Lunugamvehera: The creation of a new Elephant Graveyard

Tuesday, 5 January 2021 01:17 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Rohan Wijesinha

Reinforced concrete fence with steel cables


In 2006, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) drove approximately 260 elephants into the Lunugamvehera National Park to enable development to take place on the Left Bank of the Walawe River. The drive was allegedly to help reduce Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC).

The overwhelming majority of elephants who are involved in HEC are male elephants, mostly alone or in small groups. Over 95% of the elephants driven into Lunugamvehera were females, juveniles and babies. Sadly, with insufficient fodder, and by concentrating in areas around the electric fences that separated them from their traditional home ranges, most of them died of starvation. 

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Conservation and Research (CCR), a few months after the elephant drive, 71% of the farmers in the Walawe Left Bank development area said that HEC was the same or more severe after the drive. So one wonders what the drive achieved. 

A Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) was proposed for this region which would have helped resolve much of the problems by encouraging development in areas not frequented by elephants. That has yet to be implemented and the Mahaweli Authority is now leasing out large swathes of its land that had been identified to be a part of the MER, for private development. This proposal may remain as yet another nationally beneficial but politically inconvenient solution to the problem.

Elephant prisons

In 2013, in another politically motivated initiative, a 1,000 Hectare Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) for ‘problem elephants’ was established at Horowpathana. This location was of thickly forested land and unsuitable for elephants, who prefer grass and scrublands for foraging. There had been a previous such ‘holding ground’ created at Lunugamvehera using conventional electric fencing. This was soon breached by the elephants placed there, and was abandoned. This new stockade, however, had, in addition to the conventional fencing, reinforced concrete pillars with thick steel cables and was the first EHG of its kind in the world.

As politics dictated that it should be built, and the DWC is totally subject to political dictate, it could still have provided an ideal opportunity to measure the efficacy of such scheme. Regrettably, this was not done and all we know is that of the 60+ elephants placed there over the course of a few years, only 15 survived (as per the figures of the DWC), the rest either finding means of escape, or dying of starvation. 

It is also uncertain whether they all conformed to the label given them of ‘problem elephant’ as most were pointed out by those not qualified in elephant identification. Many may just have been at the wrong place at the wrong time, but just removing an elephant from the area placated local community and, most importantly, politician.


A return to Lunugamvehera

A Holding Ground is to be rebuilt at Lunugamvehera, but to the Horowpathana design. This was to be enabled by the Eco-system Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) funded by the World Bank, but even they withdrew when the DWC were unable to meet the basic standards of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) acceptable to the World Bank. 

A key deficiency of the EIA was that there was no information on the number of elephants that currently use the 3,500 hectare land which is within the National Park, and what would happen to these elephants when such a large area of their range is taken out for an EHG. Excluded from it, they will have to search for alternate sources of feed, most probably, outside of the National Park. HEC will increase in this already strained region. 

Nevertheless, and with political pressure, the DWC is soldiering on to build this ‘Elephant Prison’ with its own funds; public funds. In light of experience, should not a full evaluation be carried out on the efficacy of the failed Horowpathana EHG before committing Rs. 1 billion of public funds for another one? 

The Lunugamvehera NP is approximately 235 Km² in extant. The new Elephant Holding Ground is proposed to be 35 Km² in area. According to researchers, a single male elephant has a roaming range of 50-600 Km². Therefore, the area demarcated for the Holding Ground, though of considerable size, is less than the area normally used by a single male elephant. How many are the DWC planning to imprison in this space? They sent approximately 60 to Horowpathana! This adequately explains the high mortality rate there, and the fact that those elephants who could, escaped.

Who is in control?

The Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife Protection has instructed the DWC to construct an additional trench around the Holding Ground, six feet deep and four feet wide and with a nine foot backward incline so that no elephant can escape. Apart from the additional area to be taken away from the National Park for this trench, it will also ensure that any elephant that leaves the confines of the ‘prison’ dies, as the fall will surely kill them.

This is not the first time military solution has been proposed for the control of elephants. Under the previous regime, a Minister for Wildlife had recommended that all elephants be driven into protected areas and that fences, patrolled by armed Home Guards, be erected to ensure they remain within them by all means possible. No thought was given to the fact that they would soon starve to death and that with no opportunity for the exchange of gene pools, most other large animals would inevitably die too! 

Is an EIA required?

The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) requires that an EIA be conducted for any development, be it private or state, within one (1) mile from the boundary of a National Reserve. This is due to the fact that any development that takes place within this distance may have an adverse impact on wildlife, and their conservation, within the Reserve. Is it not, therefore, absolutely essential that an EIA be conducted for any development taking place within a National Reserve? 

Taking 3,500ha from the Lunugamvehera NP for the proposed EHG is akin to having a 3, 500 ha development project within the park as this land is no longer available for the wildlife remaining within it. With the trench being constructed, as directed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife Protection, any chance of other mammals having free range into and out of the EHG will also be precluded. 

The World Bank declined to fund the EHG due to shortcomings in the EIA and now it looks like the DWC will be constructing the EHG with public funds without an EIA. Does not the public have a right to know of the possible adverse impacts that may arise from this project, especially since their funds are being used for it?

There is a solution

The sad thing is that there have been scientific solutions to the issues raised by having wild elephants as a valued resource of the country. These have finally been enshrined in the DWC’s National Policy for the Conservation of the Wild Elephant in Sri Lanka. 

In addition, as one of his first acts in power, the President appointed a Task Force of relevant scientists and researchers to advise him on this matter and to develop a National Action Plan for HEC mitigation. Their report is awaiting presentation to him. Why not, as promised, let those who are qualified suggest solutions, based on years of research, experiment and concern for both elephants and people? 

The Government’s own Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) has advised that a solution is needed, and now, as Sri Lanka records the highest number of wild elephant deaths in the world. Let sense prevail and the future health and prosperity of this country be preserved…or would this be yet another situation where it would be of national benefit but, alas, politically inconvenient? 

(FEO is a non‐political, non-partisan organisation that provides a platform for connecting interest groups with a patriotic interest in safeguarding Sri Lanka’s natural heritage through conservation and advocacy.)