The year 2019 marked the worst year for human-elephant relations, with 405 elephant deaths at the hands of humans and 121 human deaths by elephants. Most deaths were due to human encroachment of traditional elephant regions, fragmentation of their territory, the use of their territory for development and for illegal activities, thereby depriving elephants of their natural feeding and movement – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Around a month ago, residents of Walsapugala village in Hambantota started a protest demanding a solution to the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in the area. They demanded that the Government issue the gazette notification regularising the proposed wild elephant reserve in Hambantota. The protest was launched by farmers representing 86 farmer organisations in the area.
When the Government failed to respond, three of the farmers decided to fast unto death. By 22 January two out of three farmers engaged in the fast-unto-death had to be hospitalised.
Although a few Parliament members and ministers visited the protesters, they all failed to settle the issue. The Minister Chamal Rajapaksa promised them the gazette within a month, but the protest is continuing. On 6 February, TV news reported that on the previous night an elephant arrived near the protesters and had to be chased away.
Hambantota Area Development Plan: 2019-2030
Decades ago, Hambantota was poorly populated, the region was an animal habitat, but the development of the new city resulted in 20,000 acres of land used by wild elephants being allocated to development activities. This has resulted in the death of 31 elephants and 15 humans (with eight more villagers disabled for life) in the past three years.
The development of Hambantota Port and associated work attracted a large population into the area. With the loss of their habitats the elephants had no option but to invade food crops cultivated by farmers, resulting in conflict situations. The Greater Hambantota Plan proposes setting up a separate zone for wild elephants, with 1,500 hectares reserved from the Municipal Council area.
The development plan prepared jointly by Hambantota Municipal Council and Urban Development Authority - Southern Province was approved under the signature of Patali Champika Ranawaka as the Minister for Megapolis and Western Development and gazetted on 2 February 2020 under 1639/12.
The document indicates the land use plan for Hambantota Port, industrial, administrative, services and support areas along with allocation for various development sectors. The Development Plan proposes moving the existing Hambantota town to Siribopura. The plan highlights the possible Human-Elephant Conflict and proposes steps for sustainable existence of both parties.
The proposed Hambantota development regions, enclosed between two circular roads, but not developed yet, have confined the elephants in the area. There are around 20 elephants trapped within the 2,500 acre territory. But no solution has been proposed.
The villagers demand the gazetting of the proposed Elephant Management Reserve. They point out that the proposed reserve is part of the forest that connects Bibile, Udawalawe and Bundala as a single forest, allowing elephants to roam freely.
The death of humans and elephants
Wildlife officers in 2020 reported deaths of four humans and 10 elephants in Hambantota and Sooriyawewa District Secretariat area alone, with Walsapugala village facing the brunt of the problem. When locals’ pleas went unheard, they had no option but to protest demanding gazetting the proposed Wild Elephant Management Reserve.
Under the proposals elephants would be confined to Bundala Sanctuary and the proposed Elephant Management Zone.
Bundala Sanctuary is located within the Hambantota Municipal Council area, 334 acres in extent and borders the sea in the south, separated by sand dunes and the existing Hambantota-Kataragama road to the north.
The Bundala sanctuary consists of a complex ecosystem and was declared as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1969, a National Park in 1993 and the first wetland system in Sri Lanka under the 1991 Ramsay Wetland Statute. It was also declared a Biodiversity Reserve in 2005 by UNESCO. The sanctuary is the only national park in the country declared under the Ramsay Declaration and many endemic birds and migrated birds have attracted local and foreign tourists. The region is also a habitat for endangered tortoises and is being conserved as part of the ecosystem.
Elephant Management Zone
The development projects in Hambantota have resulted in the loss to the animals of 20,000 acres; the Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve aims to remedy some of these issues as proposed by the Department of Wildlife.
The land reserved for the Elephant Management Zone (EMZ) is an open forest area, remaining as bare land with thorny bushes. The adjoining lands are occupied by locals engaged in agriculture. The EMZ comes under Grama Niladari divisions of Gonnoruwa and Koholankala. The zone 1,500 hectares in extent, within the Hambantota Municipal Council area, expects minimisation of wild elephant/human conflict and protect agricultural crops in adjoining areas. The proposed Elephant Management Zone is a part of the Greater Hambantota Plan that has earmarked 8,000 hectares of land for the circulation of 400 wild elephants, of which 1,500 Ha comes under the Hambantota Municipality area.
The plan proposes separating the region from villagers, by construction of a live-fence by growing lemon, bougainvillea and hana trees in a zigzag manner around the site to minimise conflicts.
However, the EMZ is crossed by the Hambantota-Kataragama road, also the Hambantota-Gonnoruwa-Meegahajandura road. The roads obstruct elephant crossings would result accidents between vehicles with elephants, a common occurrence in the region.
Underpasses for elephants
The project plan proposes a series of semi-connected small bridges each 20 feet wide opening and 20 foot high clearance. Next bridge would be 20 to 25 feet away and the series of openings would continue for 1.5 km.
There would be an underpass on the Hambantota-Kataragama road and another on Hambantota-Gonnoruwa-Meegahajandura road, allowing elephants and other animals to move from one region to the other.
Although the Elephant Management Zone was proposed, approved and gazetted under the Hambantota Municipal Council Area Development Plan: 2019-2030, nothing happened beyond that. Meanwhile, lands under the proposed zone are being allocated to private companies and individuals under various guises, reducing the land allocated to elephants.
It was reported that 2,000 acres extending from Gonnoruwa to Buruthakanda encompassing a number of lakes have been released for so-called development work. In addition, 500 acres were cleared for the Buruthakanda solar power plant. The construction of a ‘Solar Village’ near Valaspugala and Divulpalassa has affected 300 more acres.
Also, the corridor taken by elephants from Gonnoruwa to the Bundala wildlife sanctuary has been wiped off due to deforestation.
Land grabbing by Mahaweli Authority
The Mahaweli Authority took over lands in the Walawa development areas under its authority in 1981, resulting in around 40% of Hambantota District coming under the Mahaweli Authority.
It is claimed 2,000 acres adjoining Hamuduru Wewa, between Sooriya Wewa and Pahala Andara Wewa, have been illegally cleared for a banana cultivation. The lands has been fenced off electrically, disrupting the lives of elephants who used to frequent the area.
Also the Mahaweli Authority has released certain lands between the Proposed Elephant Reserve and Madunagala to locals, resulting in the isolation of 18 to 20 elephants, heightening the Human-Elephant Conflict in the area.
The environmental organisations and the public are concerned about the apathy and the silence of the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Central Environmental Authority, the Divisional and District Secretariat of Hambantota, and of course the Mahaweli Authority.
Worsening human-elephant relations
The year 2019 marked the worst year for human-elephant relations, with 405 elephant deaths at the hands of humans and 121 human deaths by elephants.
Most deaths were due to human encroachment of traditional elephant regions, fragmentation of their territory, the use of their territory for development and for illegal activities, thereby depriving elephants of their natural feeding and movement.
President’s ‘Discussion with the Village’
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa started visiting villages, taking a break from routine office-work and meetings. His first visit was the Neluwa-Lankagama road development, to connect Lankagama located within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and lived in by 700 families. Tea cultivation is the main livelihood of villagers who deliver tea leaves to factories in Neluwa, Deniyaya.
The President, having instructed officials to complete the road early, had discussions with the locals. The locals complained to the President of the problems with Government officials who claim the tea cultivations are within the forest reserve.
The President ordered the officials to halt prosecution of villagers who cultivate tea, also allow them entering reserve lands for kithul tapping without violating environmental regulations.
President’s continued visits
The President continued his visits to Haldummulla in Badulla District in September and Wilgamuwa, Matale District in October. In each meeting locals got an opportunity to discuss their problems with the President. Most of their issues were poor access roads, poor facilities in schools where the President ordered immediate action.
Most villagers had land issues as they were occupying Government reservations illegally. They were engaged in tea growing and kithul tapping inside forests. The President’s reaction was the same, leave the villagers alone.
The President in the dry zone
The President’s visit to Kanugahawewa in Kebethigollawa located 73 km away from Anuradhapura raised different problems. Locals complained that they lost their traditional lands due to terrorist activities. Now they and others in surrounding villages are engaged in paddy and chena cultivation, but their farming lands are marked as reserves by Wildlife and Forest Departments, making it difficult for the people to cultivate. The threat of wild elephants is another issue faced by the villagers.
The President, with a soft corner for war displaced, stated that the Government’s and his policy is to develop agriculture on priority basis and instructed officials not to disturb cultivation activities of people making a living from agriculture.
Also highlighted to the President is although the cattle farmers produced 130,000 litres of milk, the shortage of grassing lands in the area. The President issued instructions to the officials to allow dairy cattle grazing in the surrounding areas of the forest reserves. But the President’s instructions raised a number of issues.
The President also directed officers of the Wildlife Department and Forest Departments to resolve legal cases filed against people involved in farming in protected areas.
State Minister’s indecency
In November 2020, in Polonnaruwa area, State Minister of Wildlife Protection, Forest Resource Development Wimalaweera Dissanayake had an argument with wildlife officers, when they refused to follow his order that villagers be allowed to graze their cattle inside the wildlife sanctuary.
The incident was shown on TV, with the Minister yelling at officers menacingly in full public view. He attempted to force the officers to violate the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Thankfully, he failed in his endeavour.
During a President’s visit to Thanamalwila in early February, members of environmental groups highlighted that a number of ruling party politicians and their henchmen have cleared around 400 acres of forest inside the Dahaiyagala wildlife sanctuary purportedly for agricultural purposes. They requested the President to stop the clearing of the forest reserve immediately.
Dahaiyagala sanctuary, a connecting corridor between Udawalawa and Lunugamvehera National Parks, was gazetted in 2002, allowing elephants to travel between sanctuaries. The President questioned how the corridor could be opened when people are settled there, saying it was not practical. The President ordered to release the lands to people and de-gazette the sanctuary.
Misinterpretation of President’s vision
The President too has realised that his vision has been misinterpreted by other politicians and those wishing to modify to their advantage. This was evident when the President visited Deraniyagala on 6 February, when villagers requested a three km new road be built through the forest. The President turned down the request claiming, “I cannot agree without consulting environmental experts.”
Motorcyclist killed by elephants
A recent full page article in a Sinhala newspaper described that a motorcyclist had been killed by elephants. His wife revealed that the cyclist was employed in looking after a herd of cattle 20 km inside the forest, he slept in the forest and came home every four days.
On his travel to work, after a sharp curve he had encountered the elephants suddenly and had been attacked, resulting in death. A case where open grasslands inside the forests meant for elephants and other animals are exploited by cattle raisers.
Flood retention in National Park
The park created in 1984 as a national park located in Mahaweli flood plain is considered a rich feeding ground for elephants. During heavy rains with flood waters from Mahaweli, the park goes under water, while getting fertilised. In the dry season, small water-holes referred as ‘villus’ provide water for the animals. Recently, villagers in bordering areas have shown an inclination to invade the park for cultivation and feeding their cattle.
Having learnt locals are attempting to invade the p, Wildlife and Forest Conservation officers had a discussion with the District Secretary and agreed not to allow locals into the park and to take legal action against those already in the park.
Now, the locals have started a protest demanding cultivation rights and to allow their cattle into the park.
Veddah Chief goes to Court
Maize is considered an important crop used for chicken feed and the Government expects to increase production. It was reported that 2,600 acres of forests had been released to an investor for maize cultivation. As maize is only a three-month crop it is not clear how the land would be used during the remaining period.
The developer had already cleared over 200 acres, but the release of lands has been challenged in courts by none other than the Veddah chief, over the deforestation of their traditional habitats. He is assisted by the Centre for Environmental Justice.
The President’s love and concern for rural villagers and reaching self-sufficiency in agricultural products are misunderstood by most, including local politicians, businessmen and also some villagers, who manipulate the President’s words for their own advantage, to invade forests. Villagers with poor employment opportunities foresee better living by cultivating forest lands.
The country is almost self-sufficient in rice; regarding maize, if every paddy farmer cultivates Maha and Yala on time, they could cultivate maize and harvest prior to oncoming rains. These along with maize cultivated in highlands could make the country self-sufficient. Turmeric could be same.
Thus destroying forests and flood-plains is not essential for food self-sufficiency, but excess production would raise other issues. But the President is in a hurry due to the foreign exchange crisis, a situation exploited by others.
Establishing the Elephant Management Zone in Hambantota as discussed would open an excellent opportunity to resolve the crisis. The locals are concerned about their safety from elephants, thus the area needs to be gazetted as demanded by protesters.
The proposed area needs to be electrically fenced, as establishing the live fence would take years. But when a large herd of elephants is confined to a limited area, their food will be an issue. Thus invaded villages and businesses would need to be relocated outside. Also, thorny invasive plants which are common in the area need removal, in addition to planting of trees consumed by elephants.
The underpasses for elephants is a new idea and needs implementing early as construction would take minimum one year. The underpass would have the benefit of allowing tourists to observe the elephants. The idea itself could be applied at other locations especially on highways, eliminating elephant deaths.
Degazetting wildlife corridors would encourage more villagers into the corridor. Elephants would not be aware of degazetting and will continue on paths used over generations, resulting in escalating elephant and also human deaths. Resolving the crisis requires relocating of villagers occupying elephant corridors into safer locations.
Everyone need to realise that forests, wildlife sanctuaries, rivers and lakes do not belong to those who live near them; they are national assets to be protected for the benefit of future generations. Elephants and Veddahs were here long before Prince Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka.