Saturday Magazine
What have we achieved through 53 years of conservation?
Vanishing species


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The Udawalawe elephants at their orphanage

by Mahinda Ranaweera
In the face of the ever growing human-elephant conflict and the near extinction of a large number of indigenous flyers, waders, mammals and vertebrates, it is opportune to reflect upon our conservation policies and strategies of the past and review the proposed national policy, on wild life.

Under the British we entrusted conservation to the very same people who destroyed the abundant fauna of this country, directly by way of killing in the guise of a so called ‘sport’. Under them the need to conserve wild life arose from a concern to exploit wildlife. The colonial hunters banded themselves together to create ‘sportmen’s reserves’ after the increasing rate of exploitation of wild life by the local population consequent to the opening up of the land for coffee and tea cultivation. By the time they arrived in this island they had destroyed almost the entire fauna of their countries of birth. The sportsmen reserves, where killing was permitted on licence were later converted to wild life sanctuaries. Good examples are Yala and Wilpattu in 1938.

When the Wild Life Department was set up in 1949 ‘Game Wardens’ were appointed and under them as recently as the seventies ‘Game Rangers’ functioned to look after the wild life for the masters engaged in their prime ‘sport’ of killing. It was also their duty to see that the adjacent poor villager is prevented from killing in their own territory.

A villager shooting an animal for their protein needs was called a ‘poacher" while their open bracent killing was termed ‘a sport’. The well known ‘Sportsman’ Rogers alone entirely wiped out the hard (clan) of Hill Elephants (Kuru Ali) from the hilly regions of the country such as Nuwara-Eliya, Horten Plains and the Wellassa, killing over a thousand creatures within a period of six years.

Alfred Clarks in his "Sports of the Country of Ceylon" guides the immature white man how to kill different varieties of Ceylon animals — the elephant, the bear, the lepoard etc. To what extent can these men be called benefactors of Ceylon’s wild life. Of elephants he says "some have even their tails cut off while they are senceless" (Cut off the feet with a strong knife but a light hatchet enables the operation to be performed effectively". "Pieces of thick hide are sometimes taken to make table tops". The long leg bones to make stands for hall lamps... vertebrae to be mounted as ink stands. Bracelets of elephants are worth having as curiocities..." "teeth are sawn to make caskets, knife handles". Clark, an officer of the Forest Department was, later appointed by his pupils as an advisors to be on the Board of Wild Life Conservation.

Until the appointment of Dr. C. H. Nicholas as Warden of the Wild Life Department in 1949 all his predecessors in the then wild life board were either ex soldiers or just administrators with no knowledge even of the Biology of an animal, nay any knowledge of conservation.

Until the seventies we, approached conservation most unscientifically. While the department, had not done any scientific studies in regard to the habitats, movements behaviour pattern, procreation etc. of the species placed under their protection concept of conservation was "game hanging". The Lanka leopard, the sloth black bear, the barking deer, pangolian, the flying squirrel etc., were allowed to vanish despite our having set apart 12 per cent of the countries land (at that the best arable land) for wild life conservation.

Even with regard to the elephant where we claim to have done the most, for conservation, what we have been doing thus far was to draw from the experiences of the British masters (who had nearly wiped out the African elephant from that sub continent), without doing any local studies of the Asian counterpart, in relation to the local habitat conditions.

We have wiped out the Deduru Herd by "translocation", and ‘jungle corridors’ etc. pending Rs. 640 million rupees of the global environment fund, for the protection of the elephant during the last five years. Few years back, on the advice of an "animal expert" then in the department, a drive was conducted to locate the Hadapanagala herd in the Ruhunu National Park, spending 96 million rupees. Within three days the entire Handapanagala heard trickled back to their original habitat.

The very same doctor in an article to the "Loris" magazine in the December 2000 issue quoting Dr. Robin Baker on migration of "Salmons", "Monarch butterfly" and the "Barn swallow" advocates "lifetime track studies", "familiar areas", "landscape ecology", "home range" etc. and is asking the question. "Do elephants migrate?" If he did study all this in regard to the Handapanagala herd, before recommending such a drive we could have saved the 96 million rupees and used that money for better conservation projects. He now thinks "recent studies with radio — collard elephants in the southern and north western provinces have shown very conclusively (mark the words) that there is no such long migration but that they are confined to their "home areas of birth". He further states that "a special study to find out whether the elephants in Wasgamuwa are migrating to Maduru Oya along the Kuda Oya showed that no such movement takes place and there they are confined to the "home areas". His conclusion therefore, is "different in herds live birth or home ranges" and therefore "it is important to study elephant movement on the basis of a life time track studies", "landescape ecology" to formulate more precise conservation studies’.

He now debunks the "jungle corridor theory" for the migration of elephants. The jungle corridors were embarked upon by the Wild Life Department without any study of the elephant movement patterns. As a lay grandson of a once famous "Ali Weda Nilame" (elephant doctor) of Harispattuwa in the central province, my grand father told me fifty years ago, "the home distance of a heard of elephants is two ‘gauwas’ during wet weather and four ‘gauwas’ during dry whether; namely eight and 16 miles! This was the suggestion my grandfather made to the late Francis Molamure during the last days of his last Karaal at Panamure when a wounded stockade animal excaped to the jungle and the "Panikkiars" or trackers were asked to track the creature. The maximum home area of "an elephant clan" or what we call "the herd" is tweny miles. A very good example is the Yala National Park itself. (377 sq miles) only 52 sq miles are used for animal watching as most of the elephants are confined to this area of land for feeding breeding etc., in short their "birth habitat".

With over 946,116 prime arable acres of land being set apart for the conservation of the bigger species, the elephant population has dwindled to 4000 from 12,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1998 alone 136 elephants were shot by villagers engaged in cultivation activities in developed land bordering protected reserves. The human — elephant-conflict has shifted from the NWP to Udawalawe as the Deduru herd is no more, except for a few stragglers.

Questions, therefore, naturally arise; even with this vast area of land being set apart for conservation if we cannot save, even the elephant, what use is this conservation for? Agricultural development and conservation compatible?

With the expansion of our farmer population can we afford to sacrifise the wellbeing of the many at the expense of the species? Can a small country of 65,610 sq km afford to sustain and maintain an elephant population of 4000? When the poor have no other resources other than land for their daily needs? 1/8 acre of arable land per head for man as against 473 acres per elephant. Is this ratio justifiable? Sri Lanka is about the only country in the world where a disproportionate ratio as this exists between man and species in their habitation.

Protecting a mobile species such as the elephant within a limited protected area can never be a reality even though the Wild Life Department had been trying to do this for the last 52 years or more, by trial and error.

Elephants can never be or ever were protected close to agriculturally developed areas. Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Indonesia and even India and Nepal attempted to do this from time to time during the last 150 years but failed miserably.

The theme of wild life conservation has been an ancient concept in Sri Lanka. It was considered noble and later essential to the country. Rock decree of King Kirthi Sri Nissankamalla (stone inscription at the Ruwanweliseya Dagaba) propounds various acts of conservation, not only of land animals, but of birds and fishes during the earliest occupation of Ruhuna, elephants were confined to the NCP, NWP, the hills and the east. During the Anuradhapura period they were protected in the East, Central and NWP areas.

We have sufficient areas for the conservation of flyers including waders. Other than for the elephants, rest of the existing land animals do not require wide ranging "home areas" for conservation.

We cannot embark on ultra modern concepts of conservation such as ‘Ranching’ or farming of wild animals for economic use as is being done in New Zealand, Zambia, Australia; where deer, crocodiles, kaimens and wild buffalows are grown to beculled for protein of the poor living closer to protected areas; due to religious restraints. We cannot sell our fauna for tourist purposes such as is done economically in Africa.

The ultra modern concept of conservation that it must be ‘ecologically and economically sustainable’ is another brain child of the westerner just to fatten the dollar milking of a few urbarnite conservasionists, in the guise of Nature Conservasion N.G.O. What have these conservasionists done to conserve the endemic "Mal Koha", "Putis Bundala" (a vanishing fresh water fish) the "pangolian" or the "green billed coucal bird?" So that the unprivileged can at least see them in a created habitat. Their most concerned attention is paid yearly to the collection of data of appearances and disappearances, to be submitted to a parent body somewhere is a dollar affluent country, from which, the yearly quota of dollars are squezed for the benefit of a few urbanite arm chair conservasionists.

Conservation should undoubtedly, benefit the large mass of the poor population and should be a resource for a country’s development.

Uda Walawe National Park is a pointed case of conservation mismanagement. 38,000 hectares of prime arable land of the Pahala Wellassa (lower Uva) have been set apart for the preservation of a "hoch poch" congregation of just 200 elephants. Virtually there are no other land animals in the animal watching areas or elsewhere in the park. There are a few flyers such as the Mal Koha but confined to tree growth areas of the Walawe river banks. Top half’s of the grazing elephants only are visible, unless you encounter them an early morning on the tract roads, and get attacked in the process.

Here one can never picture out a family of more than five or six elephants, as most of them are translocated animals from elsewhere. For most of them it not their ‘home tract’. This is the reason why some of them are most unruly. The mana grass in the park is so tall that the young are rarely visible. An elephant can be located miles away by a black patch. There are no trees at a visible sight distance. Ninety nine per cent of the park is of regained chena or by plantation land. There are no shade tracts for miles and hence most unsuitable as an elephant habitat. This, and the fact that there a only a handful of "clan herds", are the two main reasons why procreation is at the minimum level here. In addition to this, authorities are also foolish enough to release the grown ups from the elephant orphanage at Uda Walawe to the park without proper follow up studies of habitat adoptation of the released.

During the Rohana occupation, this and Yala west & east were prime paddy growing lands of the Pahala Wellassa. Similarly the Maduruoya and the Wasgamuwa land areas, during the Polonnaruwa period.

It is time that we formulate our own conservation strategies to suit local conditions and specie requirements. We can no more sacrifice the requirements of the poor just to satisfy the World Conservation Fund or the World Wide Fund for Nature or a few arm chair conservationists of N.G.O. Let us find ways and means of retrieving to the indigenous poor masses their due right to own and cultivate this wide expanse of arable land which had been disproportionately confined to the species.

Most of the countries of the world both of the east and the west have set apart their "marginal lands" for wildlife conservation. Most of the land animals other than the elephants such as samber, leopard, deer, pigs, bear etc. and a host of minor species can be protected and adopted in the thorn-scruby dry high land belts in the NCP which are naturally poor for agricultural exploitation.

Flyers and waders can be confined to 3 or 4 coastal and inland sanctuaries of which we have a sufficient number.

Confine the "Villu Aliya" or the bigger asian type of the NCP to the Lahugala and Gal Oya nationl parks. The very limited Maduru Oya and Wasgamuwa herds can also be translocated to the Gal Oya National Park and or the Minneriya. The land area in these three parks totalling to over 160 sq km is sufficient to accommodate the 600 to 650 population therein.

The present population in the Wilpattu is far too disproportionate to land area of 508 sq miles and hence the park can be confined to the north east bordering the sea coast; i.e. about 200 sqmiles and retrieve the balance for agricultural development. From the Vijaya period up to the Anuradhapura reign this area was under the earliest agricultural settlements on the banks of Malwatu Oya.

Confine the Ruhuna herds to the Yala East National Park which is about 70 sq miles. Even now only 52 sq miles of the Ruhuna West are set apart for animal watching. Here about 300 sq km can be regained for agricultural purposes. In fact all agricultural settlements during the Magama period were confined to this area. The Uda Walawe herd to be confined to the right bank foot hills range and retrive the left bank lands.

A montane nature reserve (3000-7700 elevation) can be created embracing the Adams Peak reserve, the Horton Plains, and stabilise the once lived "Kuru Aliya" or the mountain elephant, the smallest species of the Asian counterpart here.

Sinharaja Reserve to be untouched as a flora reserve and original rain forest, with special emphasis on small fauna such as insects and also ferns.

Create a coastal lagoon reserve in the west coast for the conservation of the vanishing coastal flora and small fauna, which is the habitat of the hog deer and the estuarine crocodile.

Create a number of marine reserves both in the eastern and western coasts where living corals exist. It not necessary that of conservation park should be opened for public animal watching.

With the above, it is also possible to thin out the elephant population to about a manageable 1000. This can be done regularly by capture for domestication, peraheras, tourism purposes etc. It would be wiser also to regularly, sell for domestication, the orphans brought up at the present Uda Walawe Elephant Orphanage. After four or five years of virtual domestication they are unsuitable for "jungle clan affiliation". Such periodical sales can also bring in the required funds to maintain the orphanage.

Hereby we will not only be able to minimise the existing human-elephant conflict, but also develop a manageable conservation agenda. Most beneficial of all, is the relief that can be brought about to the poor agricultural farmer by way of decreasing the scarcity of arable land suitable for both paddy and directly eatable crops, and thereby uplifting his economic standards.

In whatever form we advocate intensive agriculture for higher yields, there will come a time when we have to be ready with a further one tenth of effective arable land mainly for paddy cultivation, to meet the increasing demand for the staple food — rice. Let us not foget that increasingly, we are sacrificing, paddy land, for buildable purposes, loosing another five percent due to fallowness, on account of silting of water sources and another 3 to 4 per cent for more profitable highland eatable cropping. For another two to three generations to come we will have to look to the land for our survival.