Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)
HOROWPATHANA ELEPHANT HOLDING GROUND : AN UNSUCCESSFUL INITIATIVE If an EHG is to be established, it must be based on scientific information. The EHG in Horowpathana is approximately 1,000 ha in size
Horowpathana also includes an Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) to cater to problem elephants and was established in 2015. Recently, speculation was rife that ‘Rambo’ an elephant from Uda Walawe National Park would be translocated to the Horowpathana Ehg.according to the DWC this site is home to around 55 elephants brought from different parts of the country and 15 of them have died over the past 5-6 years. Sharing his concerns with the Daily Mirror, wildlife conservationist and former Director-general of DWC Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya spoke on why elephant holding grounds have been unsuccessful, why electric fences are the best available barriers and the importance of educating people.
Excerpts: Q What was the objective of setting up the elephant holding ground in Horowpathana?
As I understand, the objective of establishing a holding ground is to translocate “problem elephants” away from the areas they are creating problems and keep them in the holding ground to prevent these elephants from creating further problems to humans. An Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) is detrimental to elephant conservation and management. However, the main purpose of establishing an EHG is to satisfy social/community and political pressure on DWC to do something to contain problem elephants. While I don’t agree with the objective of an EHG, I sympathise with DWC as it endures tremendous pressure from communities and politicians to remove problem elephants from local areas.
If an EHG is to be established, it must be based on scientific information. The EHG in Horowpathana is approximately 1,000 ha in size. Since problem elephants are to be translocated to this site, it is obvious that this EHG has to be designed to hold a high density of elephants. Therefore, the first step is to select a site with the right habitat to hold a high density of elephants. Scientific data shows that the density of elephants in primary/secondary forests is about 0.2 elephants per sq. km while the density of elephants in grasslands/scrub jungle is around 3 elephants per sq. km. If this is the case, the site for the EHG should be predominantly grasslands and scrub jungle with some sections of primary/secondary forest for shade for the elephants. However, the EHG in Horowpathana comprises predominantly primary/secondary forest as you may have seen during your visit. So the site selected for an EHG in Horowpathana is suitable to hold low density of elephants and it is being used to hold high density of elephants. Therefore, there isn’t adequate food to cater to a high density of elephants in this site. If there is inadequate food, there is one of two things that would happen. (i) elephants will try to escape from the site; or (ii) a majority who cannot escape will starve to death. The problems that DWC have faced at Horowpathana are due to this. So it was inevitable Horowpathana was biased to fail as an EHG.
The next question is why the DWC selected such a site if they knew that they were going to use it for holding a high density of elephants. Actually, the DWC did not propose Horowpathana as the site for the EHG. They proposed another site. But there was a political decision behind the EHG being located in Horowpathana. Unfortunately, it is the elephants that have been paying the price of this ill-informed political decision. The Horowpathana EHG is a case in point as to why the politicians should not interfere and let professionals make technical decisions based on science.
Q There aren’t many electric fences in Horowpathana except in private lands. But even existing elephant fences in other parts of the country haven’t been successful. What are the alternatives ?
Electric fences are the best available barriers at present AS LONG AS THE FENCES ARE IN THE RIGHT LOCATION AND IT IS MAINTAINED WELL. The main reason for the failure of fences has been that it is in the wrong location and it is not maintained well. We must remember that electric fences are NOT for boundary demarcation but it is to keep humans and elephants separate. So fences should not be located on administrative boundaries such as between DWC and Forest Department land. Elephants travel based on the ecology so fences should be on the ecological boundary—the boundary that separates forest from developed areas. Basically, we should erect fences around what we are trying to protect. What are we trying to protect? People, housing and crops! Therefore, the electric fences should be erected around villages to protect people and houses and around crop lands. Dr. Pritiviraj Fernando and his team at the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) has undertaken community based permanent village and seasonal agricultural fences in the Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee and Hambantota Districts. These pilot projects are operating successfully. Delegations from India, Malaysia and Myanmar have visited these pilot projects and adopted the lessons learnt in human-elephant conflict mitigation in their countries. Representatives of 13 African countries visited these pilot sites in Sri Lanka in 2017 to learn from these experiences. Currently the Global Wildlife Programme of the World Bank is in the process of developing a guidebook based on these models to further disseminate the findings. It is sad to note that we in Sri Lanka are yet to learn from the experiences of these successful projects.
Q Already five people in this area have died this year due to HEC. What suggestions do you have to curb this issue in areas with a heavy elephant population?
From our experience of trying to limit elephants to confined areas—dwc protected areas and EHGS have not been successful even though we have been trying this for the last 60 years. Therefore, I think it is time to consider alternative approaches without trying different versions of the same failed solution. We have been trying to make elephants do what we want for all this time and failed. Don’t you think that if we understood elephants and their behaviour better and try to work around them, we may have a greater chance for success? We need to understand the elephants ranging patterns and erect fences accordingly. Electric fences should be erected on the ecological boundaries when there is adequate contiguous forests and erect community based village and seasonal agricultural fences to protect people, property and crops.
Q We also observed large areas cleared and burned for chena cultivations. How successful have community based conservation approaches been with regard to executing coexistence with elephants?
In my opinion, if communities are properly educated and made aware of elephants and their behaviour, coexistence with elephants will not be a problem. If you visit any “purana gama” or adivassi/veddah community, they would tell you that they have no conflict with elephants. They know how to behave with elephants sharing their landscape and have been coexisting with elephants for centuries. Sri Lanka developed massive irrigation schemes since the 1950’s and relocated people from elsewhere to the command area of these irrigation schemes. HEC is noticeably prevalent within these communities who comprise a large population in the dry zone. These communities do not understand how to coexist with elephants. But this is easily addressed with education and awareness, which has not been done on any measurable scale.
I believe Sri Lanka faces a huge problem with deforestation. Uncontrolled clearing of forests have resulted in adverse environmental consequences. Unfortunately, this is done largely with political patronage and has been going on for the past couple of decades. Climate change is a main impact of deforestation. The first signs of climate change are more intense and severe weather events—such as more intense rainfall, floods and droughts. We in Sri Lanka are already feeling the impacts of climate change, based on the fact that we are already feeling the impacts of intense weather events.
So deforestation in Sri Lanka has to be stopped. We seem to be focused on increasing the land area for agricultural production. But what we should be doing is focusing on is improving the yield per acre which is quite low in Sri Lanka at present. The Government could achieve its objective of increased agricultural production through this approach. I feel this should be done first before expanding land areas for agriculture. This message should be conveyed strongly by our political leaders.
Q Around 189 elephants have died this year due to HEC. What kind of holistic approaches are needed to mitigate this issue, now that the environment is already under threat?
The President has appointed a Presidential Committee to develop an HEC mitigation action plan. The committee is multi-sectoral and comprises all the relevant professionals. The committee is expected to submit its Action Plan to the President by the first week in October. As a member of this committee, I know that the committee will provide a holistic, strategic approach with practical recommendations of how to mitigate the human elephant conflict. The committee will be recommending solutions that have been tried and tested successfully on a pilot basis. But as a committee, we can only recommend what needs to be done. Implementing the recommendations is the Government’s job— whether this will be done or not is questionable, based on past experience. But since this is the first time that the President of the country has personally requested that this issue be addressed, we are very confident that the recommendations of the committee will be implemented fully.
If communities are properly educated and made aware of elephants and their behaviour, coexistence with elephants will not be a problem. If you visit any “purana gama” or adivassi/veddah community, they would tell you that they have no conflict with elephants
Electric fences should be erected on the ecological boundaries when there is adequate contiguous forests and erect community based village and seasonal agricultural fences to protect people, property and crops