Conservation in crisis

25 June 2020 10:29 am - 5     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


2020 has been a testing and trying year for many people across the globe. A raging pandemic that has incapacitated major cities worldwide has put a pause to the significant threat towards a growing environmental crisis. A 2019 United Nations report noted that nature’s dangerous decline is unprecedented in human history, and the extinction rates of species is only accelerating.

In Sri Lanka, the first half of 2020 has been brutal to some of the country’s rare endemic species. Four Sri Lankan leopards have been killed, while another two have been severely injured, after being caught in wire snares in these six months alone.

In 2019 Sri Lanka lost a record number of elephants. 361 elephant deaths were reported in the country, the highest figure of elephant deaths to be reported since 1948. Researchers have revealed that Sri Lanka is the country which reports the greatest number of annual elephant deaths in the world. As the Human Elephant conflict is a widespread issue in the island, human deaths due to this conflict too have been increasing.

Instead of mitigating this issue, state sponsored development efforts appear to be making the problem worse. Recent reports revealed that a 25 acre area of land has been leased to a private company named Prime Site for a mango plantation to be developed. The proposed site is located at Kiralawa Forest Reserve which is in close proximity to Kala Wewa and the Kahalla-Pallekele sanctuary, which is frequently used as a migratory route by elephants.

In Galgamuwa, a 60-acre area of land belonging to a local temple was reportedly leased out to a private company as another plantation site. Meanwhile an ongoing aloe vera plantation project in Wilpattu, has seen the construction of a man-made lake. Adjoining the Wilpattu National Park buffer zone, the project has raised concerns over possible threats to the sensitive ecosystem, including drying up of catchment areas.

Government authorities however insist that the lands leased to private entities are in no way harming the passage of elephants or threatening the natural ecosystem. The same government's Minister of Wildlife S.M. Chandrasena launched a program in January this year to provide firearms to Civil Defence Force personnel for self-defence against wild elephant invasions.

Conservationists warn that the human elephant conflict is a complex and sensitive issue, that cannot be solved by weapons.

Meanwhile there are also dozens of elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka. The animals are either used in tourism, while others are kept at temples for various festivals.

A handful of private owners too rear elephants in captivity, although they require a special permit from the government.

Elephant racketeering however is not unheard of in Sri Lanka. The most recent case of elephant trafficking involves Samarappulige Niraj Roshan, alias ‘Ali Roshan’ who is accused of keeping five elephants without a permit.

Recently heartbreaking footage emerged of wildlife department officials attempting to rescue and treat a female elephant, with a gunshot wound. Its scared calf running away from the officers. Officials have been unable to track the month-old calf thus far, sparking conspiracies that this is yet another elephant trafficking racket.


Role of activists

Despite being a nation that advocates, promotes and boasts about its Buddhist ideologies, the first of the Five Precepts (Pancha sila) has long been ignored. Living beings are harmed at a rate and many animals have been cruelly treated for years. From time to time there have been news of stray animals being rounded up and taken away and at times dogs being shot in broad daylight. The human-elephant conflict on the other hand is on the rise and protected species like the black leopard too fell victim to human cruelty. However, animal welfare activists have been fighting to pass the 15-year long Animal Welfare Bill which is in its final stages according to those who actively contributed in its drafting process. In their capacities, activists have added pressure to ensure that animals are treated humanely. But is their voice enough?

“Once a politician told me “well, we will be serious about animal welfare if they have a vote”, recalled Dumindra Ratnayake, who has continuously voiced for the rights of animals. “So to get the politicians and governments be serious about animal welfare the voter must demand it. Activists can play a major role here by educating the public at large, to understand the issues at hand, to be empathetic and compassionate, to make public understand that we must live and let live, that it cannot always be everything for humans. Education can help reduce the human-animal conflict.”


Global best practices

Wildlife conservation and all its issues are not to Sri Lanka. Kenya, a country celebrated for its rich bio diversity is also renowned for its illicit wildlife trade. The diversity of Kenya’s wildlife has garnered international fame, especially for its populations of large animals. Spotting the Big Five and safariing in its expansive parks including Masai Mara are favorites among wildlife lovers. However, a darker side to this beauty also exists with poaching and hunting practices. But, poachers have a heavy price to pay if found guilty and on the other hand, wildlife services have been streamlined to be of maximum efficiency, prioritizing the welfare of animals.

“In Kenya, where Serendipity Wildlife Foundation (SWF) operates, we have observed very efficient operations and a swift response by the Kenya Wildlife Services,” said SWF Chief Executive Officer Ravi Perera. “They have about six mobile veterinary units that are located in various parts of the country, and these vehicles, along with a veterinary doctor respond when needed. Vehicles and personnel are equipped with two-way radios for easy communication. Kenya has excellent support and a good working relationship from conservation organizations that partner with them.”

He further said that if an elephant or other animal is injured, most times due to poaching by poisoned arrows or spears, the mobile vet vehicle responds, tranquilizes the elephants, and removes the projectile. “The elephant is very often treated at the scene and then released. The response is swift, and nipped in the bud, to prevent infection, and possible death. I have often seen that whenever such an operation is conducted, the immediate area is well secured and only access to the veterinary staff is granted. There are no lookie-loos, no villagers, and no police officers who should be in charge of crowd control coming in to the immediate area to take videos on their phone. Kenya also has the advantage of air support, with a helicopter readily available when needed for operations. Tranquilizing is often done from the air as it is safer when large herds are present. I have seen the herd standing by at a distance, and after the elephant is treated it rejoins the herd.”

Mr. Perera further said that last year Kenya announced the death penalty for poachers, but there have been mixed reactions from the public. “While conservationists support it, human rights groups are against it. Currently the fine for poaching is $225,000 and/or life in prison.”

What is the sustainable approach to dealing with the human elephant conflict? Should development come at the cost of our precious wildlife? How many losses would it take for Sri Lanka to wake up to this reality?

Reporting by Kamanthi Wickramasinghe, Kalani Kumarasinghe, Piyumi Fonseka and Yoshitha Perera

  Comments - 5

  • sacre blieu Friday, 26 June 2020 09:23 AM

    We are at a very critical point to decide which way animal conservation, of what is left and experiencing fast decimation, to take very seriously the issues of who is to remain, the expanding unchecked population or the the animals in the forests.and where every conceivable human animal conflict application or programs have mostly failed. The balance of nature is at a very critical junction.

    CITIZENS Thursday, 02 July 2020 02:54 AM

    Disgusting, disappointing and unacceptable

    Rajapaksa Thursday, 02 July 2020 07:03 AM

    Wild Life Department is one of the most corrupted government institutions in this country

    Sathija Weerasinghe Saturday, 04 July 2020 09:39 AM

    Who else is impressed with new sections of Daily Mirror web? At last, they have hired professionals to do the job. Keep it up Daily Mirror team

    ranjith chandrasekera Friday, 10 July 2020 07:06 AM

    Add to corruption of Wild Life department We have a Minister supporting the people at the cost of wildlife. Get rid of this senseless man who gave away guns to chase elephants roaming villages looking for food and water. All because their land is invaded by humans and they lost their source of food and nature given home.

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