and pets

March 7, 2020

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/200301/news/jaw-breakers-endangering-lives-of-children-and-pets-394590.html Published on SundayTimes on 01.03.2020

Jaw bombs used to harm elephants could also end up being a social issue, activists warn.

Laura, a playful female German Shephard who suffered grievous injuries to her jaw from a hakka patas blast eventually succumbed to the injuries

Children and domestic animals including pets are falling victim to the small explosive devices called ‘hakka patas’.

Recently, a four-year-old pet dog suffered fatal injuries.

Laura, a playful female German Shephard, owned by Amila Sanjeew who lives in Passara, Badulla, had raised the dog in  his wife’s home in nearby Madolsima village.

On February 17, they had ignored what they thought was a firecracker blast, but the following morning they found Laura lying in a pool of blood at their front door.

They rushed the dog to a veterinary surgeon. The dog’s jaw was shattered in four places, and the tongue damaged. Steel rods were used to fix the jaw in a five-hour surgery.

Laura appeared to be recovering but she began bleeding from the nose and started to show signs of paralysis. Her condition worsened and she died on  February 27.

The explosion is believed to have damaged the brain as well.

Hakka patas is not uncommon in Passara.

Sanjeew believes that someone had planted the hakka patas to harm the dog, which usually would not stray further from their garden. “She likes to play with balloons. There were pieces of a balloon in the roof of the jaw. The device had been set up in a balloon,” said Sanjeew.

Hakka patas is a small improvised explosive device made of gun powder and small particles like rocks mixed and tightly packed like a potato. Hidden in food, the explosives are often used to kill wild boar and other animals, but causes collateral damage.

It is only last week that the Sunday Times reported that hakka patas had become the leading killer of elephants in Sri Lanka, accounting for 67 deaths in 2019.

It is mostly elephant calves that are less than 10 years old that suffer, but there also incidents of humans being wounded.

These jaw breakers have wounded children, sometimes fatally.

A 10-year-old boy died in Hambegamuwa in 2016. The boy had tried to bite into one, a media report said.

On February 3, in Deraniyagala, an eight-year-old boy suffered severe injuries to his arm after dashing a hakka patas on a boulder. His 11-year-old sister was also injured.

Mala Ranjani in Ingiriya lost her hand due to a hakka patas explosion in 2015

Both had been  admitted to Avissawella Hospital and the boy was later transferred to Colombo General Hospital.

In October last year, in Wanduramba in the Galle district, an eight-year-old girl was wounded in an explosion along with her brother. She had been playing with an object she found.

A suspect was later arrested with hakka patas.

Meanwhile, the Janasansadaya people’s forum, through a video on their YouTube channel reveals information about a 30-year-old woman, Mala Ranjani in Ingiriya who had lost her hand due to a hakka patas explosion in 2015. Her daughter had found the explosive on their land. Ms Ranjani had tried to prise it open with a knife and it had exploded.

There are wildlife poachers too, who have lost their fingers while attempting to make or setup hakka patas.

Domestic animals like cattle are among victims.

According to Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), villagers often know who makes these explosives.

Sri Lankans should act fast before it causes widespread damage, he said.

Horrifying rise in ‘jaw bombs’ brings agonising death to jumbos

February 29, 2020
Playful baby elephants were half of casualties ..!! 

The female elephant calf was thirsty. Standing in the shallows of a water hole at dusk, it hurriedly sucked water into its trunk. It then curled its little trunk toward its mouth in an attempt to quench its thirst but there wasn’t a proper mouth to take in the trunk: the calf had lost his tongue; the small, fleshy base of what used be his tongue made a futile effort to guide the water down his throat.

The three-year-old elephant’s upper mouth palate had been totally smashed, creating a large wound that was infected. Its jaw and teeth were all blasted and the torn lower lip was rotting, attracting swarms of flies.

This has been the sad plight of victims of the little jaw bombs – illegal improvised explosive devices often hidden in food to explode in mouth when an unwary animal munches them. The bombs are commonly called hakka patas – hakka meaning jaw and patas denoting the sound of a blast.

The veterinary surgeon and team of the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s (DWC) Central Wildlife Region rushed to Nildandahinna area in Walapane after villagers told them about the injured calf.

They found it standing on the bank of the Uma Oya, sedated it, cleaned its mouth and provided saline as the suffering animal was weak: it was unable to eat or drink.

The vet, Dr. Akalanka Pinidiya, also injected strong antibiotics against infection in the injuries but he clearly knew the elephant would not survive its wounds.

“It is actually nearly impossible to successfully treat a hakka patas victim,” Dr. Tharaka Prasad, who heads the DWC’s veterinary unit said. “Our veterinary surgeons are helpless in most cases and can just employ painkillers until certain death ends the victim’s agony.”

The Anuradhapura wildlife range is one of the worst hotspots for hakka patas. The veterinary surgeon in charge of the range, Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe, said he had encountered hundreds of hakka patas victims during his 15 years of service.

“We saved the lives of only a handful of hakka patas victims, those that had minor injuries,” Dr. Jayasinghe said.

Hakka patas are a relatively new threat to Sri Lanka’s dwindling elephant population, with the first victims recorded around 2008.

The improvised device is made by mixing gunpowder with tightly-packed small stones or other hard materials. A chewing motion makes the hard bits grind against each other and set off sparks that ignite the gunpowder.  

Because the device is tightly packed the pressure makes an explosion. This explosion is usually powerful enough to kill its main target, wild boar, but larger animals such as elephants do not die instantly.

Hakka patas became the main cause of elephant deaths in 2017 and 2018, overtaking the deaths by gunshot wounds. In 2019, out of a total of 395 elephants killed, hakka patas deaths were high as 67, only four fatalities short of the 71 gunshot deaths.

Data from the wildlife department shows a sharp decrease in elephants dying from gunshots in 2010-2013 and a sharp increase of hakka patas mortalities during the same period. These deaths have kept increasing.

Last year, 67 elephants fell victims to hakka patas and, tragically, half – 35 – were less than 10 years old.

Hakka patas deaths are the main cause of deaths for elephants less than five years of age: 14 baby elephants less than five years were victims of hakka patas last year, 13 of them being male. Elephant experts point out that male elephant babies are more playful and curious about their surroundings.

In 2016, a 10-year-old boy in Hambegamuwa died when a hakka patas exploded in his mouth. On several other occasions, children playing with hakka patas laid for animals suffered injuries when the devices exploded.

It is not easy to apprehend the culprits who set these explosive devices, DWC Director-General Chandana Sooriyabandara said.

“When an animal is killed using a gun or poison, poachers leave some traces but in case of these explosive devices, it is extremely difficult to trace culprits as the victims are often found in a different area from where the devices were placed,” Mr. Sooriyabandara said.

Also, unlike when using a gun, it is easier for offenders to hide or throw away these little devices when they encounter law enforcement officers, he added.

Elephant researcher Dr. Prithviraj Fernando stressed that the issue must be addressed both from elephant conservation and anti-poaching angles since these devices are mainly set up for wild boar.  

“The only way to address the issue is to use peer pressure to try to stop poachers from using this inhumane killing method,” Dr. Fernando said.

The Centre for Environmental Justice conducts a number of awareness campaigns in hakka patas hotspots for schoolchildren, using temples as venues, to raise awareness of the agony of deaths caused by these disguised explosives.

Experts say the problem could be alleviated by using intelligence networks in villages. Hakka patas cannot be made by everybody: there is a technique to making them and only a few people in a village would have the skills; most often, other villagers know who is responsible.

It is suggested that police or the Civil Defence Force to be authorised to set up such intelligence networks.

Another hakkapatas victim (C) Dr. Vijitha Perera

The Elephant Count 2019 Postponed

September 8, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190908/news/elephant-count-method-triggers-debate-on-reliability-367479.html published on 08.09.2019 

The islandwide elephant survey planned for September 13-14 is likely to be postponed due to bad weather in some parts of Sri Lanka, the Sunday Times learns. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara, said the survey will “most probably’’ be postponed and an official announcement will be made tomorrow. The survey will be re-scheduled.

Mr. Sooriyabandara said that the water hole count method used in the 2011 elephant survey will be used, again. Usually done during the height of the dry season, teams will be at different points.But when there are heavy rains, water will be available elsewhere and animals will not necessarily visit watering holes and the results may not be accurate, said Dr Lakshman Peiris, who is the DWC coordinator of the elephant survey 2019.

Elephants in tank bed of Minneriya. Photo courtesy ‘Island wide Elephant Survey – 2018’ brochure ESCAMP website

According to the DWC, 2,256 observation points will be used for the survey with 7,500 observers, including about 2000 volunteers. The same counting points used in the 2011 survey will be used as it will provide data to compare population trends of elephants, said Mr Peiris.

Finding out the population trend and the distribution patterns of elephants inside national parks and elsewhere is another objective. “The department needs the data to take management decisions,” Mr Sooriyabandara said defending another elephant survey after eight years following the first one.

“It is a survey, not a census as some media reported,” Mr.Sooribandara said. In a census, every member of the population is counted – something similar to the census of the human population. In the wild, it is very difficult to count every elephant.  The survey will have an error component of plus and minus.

According to the 2011 elephant count, Sri Lanka has a population of 5,879 elephants. Out of them, 3,285 were adults of both sexes and 1,487 were sub-adults. This also includes 731 juveniles, and 376 calves. The 2011 survey also gathered data on tuskers, which made some activists to criticise the motives of the count.

About 6.5% of males are tuskers while sub-adult tuskers make up 7.7%. The juvenile tuskers represent 8.4%.  Most elephants, or 67.19%, were found within the protected areas under the DWC, while 29.78% roam among forests managed by the Forest Department. The remaining 3.03% range in and around patches of small forest pockets near remote villages.

However, the water hole counting method is being criticised as unreliable. At a reservoir, the same elephant herd may enter into a tank from different locations, causing a double-count. A high density of animals also makes it difficult to count. Also, elephants sometimes visit watering holes at night making counting difficult.

Experts are needed to estimate the age, so identification by volunteers may be unreliable. For example, a survey usually puts a plus or minus error factor to the results and in the case of the 2011 survey, this had been high as 2,000.

Elephant expert Dr Prithviraj Fernando said there are many flaws in the water hole method where the number of elephants counted will be directly proportional to the number of observer points. “If the 2019 survey uses the same number of points as last time, the result would probably be similar numbers. If the number of points are fewer, then the final total will be less.’’

However, Mr Sooriyabandara defended the water hole count method saying it is internationally accepted. “Any ecological assessment method will have an error factor,” he said.“The count aims to compare the data with the 2011 survey to check trends in elephant populations and distribution.’’

Inorder to make the planned survey with the methodology more useful, Dr.Fernando suggest to find out the error factor of such methodology more accurately. “do repeated counts on different dates in an area where the population is known through a scientific method, such as Yala and Uda Walawe using the same methodology. That will give an indication of the error for the island-wide survey as well” elephant expert suggests.

The results of 2011 elephant count

Dr Fernando said there is no easy method. Estimating by identifying individual animals from photos, or genetics and mark-recapture would give more reliable data, but is time consuming, expensive and cannot be done at a countrywide scale.

Elephant experts say that a much more useful survey would be to assess where the animals are and whether there are herds or only males and whether they are seasonal or resident.

Earlier this year, Dr Fernando published ‘the first evidence-based distribution map of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka’.

The study shows elephants are mostly found outside protected areas sharing the areas where humans live. In this study, from 2011 to 2015, the researchers divided Sri Lanka into 2,750 cells, each extending 25 square kilometres, which is the smallest known home range for wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Researchers visited people in a grid cell and asked if they have seen elephants in the area.

“Such surveys based on questionnaires could be done at a finer scale with a smaller grid in areas where there are conservation concerns such as edges of distribution, where development projects are planned. And conservation and management decisions can be made on such data,” Dr Fernando said.  ’

The cost of the elephant count is estimated Rs 88 million and to be funded under the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project, through a loan by the World Bank.

‘White elephant’ concentration camp for problem jumbos

September 7, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190825/news/white-elephant-concentration-camp-for-problem-jumbos-364872.html published on SundayTimes on 25.08.2019 

The proposed $5 million elephant holding ground inside Lunugamwehera National Park for so-called problem elephants has drawn criticism from environmentalists who say it will become a prison and also harm free-ranging elephants in the park.

Starving elephants of Lunugamwehera soon after Elephant Drive in 2005

The Sunday Times has learned that the World Bank, which was to fund the project, withdrew its offer because the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) did not conduct Environmental Impact Assessment and other prerequisites.

The DWC has named this facility the Problem Elephant Rehabilitation Centre (PERC) intending to keep in it the elephants that repeatedly cause excessive crop and property damage and attack humans.

The standard solution to this problem has been to move the animals to a protected area in a different location. But scientific study has proved translocations are a failure as such elephants often leave those areas and create human-elephant conflict elsewhere.

The department is under severe public and political pressure to capture and translocate such elephants, so, with options running out, it has again opted for another elephant holding ground.

If the project goes ahead, it would be the third time an elephant holding ground has been set up.

The first holding ground in Lunugamvehera proved to be a complete failure as all the elephants escaped.

Then, according to the wildlife department, more than 46 elephants were put into the Horowpathana holding ground commissioned in 2015.

It is alleged, however, that no monitoring of these animals has been carried out except for three elephants being fitted with electronic collars. Of these three, one escaped, one died of starvation and the other’s collar fell off after a short period.

According to the new plan, 3500 ha in the centre of Lunugamwehera National Park is to be encircled with an 11-foot-high electric fence. The park is 23,498 ha in extent, with forest ranges extending from it.

The DWC says the amount of forest taken away would not affect the existing elephant population in the park. Past data, however, predicts a different picture.

During an infamous elephant drive held in 2005, about 200 elephants were driven to the Lunugamwehera National Park. Many of them starved to death as the resources of the park were inadequate.

Environmentalists fear a similar result now as the project would remove a large chunk of the natural habitat from free-ranging Lunugamwehera elephants. These elephants may be then forced to break into villages to raid crops, worsening human-elephant conflict in the area or dying of starvation.

This is backed by research that shows a normal home range of a male elephant in Sri Lanka is 50-600 sq km. So, experts point out, the proposed new holding ground in Lunugamvehera, which is 35 sq km, would not be large enough as the home range of even a single male.

According to sources close to the department who are familiar with the study of the radio-collared elephants of Horowpathana, none of the three monitored elephants showed normal ranging behaviour, spending all their time by a section of the fence during the period monitored. It is also feared number of elephants managed to escape as conflict with humans in the area increased.

The new project aims to rehabilitate the “problem elephants” in the hope of returning them to the wild as fully free-ranging elephants but such elephants have no way of understanding why they were put in the the holding ground in the first place and will resume raiding as soon as they are released.

With this being the case, the problem elephants put into the enclosure will probably remain there the rest of their lives. It is felt the proposed holding ground would be like a concentration camp where its prisoners would ultimately die suffering.

Elephant expert Dr. Prithviraj Fernando said the holding ground concept would be a reasonable option to consider if it is accompanied by close monitoring to judge its impacts on the elephants within, on other elephants and animals that were in the area prior to the establishment of the enclosure, on the environment, on human-elephant conflict around the holding ground area and on its cost-effectiveness as a conflict mitigation measure.

“But, unfortunately, although we have constructed and put into action two holding grounds over the last 10 years, none of these impacts have been systematically studied,” Dr. Fernando said, adding, “From what little is known about the two holding grounds, it seems like the impacts are negative on most of these aspects.”

The DWC’s former director-general, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, considers holding grounds to be a necessary evil. “While holding grounds are not something I personally like, having been the D-G of Wildlife I know the political and social pressure on the DWC to capture and remove a problem elephant.” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

Scientific evidence has shown that translocations have not been success but keeping the problem animal in place could also result in it being killed by angry villagers. “That is the reason the DWC had to come up with the concept of a holding ground. It is not the department that wants to put elephants in these prisons,” Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out.

The cost of the Lunugamwehera Holding Ground was estimated at $5 million and was to be financed through the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) project funded through a World Bank loan.

When contacted, however, the World Bank’s Sri Lanka office confirmed it had withdrawn from the project as the DWC had been was unable to fulfil prerequisite actions prior to the award of the main fencing contract.

According to the World Bank, these actions included the completion of an Environmental Impact Assessment, recommendations from a stakeholder consultation held in November 2018, and recommendations from the Technical Advisory Committee provided to the department in January.

If 50 elephants are to be imprisoned in the proposed holding ground, the cost of the site would amount to $100,000 (Rs. 18 million) for each elephant, and the $5 million is only the anticipated setting-up cost and does not include operational costs. As a long-term solution, it lacks viability.

This paper tried to contact the DWC Director-General to learn about the future of the project as there are unconfirmed reports it could go ahead using different funding sources, but the Director-General is abroad and could not be reached.

It is estimated there are about 1,500 male elephants among Sri Lanka’s 6,000 wild elephants, and many have the potential to become problematic animals.

“In the longer term, Sri Lanka should plan development, village set-up and agricultural expansion better in order to reduce human-elephant conflict,” Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out. Otherwise, he said, the problem will only grow worse.

Hope rises for threatened Sinharaja jumbos with radio collaring

August 3, 2019
Geofencing project could save human and elephant lives. Published on SundayTimes on 28.07.2019 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190728/news/deep-in-sinharaja-hope-rises-for-threatened-jumbos-360224.html

A hazardous operation to radiocollar one of the last remaining elephants of the Sinharaja rainforest has given new hope that both elephant and human lives can be saved when the two species collide.

The elephant was radiocollared on June 1 by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) following a strenuous operation in mountain terrain amid leech-infested rainforests.

Signals transmitted every four hours by the GPS collar show the elephant, known as Panu Kota, travelled 52km over the last two months (55 days), crossing two mountain ranges, the DWC’s Director of Veterinary Services, Tharaka Prasad, said.

Dr, Prasad said the signals could be used for “geofencing”, giving warnings if an elephant crosses the border of a village. He explained that a geofence is a virtual perimeter that can be pre-set on the application that uses to monitor elephant movements.

For example, a geofence can be set encircling a village so that whenever an elephant crosses that boundary, an SMS is transmitted to those monitoring the elephant’s movements. This message can be relayed to local DWC staff who can rush to the area and chase the animal back into the forest.

Collaring of Sinharaja Elephant (c) Dr.Malaka Abeywardana

Dr. Prasad said his officers are still working on the geofencing facility and, once set up, it would be an invaluable tool to manage the Sinharaja elephants. The collaring of Panu Kota was carried out with help from the Eco-system Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) through a project funded by the World Bank that will see 40 elephants collared in order to better understand their habits and reduce human-elephant conflict, Dr. Prasad said.

Historically, Sri Lanka’s wet zone rainforests teemed with elephants, but now only two, Panu Kota and Loku Aliya, both males, remain in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage. A female that had not been sighted for some time is believed dead.

Incursions into villages over the years by these elephants have cost 16 human lives, and last year villagers campaigned for the animals to be moved to another area.

The then minister of Wildlife Conservation, Sarath Fonseka, initially supported the villagers’ demand to relocation but this provoked environmentalists who wanted the elephants to be left free to roam. The DWC then decided to attempt using radiocollars for geofencing.

After being tracked for several days, Panu Kota was sedated by a team led by the area wildlife ranger, Kapila Ranukkanda, and veterinary surgeon, Malaka Abeywardena, in an area known as Dole Kanda.

Wildlife officers worried about how to safely sedate the lonely jumbo in difficult terrain. When an elephant is shot with a sedating dart it must be followed to make sure it does not fall awkwardly and suffocate through having its lungs blocked. If that happens, wildlife vets would have to immediately employ the reversing drugs to get the animal back on to its feet – a dangerous operation.

“We opted for a less powerful drug to sedate the jumbo,” Dr. Abeywardena said, adding that this would increase the risk for the team that followed the elephant but decrease the risk to the elephant. Panu Kota had a gunshot wound in one of its legs and the team used the opportunity to treat the injury, Dr. Abeywardena said. He estimated Panu Kota could be 35 years old.

Panu kota at boader of Tea Estate (c) Nisal Pubudu

Nisal Pubudu, a tea inspector in Pothupitiya, says most villagers in the area loves the animals, seeing them as a source of pride for their area. When a DWC team caught Panu Kota in 1999 to relocate him, villagers, particularly students at Kajuwatta School, protested and forced the release of the elephant.

The home range of the Sinharaja elephants could extend to 22,853 ha, spilling outside the protected area, said Shalith Karunaratne, a young graduate of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura who studied the rainforest elephants.

The elephants roam in seven secretariat divisions covering Kalawana, Kahawattha, Godakawela, Kolonna, Neluwa, Kotapola, Nivithigala, and 29 grama niladari divisions.

Mr. Karunaratne’s research, conducted with the support of ranger Kapila Ranukkanda, shows both the elephants moving around the Dolekanda, Rambuka, Rakwana South and Kathlana Grama niladari divisions from March to July when they are in musth and become aggressive.

At other times, they roam mainly in forest-edge habitats and, at the end of August, the elephants head towards the Morningside cloud forest area of Sinharaja.

This year, no deaths have been reported due to the elephants’ presence, and activists praise wildlife officers for their proactive measures to chase the elephants back into the forest whenever they are reported in villages. The radiocollaring data is expected to paint a more accurate picture about the elephants’ movements.

An instance where both Sinharaja Elephants are together (c) Shalith Karunarathne

Deadlier than guns: Explosive bait haunts Sri Lanka’s elephants

July 13, 2019

Published on Mongabay 20.June.2019 https://news.mongabay.com/2019/06/deadlier-than-guns-explosive-bait-haunts-sri-lankas-elephants/

Elephant calf with a damaged mouth trying to drink water (c) courtesy Department of Wildlife Conservation.

  • Explosive devices concealed in bait for bushmeat hunting have overtaken gunshot injuries as the primary cause of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka since last year.
  • These devices, known as “jaw exploders,” are aimed primarily at wild boar, but are increasingly maiming and killing elephants, particularly in the island’s northcentral and eastern regions.
  • The explosives cause horrific injuries, shattering the jaw and destroying soft tissue inside the mouth, leading ultimately to a slow and painful death from infection.
  • One in five recorded elephant deaths last year were due to these devices, with most of the victims juvenile elephants under the age of 10.

Elephants in Minneriya (c) Rajiv Welikala

KURUNEGALA, Sri Lanka — Residents of the farming village of Irudeniyagama in Sri Lanka’s North Western province were taken by surprise last week when they saw a wild elephant calf trying to enter a house. They gave chase, but instead of returning to the nearby forest, the calf next tried to find shelter inside another house.

A closer look showed that the calf’s mouth was split open and all its teeth shattered. It had an infected wound with pus oozing from it.

The injury was caused by an improvised explosive device hidden in fodder bait used by villagers to hunt animals. Known locally as hakka patas, or “jaw exploder,” these devices are a combination of gunpowder and fragments of metal or rock packed tightly together. When bitten into or crushed inside an animal’s mouth, they explode, shattering the jaw and destroying the tongue and other soft tissue. The resulting infection can spread down through the esophagus, often leading to extremely painful deaths.

Leading cause of death

It’s meant to be a method of killing wild boars, a popular yet illegal bushmeat, and other game animals, but has contributed significantly to Sri Lanka’s increasing elephant deaths.

“Unable to eat or drink, the victimized elephants gradually become weak and unable to follow the herd. They are soon left behind. If there is a water hole nearby, they take refuge in them or, in cases like Irudeniyagama, elephants would come closer to human settlements,” said Isuru Hewakottage, a veterinary surgeon overseeing operations for the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in North Western province.

Of the 319 total elephant deaths recorded in 2018, 64 were caused by these explosive devices, or 20 percent, according to U. L. Taufeek, head of the DWC’s elephant conservation unit. That’s higher than the 53 elephants killed last year from gunshot injuries, previously the leading cause of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka. So far this year, 30 elephant deaths have been attributed to these explosives. The island is home to fewer than 6,000 Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus), a subspecies of the Asian elephant.

“Often, it is the young elephants below 10 years of age that get killed. The majority of the victims are elephant calves under 5 years of age,” Hewakottage told Mongabay.

“The young calves are both curious and playful. They also pick things and insert into their mouths, unlike the more wary adult elephants. Perhaps the younger beasts are able to see objects much closer as they have not yet grown to their full height. But adult elephants could be more discerning and able to detect the smell of gunpowder,” Hewakottage added.

Playful and curious elephant calves are easy victims of improvised explosive devices hidden in fodder bait. Image courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.

Tharaka Prasad, the DWC’s veterinary chief, said it was “nearly impossible” to treat the severe damage done by these devices.

“In most cases, it is only possible to reduce the pain associated with their inevitable death,” he said. “Only a handful survive these explosive devices.”

Use of these improvised explosive devices targeting game animals was first reported in 2008 from the island’s east, but has since rapidly spread to other parts of Sri Lanka.

“Using explosives to kill animals is illegal,” environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardanetold Mongabay. “Sri Lanka’s Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance as well as the Explosives Ordinance contain specific provisions to deal with offenders.”

But actual enforcement is difficult, said Chandana Sooriyabandara, the DWC director-general.

“When an animal is killed using a firearm or by poisoning, poachers leave some trace that can aid detection. But in the case of these explosive devices, it is extremely difficult to trace the source,” he said, adding that any telltale signs can be concealed or disposed of.

Prithviraj Fernando, an elephant researcher and head of the Center for Conservation Research-Sri Lanka (CCRSL), told Mongabay that the problem needed to be addressed from both conservation and anti-poaching angles. “The best solution is to increase peer pressure to discourage poaching employing this barbaric method,” he said.

Many of the places where these explosive devices are used to hunt animals are also sites where human-elephant conflicts occur, with the hotspots being the island’s rice-growing heartland in the north-central and eastern regions.

Yet, despite instances of elephants destroying their crops, villagers have tended to demonstrate compassion and assist in elephant rescues and in treating the injured. Elephants enjoy a religious and cultural significance in Sri Lanka, but not everyone views the animals that way.

The DWC’s Sooriyabandara said sometimes the explosive bait is laid out specifically to target elephants seen as a nuisance to villagers. “It’s not all accidental. When a villager is killed or crops are damaged by elephants, outraged villagers often use these devices,” he said.

A shattered mouth and an excruciating death. Image courtesy of Vijitha Perera.

To mitigate the impact of the explosives on the island’s elephant population, conservation researcher Fernando said the villagers needed to be made aware of how much suffering they cause the elephants before they die. “Awareness is key. We need to encourage villagers to desist from using explosive devices,” he said.

Wildlife authorities are already working with conservation-focused organizations to spread the word and win public support, said Sooriyabandara. One such group is the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), which hosts a series of dialogues to create awareness in human-elephant conflict hotspots.

Using videos and photographs, CEJ members highlight the agony of elephants maimed by the explosive devices, as well as the need to minimize conflict through better wildlife conservation methods.

“We work more with children and community leaders who can play a critical role in creating awareness,” said CEJ executive director Hemantha Withanage.

 

He added that the problem was no longer just a grassroots one. “There is a danger of illegal manufacturing of these explosives at a commercial scale, and this may result in more elephant deaths in the future,” Withanage said, adding that there was a consistent increase in elephant deaths due to the use of explosives.

The root of the problem is the bushmeat trade, elephant biologist Manori Gunawardena told Mongabay.

”To prevent increasing elephant deaths due to the use of improvised explosive devices, it is necessary to curb and control the illegal bushmeat trade,” she said. “People should be made aware of the consequences to the wild.”

Banner image of an elephant herd in Minneriya, in Sri Lanka’s North Western province, courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.

Move to declare open season on wild boar despite warnings

October 7, 2018
The collateral damage of increased wild boar hunting would be high.
.
The Agriculture Ministry will seek Cabinet approval to lift the ban on the transport and sale of wild boar meat in the face of opposition from wildlife activists, citing the need to prevent the protected animal’s raids on cropland. Agriculture Ministry media director W.M.D. Wanninayake said wild animals caused about Rs. 18 billion damage of crops annually, with wild boar the major culprit as well as elephants, monkeys, porcupines and peafowl.

A wild boar caght in a snare in Nuwara Eliya

“Apparently natural predators of wild boar such as leopards and jackals have decreased, so we feel there is an increase in boars, which are being found in small forest patches even in Kandy and Colombo,” Mr. Wanninayake said.

He added that the ministry had carried out a random and rapid survey and reached the conclusion that crop damage by wild boar had increased.
The wild boar consumes ground vegetation, soil-dwelling creatures and carrion, also often raiding crops if their habitat is close to crop fields. Feeding in small groups, wild boar are active at night.

At present, a farmer can kill a wild boar if it trespasses onto his property but the meat cannot be transported or sold. “Last year, 15,000 guns were issued to farmers along with two lakhs of bullets with the main aim of protecting their crops, but only a handful of bullets had been used,” Mr. Wanninayake said.

Wild boar are, however, already being killed in large numbers and sold under cover as there is demand for the flesh. The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) warns that the legalisation and thereby liberalisation of the sale and trade of wild boar meat will result in unsustainable slaughter. It fears that increased demand for wild boar meat will make inroads into populations in national parks and sanctuaries.

“From an eco-system perspective, the wild boar is an important species,” the WNPS stated. “Free-ranging wild boar feed on animal carcasses, a scavenging role that significantly reduces the disease risk from rotting carcasses … They also feed on eggs, grubs and larvae of many agricultural pests, as well as weeds like sedges.”

Conservationists also point out the difficulties of regulating the wild boar meat trade if the law is relaxed. Although wild boar meat is traded widely undercover in the countryside only on 38 occasions last year did raids result in the seizure of meat offered for sale, according to Department of Wildlife Conservation sources.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane confirms that Wild boar is not a protected species under Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), so a farmer can shoot a trespassing wild pig without issue. But if transport and sale is legalized, DWC will has practical logistical, man power and other issues in regulating any trade of wild boar meat. “There is no way someone distinguish whether the flesh belong to a wild boar killed in a farm land or a from a protected area. The meat will be transport after packetted, so meat of other animals too would be freely transported” Mr.Gunawardane pointed out.

Change of social attitude due to legalization of wild boar meat would also be a negative impact. “First the move will change mindset of farmers to become hunters as they can now earn money by selling meat. Secondly, when wild boar meat can reach cities, people that had never tasted wild board will develop an appetite for venison which will create more demand”. Mr.Gunawardane stressed, that This is against the spirit of wildlife conservation.

Activists also fear a major problem would be caused by the methods of killing wild boar if their meat became a profitable big seller. Already, illegal methods such as trap guns, snares and “hakka patas” (explosives hidden in fruit and other food sources that blow off an animal’s jaws when bitten on) are being used to kill wild boar, and they also kill numbers of non-target species.

Elephant died eating Hakka Patas at Rambewa, A’pura – Oct, 02nd (c) DWC ape pituwa

Leading wildlife experts, elephant researcher Dr. Prithviraj Fernando and the former director-general of the Department of Wildlife, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, said current laws were more than adequate to prevent wild boars grazing on crops.

“The sale and transport of wild boar meat will legalise bush meat trade which goes against today’s world opinion. We are also due to host the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) next year where bush meat trade will be one of the important issues. If laws are relaxed, Sri Lanka’s move to legalise bush meat trade will no doubt be a topic of discussion bringing shame to the host country,” Dr. Fernando added.

“A farmer can kill a wild boar that destroys his crops,” Dr. Pilapitiya said. “But the new law looks like Sri Lanka is promoting the commercialisation of ‘bush meat’.” Other experts were also forceful in their opposition to the government’s plan.

“Where is the scientific evidence of an ‘exploding’ wild boar population?” leopard experts Dr. Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson demanded.
They raised the possibility that forest loss and increased human encroachment into wilderness areas might be resulting in wild boars feeding in cropland.

Dr. Kittle and Ms Watson added: “Opening up a legal market for wild boar meat – which is essentially what is being proposed – requires a long-term and concerted effort to manage properly …. there would need to be regulations in terms of hunting seasons, annual quotas, licences and monitoring.”
Dr. Kittle and Ms. Watson revealed that data collected by the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust showed that in the past 10 years at least 38 leopards had been killed by snares set mostly for wild boar, with the actual toll probably “far higher”.

Leopard killed by Snares – Sept, 26 Nawalapitiya (c) DWC

“Snaring is an extremely unpleasant way to kill an animal as it results in extensive suffering and can drag on for a long time. We know of a young female leopard that was caught in a snare in December of 2017 or January of 2018 and only died from the wound in May.”

One of India’s leading conservationists, Ajay Desai, warned against kneejerk solutions. He said India too had wildlife conflict involving wild herbivores that grew more abundant in certain areas, with nothing been done about the consequences until local people put political pressure on authorities.
“So action was initiated when there were too many complaints and too much pressure, which meant quick action had to be taken and that meant no proper planning process and only quick kneejerk reactions to the crisis,” Mr. Desai said.

Trunk injury from snare -kalawewa (c) Dr.Prithviraj Fernando

Sinharaja elephant attacks raise villager fury

July 31, 2017

Published on SundayTimes on 28.05.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170528/news/sinharaja-elephant-attacks-raise-villager-fury-242684.html

Sri Lanka’s biodiversity hotspot, Sinharaja, is home to two elephants – but pressure is mounting to translocate them after one killed two villagers. Last week, some angry villagers demanded the elephants be removed as a man and a woman were killed in Cypresswatte village.

The recent photograph that shows an elephant in musth

The incident happened on May 16. The woman was killed at about 6:45 p.m., while the man was fatally attacked around 8 p.m.

A few days earlier, on May 13, the same elephant attacked a Wildlife Department jeep when the vehicle was involved in chasing the animal back into the forest. This incident was near Kudawa, Weddagala around 8.30 p.m. The panicked animal turned back and crushed the bonnet of the vehicle, slightly injuring those inside.

The elephant had been seen at other locations. It had paced around the tower on top of the Gongala Mountain. A photo taken at Gongala shows the elephant is in musth, which is the periodical rise of reproductive hormones of a bull elephant. At such times the animals are irritable and aggressive.

According to DWC records, the two Sinharaja elephants are responsible for 16 human deaths in villages such as Kopi-kella, Manikkawatte and Cypresswatte. Tea cultivations block their natural passages, forcing them to sometimes wander into populated areas.

Madura De Silva, the president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, said that there were three elephants sometimes back – one female and two males. The society setup camera traps as a part of a project related to leopards and the cameras captured the movements of an elephant. With the data they mapped its range.

DWC director general, W S K Pathiratne, said a decision had not been taken yet to translocate the killer elephant. More wildlife officers will be sent to the are.

When asked if a radio collar could be fitted to track the animal, he said trapping the elephant would be challenging in the difficult terrain.

The elephant was in fact caught in 1999 by a team led by Dr Nandana Atapattu – a veterinary surgeon who was also a deputy director of DWC then. It took a team of 20 and a week-long effort. But villagers at the time, particularly the students of Kajuwatta School protested against removing the elephant saying it was an asset to the area. Dr Atapattu released the elephant.

At that time, there were records that the elephant charged but did not kill anyone.Environmentalist Jayantha Wijesinghe said these elephants roamed widely around Sinharaja, but attacked people only in some places. “The reason being that the villagers in these areas have harmed the duo, so the elephants become more aggressive,” he said.

The president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, Mr De Silva, said that in many areas, the local villagers understand the elephant’s movements and that helps to avert a potential disaster. He also said that because of the elephants, illegal activities such as felling trees for ‘walla patta’ and gem mining has been under control. “These elephants are the jewels of Sinharaja. it is better to let them be.”

The Sinharaja rainforest is a UNESCO World Heritage Man and Biosphere Site.

Ocean-going jumbos possibly disoriented

July 31, 2017

Wildlife experts have not been able to adequately explain why a few elephants had been sighted in distress in the oceans closer to shore in the east and even in the deep seas. Some suspect they had been disoriented. Elephants are known to be able to negotiate lakes, reservoirs and rivers. Once again, this week, the navy helped to rescue two elephants seen in the waters off Trincomalee.

The rescue operation in progress

They had been detected by sailors on a patrol boat about one kilometre from shore near Round Island at about 6:30 am onSunday, July 30. A team of divers and three more fast attack craft were called in to guide the jumbos back to land. The divers secured a rope around the elephants to help drag them to shore.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation Trinco range office was also alerted to the incident. Around 11:40 am, the two elephants reached the shallow waters around Foul Point in Trincomalee. From there, the wildlife team took control and drove the elephants back to a nearby forest patch.

Trincomalee wildlife range officer, K A Srimal, said they were two young elephants and appeared to be in good health. Two weeks ago, the navy helped to pull to shore another elephant which had gone swimming.

On July 11, a lookout aboard a Dvora patrol craft saw an object about 8 nautical miles offshore from Kokkuthuduwai in Kokilai at about 9:00am, Lieutenant Commander MBC Perera later recalled. It turned out to be an elephant in distress. The rescue was complicated and dangerous and it took nearly 12 hours, ending only at late at night.

He recalled heavy rains at the time and rough seas.

Divers called to the scene took major risks trying to wrap a rope around the belly of the beast to help pull it to shore, slowly. Videos show that the creature appeared spent from struggling against strong currents and could not react aggressively to the human presence.
A navy diver did however recalled being struck by the struggling elephant’s foot and being pushed 10 feet under water as he attempted to cast a rope around the animal. It was about 4:00pmwhen the sailors began to haul the animal, stopping on occasions to allow it to catch up. When they reached the shallows, it was7:30 pm. Wildlife officers came in to help once the creature walked on to shore. The elephant was chased back in into the forest around Pulmuddai.

Wildlife ranger Mr Srimal said elephants had been seen in inland reservoirs such as Gal Oya, Udawalawe, and Maduru Oya.
There are also historical accounts of jumbos swimming on to islands in Trincomalee from the mainland.

Howard Martenstyn remembers seeing a swimming pachyderm back in the 1960s when one swam to Elephant Island from the Trinco dockyard area. Elephant researcher Dr Prithiviraj Fernando suspects that the elephant seen far from shore in the deep seas may have been disoriented and was dragged away by a strong ocean current.

He also remembers that in 2010, an elephant was seen in the seas near Norway Island off Sampur. It has been a translocated animal and had a radio collar. Dr Fernando believes it ended up in the sea in an attempt to find its way back to home. The elephant, named ‘Brigadier’ was found dead, later, having fallen into an abandoned agro-well.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.07.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170730/news/ocean-going-jumbos-possibly-disoriented-252509.html

Deadly garbage dumps pose elephantine problems ?

March 5, 2017

Agonising death: The elephant which died after suffering for more than a month after eating garbage at Manampitiya. Pic by Karunaratne Gamage

An elephant which had been regularly eating garbage at Manampitiya died last Saturday after suffering from a sickness for a month.

This well grown male, about 20 years of age, was part of a herd that fed on garbage from a dump at Manampitiya. It had fallen ill in the third week of January. A veterinary surgeon and a team of wildlife officers tried to flush out any non-digestive materials from its stomach. One even inserted a hand through its anus to manually pull anything that remained. At first they pulled out about 15 kilograms of polythene in a day and over a month about 30 kilograms were removed.

Dr Pramuditha Devasurendra who had treated the elephant, rejected the idea that the polythene was the cause of death. He said toxic bacteria in rotting food may have been the cause. “The garbage pit contains lots of lunch sheets with rotten food. Deadly bacteria can grow on the food. This is main reason for the death of the elephant.”

Dr Devasurendra revealed that a post-mortem did not find any polythene in the bowels of the dead elephant. Its liver and spleen were damaged.

He said he had treated another elephant about half a kilometre away from the garbage dump at Manampitiya. “That elephant too died and I have been unfortunate to witness deaths of at least 10 elephants since I assumed duties in this area four years ago,” Dr Devasurendra said.

The Manampitiya dump is not the only one that attracts elephants. A garbage dump in Dambulla attracts elephants. Yet another dump in Hambantota is protected by an electric fence. Dr. Devasurendra said an electric fence was needed at Manampitiya.

Meanwhile, Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, estimates that there are at least 50 locations where elephants come to forage at the dump. They are mostly in the dry zone.

Dr Fernando said piles of vegetables, over ripe fruit, flour, rice, bread and the like are more nutritious than what is found naturally. Elephants which rummage for these at the dumps are in better health, he said.

But he said every day 500 elephants may be eating garbage. “In a year, how many of them would die as a result? How does this compare with other ‘unnatural’ causes of elephant deaths? Such as being shot, hakka patas, injuries from trap guns and nooses, train or vehicle accidents, starving to death inside parks after being driven in and restricted with electric fences,” he asks.

It is mostly adult males living outside Wildlife Department protected areas that eat garbage.

The Manampitiya dump: Veritable death trap for wild animals. Pic by Kanchana Kumara

This also means the elephants are not raiding farms. So if they are to be prevented from raiding garbage dumps would it increase the human elephant conflict, and how many of them would be injured and killed? And how many people would be injured and killed? Dr Fernando asks.

“So before jumping in and trying to ‘fix’ something one should first find out what the problem is, figure out the cost and benefit of ‘fixing’ and make an informed decision. Otherwise the cure may be worse than the disease,” he warns.

Dr. Fernando suggests separating the organic matter from the plastics, metals, and glass materials before being dumped.

Published on SundayTimes on 05.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170305/news/deadly-garbage-dumps-pose-elephantine-problems-231517.html 

Minneriya gathering may turn sour for elephants

January 29, 2017

 

At Moragahakanda, a dam was built at Elahara across the Amban Ganga to create a reservoir. A second dam will be built at Pallegama in Matale across Kalu Ganga to create the Kalu Ganga reservoir. These two larger water bodies are about 10 kilometres apart and will be linked by a tunnel.

The project aims to provide water for drinking and irrigation for areas in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee districts. The project also includes a hydropower plant to generate 25 megawatts of electricity.

About 3,500 families had to be resettled due to the project.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of the area affected by the project is forested land and it is believed that the conflicts between elephants and humans will increase. As the project aims to take water to Rajarata, tanks like Minneriya will remain filled during the dry season that lasts from July to about November. Minneriya National Park is famous for being the gathering place of large numbers of elephants every year between June and September. Environmentalists say that Minneriya being filled would be detrimental to the large herds of elephants that come feed on the lush grass growing on the plains in the dry season.

NOTE:

During Workshop on the Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants organized by WNPS on 24th January, the repercussions of the plan to keep the Minneriya Tank at spill level throughout the year from recently commissioned Moragahakanda project was highlighted. Herewith I’m sharing my past articles written on the same to renew the debate..!!

* “Is it too much ‘Water for Elephants’..?” (08.05.2011)
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110508/News/nws_20.html

..sections of following articles also highlighted the issue.

* “Don’t leave conservation solely to Wildlife Dept: Former DG Pilapitiya” (25.09.2016)
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/…/dont-leave-conservation-solely-…

* Minneriya gathering may turn sour for elephants (22.01.2017)
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/…/small-creatures-of-moragahakand…

 Small creatures of Moragahakanda get a helping hand

Pix by Kanchana Kumara

Operations to rescue and relocate small wild creatures trapped by the waters of the Moragahakanda reservoir are continuing.

Filling of water at the reservoir began on January 11. Department of Wildlife Conservation officers with support from volunteers began rescuing wildlife species that had been trapped by the rising waters.

“Giant squirrels, squirrels, wild cats, reptiles, lizards, monitor lizards and snakes top the list of animals that we rescued,” says Wildlife Department’s chief veterinary surgeon, Dr Tharaka Prasad who led the rescue.

These operations are sometimes risky. Video footage show occasions when frightened animals could endanger rescuers. Dr Prasad said rescued animals were released into nearby forested areas that will not be affected by the waters.

He said rescuers had so far not seen any large animals such as deer, wild boar, and elephants. He believes large animals have already moved to safer ground. The filling of the reservoir has created 22 small islands which could become refuges for animals.

Earlier, a team lead by the IUCN Sri Lanka (International Union of Conservation of Nature) carried out animal rescues in the area. IUCN Sri Lanka’s Sampath Goonatilake who participated in the operations said a number of plant species that are important and threatened were translocated. The team had also relocated some freshwater fish.

According to IUCN, 80 animal species and 202 different plant species were identified from the affected area. The operation translocated 916 plants belonging to 58 species and a total of 2,414 animals belonging to 46 faunal species (fish and other species) according to IUCN. It also states that monitoring reveals an 84 per cent survival rate of transplanted plant species.

Dr Prasad of the Wildlife Department, said officials will account for the animals saved once the rescue is complete.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170122/news/small-creatures-of-moragahakanda-get-a-helping-hand-225706.html

Sri Lankan elephant families don’t have a dominant figure, study finds

January 16, 2017

Dominant behaviour: Trunk-over dominance gesture between
two adult female elephants.

The accepted norm is that elephant society comprises distinct family units dominated by the oldest female, or matriarch, who adopts a central role in co-ordinating group movements and responses to threats. But recent research has revealed that this is not so with elephant families of Sri Lanka.

“We found out that unlike African savannah elephants, the Asian elephants (elephas maximus) do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership,”’ researcher Dr Shermin de Silva told the Sunday Times.

Adult males are expelled and it is the females, calves and young bull elephants that form social groups. Dr de Silva studied how elephants interact within these social groups particularly observing dominance behaviors in Udawalawe National Park.

Researchers interpret ‘dominance’ as a concept indicated by behaviours such as one individual threatens, shows aggression toward another, or interferes with the other’s actions. Subordinates can be indicated by behaviours such as one individual allowing themselves to be manipulated, actively avoiding another, waiting to approach a resource until the other has moved away etc. “We have also observed specific dominance behavior such as the trunk-over gesture where the dominant puts its trunk over the head/neck/back of the subordinate,” Dr de Silva explained.

The African savanah elephant (loxodonta africana) has a matriarch, usually the oldest female. The whole group depends on the experience her wisdom to locate food and water particularly during droughts. In Africa the elephant also has natural predators such as lions that could kill young calves, so having a leader is an advantage.

But in Sri Lanka, the environment is more stable compared with Africa where food and water historically had not been difficult to come by. The elephants in Sri Lanka do not have a threat from wild predators such as tigers or lions. The researchers think that this frees up elephant individuals to make their own movement decisions, without needing to rely on the knowledge of others, or tolerate being dominated by them.

Having a clear leader also has other benefits. It will prevent unnecessary confrontations or unrest within a group.

“We suggest that in the absence of a dominance hierarchy, the Asian elephants must rely on spatial separation to avoid direct competition and conflict. When two completely unfamiliar groups meet, there can at times be physical aggression (although this is rare). So if they are constrained by being squeezed into smaller bits of habitat where they can’t get away from each other, it might lead to greater stress and conflicts,” Dr de Silva points out.

The findings also challenge other beliefs.

“It has also been sometimes assumed that social units consist of only those individuals observed together at any given time and that capturing the “matriarch” will draw other family members, ensuring their capture or cooperation. Our findings do not support such assumptions.”

These findings can be useful in elephant conservation and management. They may be important for interpreting results of previous management actions such as translocations and elephant drives that alter the social organization of populations of elephants.

Such displacements would not only disrupt long-term social bonds because social affiliates may not be close together at any given time but result in difficulties for the displaced individuals if habitats are already saturated with other elephants. Forced displacement could result in crowding and competition, with likely disproportionately negative impacts to the displaced individuals, the research found.

Dr. de Silva is now attached to the Colorado State University and the Smithsonian Institution. The study was done between 2007 and 2012 in Udawalawe and the findings were published last year. Other experts George Wittemyer and Volker Schmid too, were part of the study.

They say preserving the remaining range and its connectivity for elephants to have healthy, stress free lives should be a priority.

Researcher Shermine de Silva with elephants at Udawalawe

Researcher Shermine de Silva with elephants at Udawalawe

Published on SundayTimes on 15.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170115/news/sri-lankan-elephant-families-dont-have-a-dominant-figure-study-finds-224870.html

Yala elephant gulps tourist’s bag with money and travel docs

December 26, 2016

December 2012: Gemunu looking for food

Gemunu, Yala National park’s iconic tusker has a bad habit of stealing food from visitors. What initially started off as begging for food, with time Gemunu became more aggressive– standing in the path of safari jeeps until it was given some food or sticking his trunk inside the jeeps and stealing food.

However, things went wrong this week for Gemunu when it put its trunk into a jeep in which a German couple was riding in and picked up a bag, thinking there would be a bagful of food. But instead the couple watched in horror and disbelief as Gemunu downed the bag containing cash and the travel documents.

It is reported that the tourists reported the incident to Wildlife officers so that they could obtain a letter as proof to claim insurance and get their travel documents renewed.

As Gemunu gets bolder wildlife experts worry that a fate far worse than gulping a bagful of of money and documents awaits the elephant. In addition to Gemunu there are other elephants being fed in Yala and other forest reserves of Sri Lanka. Sithulpawwa – a famous Buddhist temple located in Yala is also frequented by a tusker in search of food.

While feeding wild animals started with good intentions, people should understand it would ultimately have a negative impact on wild life – even resulting in possible fatalities, points out Prof.David Newsome of Murdoch University of Australia who studied nature-based tourism and its impact on wildlife in many different parts of the world. “Every case of feeding wild animals is different, so each needs to be carefully analysed to provide a lasting solution,” Prof. Newsome said.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Prof. Newsome gave the example of  Fraser Island in Australia where tourists closely interact with the dingo – a wild dog found in Australia. Things changed drastically when a boy was killed by dingos. Wildlife officers had to kill a number of dingos in Fraser Island following this incident.

An army soldier shoot to air to make Gemunu let go a jeep in 2013 stirred controversy in 2013.

An army soldier shoot to air to make Gemunu let go a jeep in 2013 stirred controversy in 2013.

Prof. Newsome who was in Sri Lanka recently commented on the Yala incident when he delivered the key-note address at the 21st International Forestry Symposium organised by the University of Sri Jayawardanepura annually.

“I’m not going to visit Yala as a tourist again,” prof. Newsome said. “Every wilderness has its limits in tolerating visitors and Yala being Sri Lanka’s most popular National Park needs an action plan immediately. Quality of the visitor experience is more important and just don’t forget ‘word-of-mouth’ is quicker in this era of social media – so in future tourists may avoid Yala” prof.Newsome,” said reiterating what local experts have been saying for sometime.

“Take a step back, review the situation properly, take informed decisions leading to sustainability of Yala to make sure its status as both a haven for animals as well as a tourist destination,” the expert on ecotourism advised.

This video shows Gemunu’s bold behavior in search of food and signs that a worse disaster is in the making – 2013.

Close encounter: Gemunu looking for food inside a jeep in 2013 - A thrilling, but scary view from inside Pic by Riaz Carder

Close encounter: Gemunu looking for food inside a jeep in 2013 – A thrilling, but scary view from inside Pic by Riaz Carder 

Published on SundayTimes on 25.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161225/news/aussie-expert-calls-for-action-plan-for-yala-following-gemunus-money-gobbling-incident-221783.html 

 

Ecological survival a shared responsibility

October 10, 2016

World Bank binds communities into visionary project – published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016

Sri Lanka and the World Bank have signed a $US45 million loan to help protect the country’s natural habitat and resources from degradation and over-exploitation. The Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) aims to address key issues in conservation while assisting to improve the lives and livelihoods of neighbouring communities.

ESCAMP was initiated in 2009 when the former Rajapaksa government asked the World Bank for a $US30 million loan. The bank, with assistance of number of experts, come up with a proposal including a science-based action plan to address number of conservation issues including the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) in selected areas.

Conservationists had high hopes for ESCAMP as a landmark project but in the latter stages of negotiation the Ministry of Finance requested fundamental changes and the World Bank decided to drop the project in 2011, fearing the changes would harm its objectives.

The Sirisena government showed interest in reopening the project and made a formal request. After updating the proposal both the WorldBank and Cabinet signed approval of the project on September 5. Most of the main components remain intact and this time the amount being given is $US45 million.

“The project will improve responsible planning and management of protected areas and other biologically and ecologically important locations throughout Sri Lanka,” said World Bank Senior Environment Specialist and Project Task Team Leader Darshani De Silva.

Importantly, it will create partnerships of environmental guardianship with local communities, she said. “It will help to create sustained linkages with communities living adjacent to protected areas to ensure participation in protection of critical ecosystems and benefit sharing, promote compatible developments within and around sensitive ecosystems, raise quality of visitor services and revenue potential of forest and wildlife resources, while developing the capacity of Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation to deliver on their institutional mandates.”

There are four main components. One is a Pilot Landscape Planning and Management for Conservation scheme in two particular areas in the dry zone and biodiversity-rich wet zone. The second component, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and Human-Elephant Co-Existence, includes financing the scaling-up of successful human-elephant coexistence pilot projects along with identifying economic incentives for affected communities.

The third component, Protected Area Management and Institutional Capacity, has the biggest funding allocation, $US 24.2 million. It aims at supporting the Protected Area (PA) network, support of nature-based tourism development and strengthening of the institutional capacity and investment capability for conservation and management. Project management is funded as the fourth component.

Conservationists view ESCAMP positively as it clearly looks at long-term solution for many issues including human-elephant conflict. The proposal clearly specifies that project funds should not be used for failed solutions such as elephant drives or the capture and domestication of problem elephants.

The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment will lead the implementation of the project in partnership with the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife. It is expected that ESCAMP will conclude in 2021.

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

Activists back plan to source perahera jumbos from Pinnawela

October 1, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 10.07.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160710/news/activists-back-plan-to-source-perahera-jumbos-from-pinnawela-200107.html 

An illegally caught wild elephant.
Pic courtesy Animal Welfare Trust

Wildlife activists have welcomed Cabinet’s decision this week to have a herd of 35 captive elephants from Pinnawela trained to take part in cultural events while under the care of the Department of Zoological Gardens.

The move follows a proposal submitted by the Minister for Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera in the aftermath of the seizure, from private owners, of some 30 elephants believed to have been caught illegally from the wild. Preliminary investigations into this matter have been completed and the elephants, of varying ages, have been transferred to a facility in the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe.

Forces opposing the confiscation of the elephants began a campaign of fear that the confiscations would disrupt cultural events, claiming even major events such as the Temple of the Tooth perahera would be threatened due to lack of elephants for the processions. There have even been claims that wildlife activists and conservationist groups were being bribed by western countries to disrupt Sri Lanka’s cultural life.

The setting up of a unit of trained elephant to be used for cultural events was first proposed by a former director of the Zoological Gardens, Brigadier H.A.N.T. Perera but was blocked by captive elephant owners, and the former government was not interested in implementing the proposal.

The Director at Species Conservation Centre, Pubudu Weeraratne, who voiced the need to bring those behind the jumbo racket to justice said keeping trained elephants at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was the best solution. “This solution will help the elephants’ welfare and they will get the chance to move around with other elephants when there is no work,” Mr..Weeraratne said.

The elephant calves have to be sourced only from Pinnawela and not from the Elephant Transit Home, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust emphasised.

The Pinnawala orphanage was started as a facility to house elephant calves found abandoned or orphaned in the wild. But since 1995 all such orphaned elephants are housed at the ETH with the intention of rehabilitating them and releasing them back into the wild. To take an ETH elephant for training would be to deny its chance to return to the wild, Mr. Chamikara said.

Pinnawela has now has become an elephant management centre, with several births annually, and as the animals there have more interaction with humans activists agree it provides best option as a source of calves to be trained for use in pageants.

Prior to Cabinet’s decision this week, the Secretary of the Tamed Elephant Association, Dhamsiri Bandara Karunaratne, told media there was a dire need to have more captive elephants trained for cultural events and that the removal of 30 captive elephants from private hands had left a large void. He said that while there were 19 tuskers among Sri Lanka’s captive elephant population only three were suitable for carrying the relic casket of the Temple of the Tooth.

The veteran environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardene, said the wildlife activists’ fight was only against the illegal capture of animals: they were not opposed to using elephants for major cultural events.

“Even by the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, which is the main legal document, the using of elephants for the main cultural events is honoured. We never proposed anything to block the elephants from being used in cultural and Buddhist events,” emphasised Mr.Gunawardene, saying those who wanted to keep elephants in private hands for their own satisfaction were trying to hide behind religion.

“We know that traditional elephant owners too get into some difficulties. But it is mainly due to those who acquire these elephants illegally” he concluded saying that the justice should be delivered without delay.

“Don’t use the Dalada Esala Perahera for to let the elephant thieves escape,”  the Anti-Corruption Front’s Ulapane Sumangala Thera said in a separate interview.

Elephants in Esela perahera of Sri Dalada Maligaya (c) newsfirst.lk

Esela perahera of Sri Dalada Maligaya (c) newsfirst.lk

Budget allocates Rs 4,000 million to Environment sector

December 1, 2015

budget

Budget 2016 has an allocation of Rs 4,000 million for the environment sector for three years, to resolve the human-elephant conflict and conserve Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity.

The Sunday Times learns that the Government will seek these additional funds through a World Bank project interest-free loan of US$ 30 million, which did not materialise during the previous regime.

This 5-year initiative called ‘Eco-system Conservation & Management Project’ is to improve the management and stewardship of Sri Lanka’s sensitive ecosystems in selected locations.

Expectations among environmentalists are high that it will enhance conservation and bring benefits to the people.

A large portion of the project’s funding is to initiate innovative programmes that would reduce human-wildlife conflict through co-existence, while enhancing the management of Protected Areas for both conservation as well as nature-based tourism,

Another important component of the project is to strengthen the institutional capacity of the Forest Dept and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

Currently, more than half of DWC’s budget goes to mitigate human-elephant conflict (HEC), which environmentalists insist is also important, while action is also being taken to protect other threatened species as well, an area the project also expects to shed some light on.

Environmentalists had high hopes for this project in 2011 when, at its final stages, the then Finance Ministry Secretary P.B. Jayasundara reportedly wanted drastic changes to the project which would have affected the project’s sustainability in the long run.

The World Bank felt it would compromise the project’s very aims of finding lasting solutions to conservation issues, and withdrew the project. Several key conservation groups wrote to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to intervene and prevent unnecessary influence on the project, but to no avail.

The Sunday Times learns that the new Government had, had several rounds of talks with the World Bank to revive this project, and a few weeks back had submitted an official request seeking same.

Reliable sources indicate the signs are positive and the inclusion of a Rs 4,000 million commitment for the Environmental Sector is a sign that the Government is confident of securing this project, whose budget has now increased to US$ 40 million.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.11.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151122/news/eco-friendly-budget-allocates-wb-aided-rs-4000-million-to-environment-sector-172527.html 

Will baby jumbos snatched from the wild find justice?

November 17, 2015

Published on SundayTimes on 01.11.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151101/news/will-baby-jumbos-snatched-from-the-wild-find-justice-169830.html

Wildlife Conservation Director-General H.D. Ratnayake has directed his officials to work speedily with the CID to capture dozens of elephants caught illegally from the wild and kept captive in private hands following a stern order by the Colombo Chief Magistrate.

Ali Roshan’s lawyers say that confiscated elephants are not being treated well in Pinnawalala, but this is the fate of one of the elephant’s given to a temple in Ragama. This elephant Kapila died after suffering several years in captivity

Environmentalists say as many as 47 elephants have been caught from the wild illegally, Twenty of them were recently taken into the custody of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and are currently quartered at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.

Mr. Ratnayake said a new facility to keep confiscated elephants would be set up at Udawalawe.

He gave this information when asked by the Sunday Times to comment on the recent ruling by the Colombo Chief Magistrate who ordered the CID to complete investigations into the whereabouts of more than 21 elephants snatched from the wild, reportedly warning that if results were not delivered in time the 20 formerly captive elephants now safe at Pinnawela could be returned to their owners on payment of a bond.

The 20 elephants were taken as babies from the jungle on the orders of a suspect known as “Ali Roshan”.

Ali Roshan’s lawyers, reportedly claiming that these elephants, now in the custody of the Wildlife Department, are being badly fed, have requested the magistrate to entrust the elephants to the owners from whom they were taken.

In the midst of this a group of monks gathered at DWC headquarters demanding an end to confiscations of elephants in private hands. They say elephants are used traditionally for Buddhist events and temples need tamed elephants to perform these tasks.

The group threatened to bring more monks to protest if the raids did not stop.

Responding strongly to the issue, the Minister of Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, said he would not hesitate to take into custody anybody keeping an illegally caught elephant, irrespective of their position. He said only those who have involved in wrongdoing will be affected and others need not panic.

Debunking the claim that elephant calves need to be caught from the wild to take part in cultural activities, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara says the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage provides elephant calves to fill the void left by the deaths annually of three or four kept in captivity.

He blames the owners’ failure to look after the captive elephants as the main reason for the early deaths of so many tamed elephants.

Mr. Chamikara said it appeared from data at the elephant registry that from 2006-2009 as many as 95 tamed elephants died. Conservationists doubt the authenticity of register entries purporting to state that the mothers of many calf elephants in captivity had died.

They believe these false entries were made to support claims that baby elephants in private hands had not been illegally taken from the wild but had been born to animals owned legally.

If indeed such a large number of elephants in captivity had died, Mr. Chamikara said, the fatality rate could be due to the elephants not being fed properly, not being treated for illnesses, cruelty and overwork. He called for an investigation.

He also alleged that elephants released to the temples from Pinnawela are, in fact, being used for non-ceremonial purposes such as carrying tourists or dragging logs.

The government banned the capture of wild elephants in the 1970s, and after that the Pinnawela orphanage became the main source of providing tamed elephants, mainly for temples.

If there is a captive elephant aged under 45 years that has not been released from Pinnawela, it is an illegally caught elephant.

Raids have at times resulted in elephant calves being taken into custody but because high-ranking people are behind the captive baby elephant racket investigations have stagnated despite environmentalists publishing a list of owners of suspect elephant calves.

It is mandatory to register captured elephants with the DWC but it is believed bogus licences were created with assistance of internal sources, making seizure of the captive elephants difficult.

Following the change of government, however, then then deputy minister Wasantha Senanayake led the capture of several illegally kept elephants, some in temple premises.

One argument given by the captive elephant owners is that the elephants are part of Buddhist and cultural events. But many people point out that true Buddhism does not encourage animal cruelty and that particularly during the training period the elephants suffer stress.

While the current initiative to capture illegally-held elephants is a very good first step it is pointless unless the root cause of the issue is addressed pointed out an elephant conservationist who wished to remain anonymous.

All the illegal captures occurred because the perpetrators were confident of getting “permits” for them or did not consider it a problem to keep an elephant without a permit.

Those who issued fraudulent permits have to be brought to book and all illegally captured elephants should be confiscated, he added. It is also important that those who held such elephants should be penalised.

A transparent and strict permits system is vital. No amount of regulation will be effective if people engage in fraud. Even DNA typing of elephants would not help as it was open to abuse and there cannot be any public oversight of it, the expert said.

He suggested that public viewing access to the permit system would prevent it being abused. A publicly accessible website could have details such as name of owner, history of ownership, age and height of elephant, with pictures of the elephant.

This would be easy to set up as there are only a few hundred elephants in captivity, the conservationist said.

Do Buddhist rituals need captive elephants?Although a compassionate religion such as Buddhism would not promote animal cruelty in any form, Sri Lanka has a rich cultural history in which where elephants – especially tuskers – are used for cultural events.

A tusker is used to carry the sacred casket in pageants, so many elephant owners trying to justify the need of captive elephants name this practice in their arguments.

A disastrous mooted solution was to train rogue elephants to take part in cultural events, the justification being that these elephants would be killed soon anyway while raiding crops and settlements.

As an experiment, two rogue elephants were captured from the wild for rehabilitation. One was given to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage while the other was handed over to temple authorities.

This brought disastrous results. The elephant given to the Maligawa to be trained tried to escape, suffering severe cuts from his chains as a consequence.

It died following months of suffering. The other elephant spent nine years chained at Pinnawela with no training attempted.

A former director of the Zoological Gardens and the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, Brigadier. H.A.N.T. Perera, suggested training a unit of elephants kept at Pinnawela to perform in cultural events.

In that way, the unit would be trained centrally and looked after well at Pinnawela, making monitoring easier. Unfortunately, this innovative proposal was stifled.

Environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara points out that there is a lack of trained mahouts to look after captive elephants in private hands and that because of this elephants are often subject to unnecessary beatings and other cruel treatment which increases their stress and ultimately shortens their lives.

This would make the creation of a team of elephants kept under a single roof at Pinnawela even more logical as the establishment had trained mahouts, environmentalists point out.

The seizure of the 20 captive elephants could provide another opportunity to try out this idea.

..in search of solution for Human Elephant Conflict

September 20, 2015
DWC concerns should be welfare of jumbos, says top elephant researcher – Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando 

With the new Government’s manifesto promising a solution to the human elephant conflict, the new Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera says he will treat it as a priority, calling for a report by Tuesday.

Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

Many blame Wildlife Officers for not providing a viable solution to the problem. However, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) alone cannot provide a solution, points out Sri Lanka’s foremost elephant researcher Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando.

The solution for the HEC can only be brought about by the main stake holders of this issue – the people affected by the conflict itself – becoming the main players in its mitigation.

Everyone expects the DWC to act, but it does not have the network, capacity, access to funding or the relationship with people, required to effectively manage a problem that has worsened in many parts of the country.

Instead the people affected, together with agencies responsible for the people’s welfare and governance and development should be the main players in finding a solution, says Dr. Fernando.

The main concern and responsibility of the DWC should be the welfare of the elephants, he asserts.

While over 200 elephants fall victim annually, pushing them to ‘endangered’ status, about 70 human lives are lost due to elephant attacks. However, as much as 80% of these deaths are preventable, emphasises Dr. Fernando, taking the Samagipura incident, where a provincial journalist was killed, as an example.

In each incident there are two parties involved – the human being and an elephant. As an elephant cannot be made to understand the problem or to look for a solution, it is the human who should be responsible.

Housing scheme in elephant territory - intensifying the conflict

A housing scheme in elephant territory – intensifying the conflict

Similarly in cases of crop raiding or destruction of houses, appropriate steps should be taken to prevent such occurrences. If crops are cultivated in an area where elephants roam, they will raid the crops unless preventive measures are taken.

Many people store paddy in their houses, resulting in the elephants breaking into their houses. The Government can assist people to construct protective fences or give priority to buying paddy from areas at risk.

Electric fences have been the traditional solution to the problem, but other alternatives have been used such as beehives, palmyrah fences and spiky lime to keep elephants away from human settlements and crops. However, these take up a lot of effort and resources or have limited success.

Hence Dr. Fernando thinks properly established electric fences are still the most effective way to keep elephants at a distance. However, most fences are erected demarcating protected areas such as National Parks managed by the DWC, while in many places the other side of the fence is Forest Department land.

Such inappropriate use of fences results in fences inside forests with elephants on both sides of the fence. Such fences are difficult to maintain, communities cannot and will not play a part in maintaining them and very soon they become non-functional.

Instead, human settlements and permanent cultivations should be protected by fences and people who are benefited by such fences need to take the responsibility for maintaining them.

Hambantota which experienced rapid development under the previous government is elephant country. With assistance of radio collars, Dr. Prithiviraj’s team in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation identified the area that is critical for elephants.

These findings were taken into consideration in the Strategic Environmental Assessment conducted under the auspices of the Urban Development Authority and the Central Environmental Authority.

The zoning plan developed under the Strategic Environmental Assessment identified the areas suitable for development, and demarcated the area that was critical for elephants as a Managed Elephant Range (MER) so humans and elephants can co-exist together in the Greater Hambantota area with little conflict. But this plan was not implemented as Dr.Fernando said that there are lots of unplanned developments disregarding the zoning plan and continued encroachment for cultivation and settlements in the MER area.

The elephant expert also repeated that translocation or elephant drives would not solve the HEC. Even establishing elephant corridors will have limited success, if implemented without obtaining actual data of elephant movement in an area.

The concept that elephants constantly migrate from one forest to another covering large areas is an outdated concept that belongs to the colonial era, whereas modern research has shown that elephants in Sri Lanka do not migrate long distances but have limited home ranges of 50-500 square km in extent, to which they show a high level of attachment.

Dr. Fernando and the team were the pioneers of observing elephant movements using satellite collars that proved Sri Lankan elephants are not migratory. However, within a home range there are places or routes that elephants use to cross from one area to another or to cross a main road etc. and these need to be established as ‘Elephant Corridors’.

Blocking of such ‘corridors’ by development or encroachment causes increase in HEC as elephants then have to cross in spite of the development or through alternative routes, which brings them into conflict with people. So Dr. Fernando suggests more research to understand elephant movement patterns before establishing these corridors.

Meanwhile Sri Lanka already formulated a National Policy for Elephant Management and Conservation in 2006 with consultation of experts in the field and the participation of all the relevant line agencies, led by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Many see this as comprehensive enough to provide sound suggestions with a scientific base to address the HEC and elephant conservation. However, this remains only a document, as it was not implemented.

So without reinventing the wheel, updating this National Policy, which is now a decade old and looking at addressing the issue on a scientific footing would be the thing to do, says the elephant expert.

Finding why the National Policy for Elephant Management was not implemented too should be a priority, as otherwise, new efforts too will end up in the ‘hamas pettiya’.

Published on 20.09.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150920/news/solution-to-man-beast-conflict-lies-with-stakeholderstop-researcher-164878.html

Elephant on Mattala Road - a frequent encounter (c) Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

Elephant on Mattala Road – a frequent encounter (c) Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando