Conservation or murder? Cabinet approves the purchase of 2567 AK47s for the DWC

Wednesday, 5 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Wildlife & Nature 

Protection Society

Based on a Memorandum dated 18 July submitted by the Minister of Sustainable Development, Wildlife and Regional Development on a ‘Proposed new plan for resolving the Elephant-Human Conflict,’ the Cabinet of Ministers approved Cabinet Paper No. 18/1604/844/002.

Among other things, including the construction of an additional 2651 Km of electric fencing (Proposal 1) to make the total length of fences in Sri Lanka a staggering 7000 Km, is the purchase of 2567 AK47s (Annexure 3). Why would the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) require such an arsenal of weaponry; to shoot elephants or people?

The right thing to do

Of the many Government Departments, almost 100, there is only one that has the mandate to look after the interest of Sri Lanka’s wild animals – the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Yet, the favourite phrase of most incumbent Ministers who have responsibility for it, when turning a blind eye to the illegal encroachments into protected areas, as sponsored by their political colleagues, or in erecting ‘crazy fencing’, is that “the people must be looked after”. 

True…and that is what the other 99 plus departments should do! The Ministry for Wildlife should do just that – look after wildlife! Instead, the winds blow towards the political needs of whichever politician is foisted on them.

The answer is not to increase the number of kilometres of fencing but to reposition the existing fencing to places where they will have the greatest effect in reducing Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC), thereby preserving the life of both elephants and humans. For this, strategic fencing is necessary. 

Over 70% of wild elephants live outside of protected areas which is where most of the HEC takes place. Surely, if the priority is to protect people, then the fencing should be around their villages and cultivations? This way, the elephants can wander on their traditional paths within Forest Department (FD) and DWC protected areas and not intrude into the lives of the people who live in villages. But why the guns?

Science must 

lead the way

Electric fencing is the best option available, at present, to prevent elephants moving from one place to another but they have to be in the right places! 

Electric fences are most effective when erected on ecological boundaries, as elephant range is based on ecological needs. A map of the existing electric fences shows many that are haphazardly placed, with no seeming rhyme or reason and others, most dangerously, placed between DWC land and FD land, traditional homes of the elephant, movement between the two being vital for their long-term survival. 

Invariably, further investigation reveals that these fences were erected at the behest of the local politician of the area, as endorsed by whoever was in charge of Wildlife at the time. Political expediency rather than the results of scientific research and conservation necessity determined the placement of the fences. This is why, despite there already being 4,000Km of electric fencing, that HEC is showing no signs of decline. 

Cut off from food and water, elephants will search for them to stay alive. Often, deprived of their traditional migratory routes due to this ‘crazy fencing’, they will make new paths through villages. So, this new plan, and its guns, must be to shoot these elephants when they try.

A policy that can 

save lives

Strategic fencing is just one proposal of many that are included in a document called ‘The National Policy for the Conservation and Management of the Wild Elephant in Sri Lanka,’ which was developed in 2006 and updated in 2016, by the DWC with the assistance of all relevant stakeholders including elephant researchers. Yet, it has spent most of its time on a shelf in the relevant Ministry. One of the reasons may be that once adopted into statute, it will be that much harder to breach, and relevant Ministers will find it more difficult to placate their colleagues or take arbitrary decision to woo popular appeal. It also has in it, proposals that would make it that much tougher for anyone to steal baby elephants from the wild.

Instead, we now have this – a policy to shoot elephants; the approximate 4,000 that live, and have lived for centuries, in co-existence with humans! They will have to be driven into protected areas, that is from 40% of the national landscape into just 18%, which are already at their carrying capacity for elephants. Elephants will then either starve to death or be shot trying to break out to find food and water. 

Their blood, and those of the additional humans who may also die due to the inevitable escalation of HEC, will be on the heads of the Cabinet of Ministers who have approved this measure…while, no doubt, the official and other may have well-publicised religious ceremonies for every elephant and human so murdered.

The only way forward

There is huge cost in erecting electric fencing, not to mention the other issues which often plague large public sector spending in Sri Lanka. Once erected, they also have to be maintained at considerable ongoing cost. On the contrary, village fencing and seasonal agricultural fences require far less money, and the villagers and farmers themselves will take the responsibility for this. This is a major proposal of the aforementioned Policy.

As an urgent priority, the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS) urges the Government to gazette and then implement the National Management Policy for the Conservation of the Wild Elephant, without any further amendment. 

Even if we take away the ethical, cultural and aesthetic reasons for the conservation of the elephant, it is an undeniable fact that they are also a source of enormous revenue to this country. History will condemn those who allow the wild elephant to disappear from Sri Lanka, especially for the sake of short-term politics…or possibly in this case, for the personal political benefit of a few. Most recent timelines for initiatives seem to be a magical 18 months and often hurried through.

(At 124 years, the WNPS is the third oldest Non-Governmental Organisation of its kind in the world. It was responsible for the setting up and administration of the first National Parks in Sri Lanka, and was a major force in the setting up of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. It hopes to continue this partnership with likeminded Governments, departments, political and civil leaders, and NGOs, as it fights to cling on to the last of our precious wilds.)