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Homogeneous human habitat vital - Sunday Observer Paper Cutting

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Author Topic: Homogeneous human habitat vital - Sunday Observer Paper Cutting  (Read 263 times)
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« on: October 23, 2010, 07:37:35 am »

Today humans have lost the fascinating symbiosis they had with elephants over generations. Human ancestors fearlessly crossed the thick jungles, the home of the Sri Lankan elephant. Yet today, there are media reports on human deaths due to the human elephant conflict. Does this mean elephants have become a threat to human existence?

According to statistics of the Department of Wildlife, in 2008 elephants killed 30 people and 50 in 2009. In 2010 up to September 30, the number of people killed by elephants is 60.

Looking at the main causes for human deaths in Sri Lanka according to statistics of the Ministry of Health, 39,321 cases of snake bites and 91 deaths have been reported in 2007.

Around 100 deaths and 39,793 cases of snake bites were reported in 2006. Looks like a large number! Then, did you know that 2054 people have died due to liver diseases in 2007 and 1,888 have died in 2006. Deaths due to diseases in liver was 2,695 in 2003, 2,631 in 2004 and 2,274 in 2005.

Accordingly, due to Ischaemic heart diseases 3,762 people have died in 2005, 4,125 in 2006 and another 4,536 in 2007. In comparison it is obvious that elephants are not bringing devastation to the human population as many illnesses do.

The elephant is the insignia of the evergreen environment and a deep rooted culture. To a Sri Lankan, a Perehera is never complete without a retinue of elephants.

Yet, today the humans and elephants conflict has aggravated. The reason is mainly due to the loss of habitat caused by fragmentation of land for needs of humans. Encroaching the limited elephant habitat by humans is making this majestic beast homeless.

Forest
The Sri Lankan Elephant, ‘Elephas maximus maximus’ once roamed in every eco-region of this island nation from the cloud forests of the montane regions to the lowland rainforests and the dry zone forests.

These majestic beasts, the largest of the Asian Elephant genus, today live in the rainforests and the dry zone forests.

As historical records depict the dwarf elephant that lived in the montane forests are reported to have gone extinct as a result of the hunting games of British Colonists.

In the colonial era montane forests became popular game parks of the British and one of the well-known one was the Horton Plains.

Today killing an elephant carries a death penalty. Even those days people believed killing the majestic and intelligent beast would bring God’s curse to the hunter.

As history records Major Thomas Roger, a British hunter who killed over 1,400 elephants in Montane cloud forests for entertainment, died struck by lightening. People believe that Gods punished Rogers. Even after his death his broken tomb stone behind the Nuwara Eliya cemetery had been struck by lightening twice.

Today in Sri Lanka killing elephants carry a death penalty.
Elephant habitat is restricted to few national parks and reserves specially in Udawalawe, Yala, Wilpattu, Minneriya and Kaudulla. The threat faced by Sri Lankan elephants is common to all Asian elephants. It is encroachment in to their habitats and ancestral moving tracks which are called as elephant corridors.

Conflict
“Translocating elephants that disturb human settlements never brought a solution to the human-elephant conflict though it was one of the solutions for the problem,” said Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja, Director General/ Wildlife, Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Economic Development Ministry. “Instead of ad hoc methods tried so far the Governments effort is to implement programs to improve the coexistence between humans and elephants,” Dr. Pathiraja said.

Elephants strictly follow their age old traditions when humans are comfortable in changing our heritage. Throughout their life, elephant herds mostly lead by the matriarch, trek only on these traditional paths.

In Sri Lanka herds are reported to have ‘nursing units’ consisting lactating females and their young as well as juvenile care units - which consists of females with juveniles.

Thus in such an over protective herd, the elephants sees only a villain in whatever obstruction they encounter in their traditional routes be it either a electric fence or a village.

Action plan
The Action Plan, a sustainable solution to the existing human-elephant conflict, drafted by Wildlife authorities under the purview of the Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, was handed over to President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently.

Authorities proposed in the Action Plan new methods such as hormone treatments and establishing holding grounds for wild elephants causing problems.

In its long, mid and short term solutions the Action Plan states that electric fencing to be introduced where necessary.

The Action Plan’s short-term recommendations specifies actions that will provide immediate relief from human-elephant conflict.

The mid term plan will help develop a comprehensive management strategy that will effectively address the human-elephant conflict and bring it down to manageable levels in selected areas.

The long-term action plan suggests strategies that will prevent the escalation of the conflict and its spread to other new areas. Authorities plan to appoint a task force to monitor the progress of the plan.

“While trying to save the humans it is equally important to protect the elephant habitats as well as their tracks.

Thus the action plan suggests directives to be introduced to combat encroachments into state lands for cultivation,” Dr. Pathiraja further said.

The human-elephant conflict has emerged as a result of factors such as the reduction of forest cover, planned and unplanned land based development activities, increase in the elephant population during the past decades thus the National Development plan under the Mahinda Chinthanaya has recognised the importance of solving the human-elephant conflict. A practical solution has been proposed to minimize the human-elephant conflict in consultation with relevant authorities, experts and other agencies.

According to the Action Plan, over 70% of elephants live outside the Wildlife Conservation Department’s protected areas. The loss to crop and property from elephant raiding has become a major socio-economic issue in a larger part of the dry zone. “Elephant drives and capture-transport in the current context are not effective in mitigating human-elephant conflict or conserving elephants,” said Dr. Pathiraja.

Earlier the two main methods of removing elephants from outside protected areas have been ‘elephant drives’ - removing elephant herds composed of females and young and the capture-transport of individual males in to protected areas. Yet at times monitoring of herds restricted to protected areas have shown that ‘successful’ drives are extremely detrimental to elephant conservation. The problem is that most adult males and some herds remain even after a elephant drive. It is observed that elephant herds and adult males can aggressive and will not fear crackers.

Elephants, particularly adult males who are captured and translocated, return to their habitat. Restricting elephants to protected zones resulted in setting up electric fences. In many cases the electric fence was put up between the Wildlife Conservation Department’s protected areas and the Forest Department lands as lands adjacent to protected areas mostly belong to the Forest Department.

Chena cultivation
The Action Plan indicates that nearly 50% of current electric fences are put up in this land. This has resulted in elephants living in both sides of the fence making the electric fence ineffective. The new approach suggests, the effective prevention of elephants entering in to developed areas, will be done by installing and effectively maintaining electric fences at the boundary between elephant conservation areas and developed areas. The recommendation is to construct village electric fences in affected areas to protect villages from elephant attacks. Identification of villages that are to be protected can be done through Divisional Secretariats via the ‘Gajamithuro’ program.

Currently chena cultivation is illegal in Sri Lanka as it is mostly done in state land. Chena lands support very high densities of elephants as a habitat with a high volume of food. ‘Pioneer species’ of plants grow rapidly in fallow chenas in the dry season and year round in these abandoned chenas. These pioneer species of plants are a important source of food for elephants and consequently chena land supports very high densities of elephants. Therefore, chena lands are of great importance to maintain large numbers of elephants.

The National Policy does not promote the expansion of chena practices as this conversion of forest to cultivating land is detrimental to the biodiversity in general. The recommendation is to preserve chena practice where it currently occurs, and prevent conversion of chena areas to permanent settlements and cultivations.

The Action Plan suggests that such areas should be administered as Managed Elephant Ranges where people will receive economic benefits linked to elephant conservation, compensation and protection from elephant depredation. It is also suggested that insurance and compensation to be reviewed in terms of prevailing market value and made accessible to the villagers.

Another suggestion in the Action Plan is to develop the elephant holding grounds as tourist attractions while continuously monitoring elephants.

Human-elephant conflict mitigation is one of the five components under the World Bank funded ‘Eco-Systems Conservation and Management Project’ (ESCAMP) jointly implemented by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Forest Department. The project will try out the approach advocated by the ‘National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants’ attempting to manage elephants both in and out of protected areas stretching over a five-year period.

Two areas have been identified in the Action Plan for this purpose - the greater Hambantota area in the South and the Galgamuwa area in the north-west.

The long-term Action Plan suggests preventing elephants entering into developed areas with permanent habitations and cultivations by installing and effectively maintaining electric fences at the boundary between elephant habitat and developed areas. The chena areas will be Managed Elephant Ranges, as stated earlier, with economic benefits linked to elephant conservation. Assessing alternate barriers such as biological fences and ditches, alternative crop protection methods are also considered.

Long-term plans
Developing elephant viewing tourism that benefits local communities is another suggestion in the Action Plan. In addition, information required for the mitigation plan will be collected countrywide through local authorities and the Gajamithuro program and will include data on the distribution and movement patterns of elephants and effectiveness of mitigation measures.

Data on elephant habitat use based on radio telemetry is essential to prevent unnecessary blockage to elephant movement patterns in the national development drive. An example of land- use planning taking into consideration elephant ecology, existing land use patterns, and needs of development is the zoning plan developed by the Urban developmental Authority (UDA) and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Strategic Environmental Assessment process for the greater Hambantota area.

The Action Plan suggests the involvement of direct agencies involved in developing land use plans, such as the Urban Development Authority (UDA), National Physical Planning Department (NPPD), Land-Use Policy Planning Division (LUPPD) of the Department of Agriculture, to take into account elephant presence when land-use planning is conducted.

The elephant distribution data necessary for this has to be obtained by the Department of Wildlife Conservation as stated in the mid-term Action Plans. The end result of any development in areas with elephants should be homogeneous human habitat with a hard boundary with elephant habitat.

As the Action Plan states, currently only a small number of tourists visit Sri Lanka for its wildlife, but Sri Lanka has the potential to be the premier wildlife tourist destination in Asia and elephants are an ideal ‘flagship species’ to achieve this. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world where elephants can be observed in wilderness.

It is pointed out in the Action Plan that implementing a system to control human - elephant conflict will allow Sri Lanka to continue to maintain the current population of Asian elephants that represent over 10% of the global population at a density very much higher than other Countries.

Instead of making elephants a burden to the country Sri Lanka can gain great economic benefit by promoting tourism based on elephant viewing and their co-existence with humans. Such approach will not only result a successful mitigation program for the human elephant conflict but will also provide relief for the poor villager from his burning socio-economic issues.
By Dhaneshi YATAWARA
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