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Save the tuskers

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There is no denying that the long drawn human-elephant conflict is more nuanced than the general Colombo-centric discourse would have you believe. After all, the threat posed by wild elephants on crops and human lives is very real to the often-destitute farming communities living on the periphery of the various national parks. 

Of course, an argument can be made that humans have encroached on the territory of these untamed wild animals and therefore the status quo was inevitable, but the fact remains that there is no clearcut solution to this complex humanitarian issue that is ultimately a question of survival for countless underprivileged families.

On the other hand, there is the fact that elephants are an endangered species, and not nearly enough is being done to ensure their survival. Current estimates indicate that there are less than 3,000 elephants living in the wild in Sri Lanka – although a 2011 survey put the figure at 5,879. Either way, the number is abysmally low and is a far cry from the 12,000 to 14,000 gentle giants that freely roamed the jungles of Ceylon in the early 19th century.

While the drastic measures taken by the farmers in the face of the constant threat posed by wild elephants on their lives and livelihood are understandable, though obviously not desirable, there are other, far less defensible human interactions that are slowly but surely spelling doom for these majestic creatures.

The iconic Dala Poottuwa was killed in cold blood recently by poachers for his uniquely-crossed tusks. This elusive 50-year-old innocent took a bullet to the head for no other reason than plain human greed. There is simply no justification for this heinous crime. There is no justification for poaching, full stop. Quite apart from being a morally and ethically reprehensible act, the killing of animals, especially endangered species, for sport or financial gain – in the year 2017, at that – is bad for a number of practical reasons including wildlife based tourism.

That the Dala Poottuwa was already blind in one eye following a shooting incident six years ago only adds to gravity of the incident and what it represents, and amply demonstrates the callous and often cynical disregard some humans have for the lives of these imposing but otherwise harmless animals.

The Minister in charge of wildlife has said the parties responsible will be severely dealt with, with investigations now being carried out by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). While that is commendable, the real need of the hour is to amend the laws, which at present are weak, at best. Manpower shortages and other shortcomings at the Department of Wildlife Conservation need to be addressed with a sense of urgency that isn’t limited to rhetoric.

Environmentalists, too, have pointed out that officials appointed with the task of protecting elephants need to be given more teeth. Delays in prosecution, they say, have demoralised these officials and the laws are clearly in need of an upgrade.

Given that the number of tuskers – already a mere 5% of the total elephant population – is on the way down, it’s high time the Government prioritised this all-important goal.

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