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 Post subject: Elephant Conservation - An Overview
 Post Posted: Sat Jul 02, 2005 4:14 pm 
Elephant Conservation - An Overview


The Sri Lankan people have had a long association with the elephants . During the reign of the Sri Lankan kings over 2000 years ago elephants were caught, tamed and used in large numbers for the awesome construction work. Large palaces, temples and vast reservoirs had been built with the aid of elephants. Originally elephants all over the country except a few coastal areas and the Jaffna peninsular.

During the time of the Kandyan Kings who ruled in the central hills elephants were caught and tamed for manyuses. The Kings used them for war against invaders, ceremonial and religious occasions and even exported them to India, Burma and Egypt.

During this time there were a large number of elephants in the wild and the king was the only person who could capture wild elephants. With the Portugese capturing maritime provinces of the country, they introduced the kraal or Keddah method of capture practiced in India. The Dutch and the British, who conquered and ruled the country subsequently also continued the capture of elephants mainly by Kraaling. Though some of these elephants were used by the rules for domestic purposes they were mainly exported since there was a high demand for Sri Lankan elephant.

With the advent of the British, who subsequently ruled the whole country the elephant population was greatly reduced. The British indulged in elephant shooting as a sport and large number of elephants were destroyed. They declared elephant as an agricultural pest and armed the villagers with guns to protect their crops from elephants. They even paid a bounty for each elephant killed. British planters opening out jungles lands in the hill country to plant tea and coffee also shot elephants in the montane forests thereby driving the remnant herds down to the lowlands. There are no elephants in the hill country now. except a small herd that migrates occasionally.

Elephant population and distribution:

Prior to the large scale destruction of forests, elephants enjoyed wide distribution and good numbers throughout the island of Sri Lanka, from sea level to the highlands. Today, except for a small remnant population in the Peak Wilderness area, elephants are restricted to the lowlands, especially in the Dry Zone. Over the past 200 years, human land-use has forced the elephants from the wet and fertile regions of the south-west of the island to much drier regions.

With the exception of Wilpattu and Ruhuna National Parks, all other protected areas are less than 1,000 km2 in extent. Ten areas less than 50 km2 and hence may not be large enough to accommodate the annual home ranges of the elephant populations. This problem was overcome to a certain extent in the Mahaweli Development Area, by linking protected areas such as Wasgomuwa, Flood Plains, Somawathiya, and Trikonamadu resulting in an overall area of 117,194 ha (or 1,172 km2) of contiguous habitat for elephants. Following table shows the location of protected areas having elephants. However, about 70% of the elephants' range extends outside the protected areas, into agricultural areas.

Approximate number of elephants within the protected areas in Sri Lanka

Name Category Area (ha) *number (min-max)
1. Bundala National Park 6,216 80-100
2. Flood Plains National Park 17,350 50-100
3. Gal Oya National Park 62,936 150-200
4. Lahugala-Kitulana National Park 1,554 100-150
5. Maduru Oya National Park 58,850 150-200
6. Madhu Road/Mavillu Sanctuary 34,677 100-200
7. Minneriay-Giritale National Park 6,693 300-400
8. Peak Wilderness Sanctuary 22,380 50-60
9. Ruhuna National Park 126,782 300-350
10 Sinharaja National Heritage 8,864 0-10
11 Somawathiya National Park 37,762 50-100
12 Tirikonamadu Nature Reserve 25,019 200-250
13 Uda Walawe National Park 30,821 150-250
14 Victoria-Randenigala Rantambe Sanctuary 42,087 40-60
15 Wasgomuwa National Park 37,063 150-250
16 Wilpattu National Park 131,693 100-150
17 Yala East National Park 18,149 30-40

Total 668,896 2,000-2,870
*Almost all estimates are very approximate

The number of elephants in Sri Lanka today is but a fraction of what existed about a hundred years ago.

From a population well over 10000 elephants in 1796 the figure came crashing down to less than 2000 in the mid 20th century. Macky in 1973 estimated that there were 1600-2000 elephants in the island. Different figures were given by different people on the number of wild elephants.

During the first half of this century, Sri Lanka had some of the best, and probably the most wildlife conservation areas in Asia. Most of them were located in the low country Dry Zone, where human pressure was not serious enough to prevent the recovery of elephant numbers. The recovery was slow at first, but under the management of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the number of elephants seems to have picked up somewhat in the sixties. McKay (1973) estimated a minimum population size of between 1,600 and 2,200 animals, while Hoffmann (1977) suggested a much higher total of 4,000. Since then, conversion of wild lands may have resulted in a decline. Estimates of elephant numbers in the wild in Sri Lanka vary and they underline the difficulty of counting even such large animals in the dense and tangled vegetation. The Department of Wildlife Conservation carried out a survey of elephants in much of the safe areas of the island in June 1993, and arrived at a minimum of 2,000 elephants in the wild in the five regions: North-western, Mahaweli, Central, Eastern and Southern.

Today between 3,160 and 4,405 elephants are estimated to be present in Sri Lanka (Kemf & Santiapillai, 2000) of which between 2,000 and 2,870 occur largely in the protected areas. All these estimates may turn out to be underestimates, given the difficulty in counting elephants in the scrub forest. Therefore the carrying capacity may be high enough to maintain a population of 4,000-5,000 elephants. In addition, the number of elephants in captivity too has declined from about 670 in 1955 to anything between 400-600 today. The distribution of domesticated elephants is quite distinctive and does not overlap with that of the wild elephants. They appear to be confined to 14 smaller districts out of a total of 22, in the south-west quarter of the island.

Human-Elephant Conflict

With the reduction of their habitats elephant populations have broken up and some herds have got pocketed in small patches of jungle. With their movement restricted, especially when food and water resources are depleted, elephants wander into new cultivated areas, which was their former habitat, in search of food. Elephants find ready source of food in these cultivated areas, but Wild elephants are unwelcome neighbours in agricultural areas. With their large size and intemperate appetite, elephants can easily destroy the entire cultivation of a peasant farmer in a single night. Therefore the farmers look upon the elephant as a dangerous pest, and would rarely regret its disappearance from their area. Elephants are incompatible with peasant agriculture unless the damage they cause is compensated. Thus the conflict between man and elephant has become the most serious conservation problems facing the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in Sri Lanka, where a combination of deforestation, agricultural expansion, and human population growth has substantially reduced the habitat that was once available to the elephant. The ecological and social costs of clearing forests to resettle farmers have proved to be very high. Wild elephants have lost so much of their range in Sri Lanka that they are now being forced to prey upon the communities that have displaced them, and this has often been viewed as the crux of the human-elephant conflict. Since 1950, a minimum of 4,200 elephants may have perished in the wild as a direct result of the conflict between man and elephant in Sri Lanka. The conflict has escalated in the recent past: during the last decade alone, a total of 1,369 elephants were killed, of which the largest number (526 animals or 38.4%) were killed in the northwest.

Gunshot injuries account for 56% of the elephants killed the wild. Other causes of elephant mortality include electrocution (by being entangled with exposed naked wires left by farmers to protect their goods and chattels), poisoning, land mines, accidental fall into wells and abandoned gem pits, collision with vehicles (such as trains) and natural causes.

The highest number of elephants (164) were killed in 1997, followed by 162 in the year 2001, which translates into a rate of over 3.1 animals per week. Such a high rate of elephant mortality is unsustainable, given the relatively small population of wild elephants in the island. Of the 1,369 elephants that died in the conflict, 925 (or 67.6%) were bulls while 321 (or 23.4%) were females from family units. Such directed slaughter can greatly affect the sex ratio.

In most mammal populations, the not allowed ratio is biased in favour of the females as a result of the observed higher natural mortality rate in males, and it is especially so in such a polygynous species as the elephant, where there is often a “surplus” of males, given that one male alone can mate with several females. In such instances, the observed not allowed ratio is unlikely to be parity. In Sri Lanka, the average overall adult male:female sex ratio was found to be 1:3. But in certain areas in the north, as a result of the human-elephant conflict, the adult male to female sex ratio could be 1:7, indicating a greater loss of bull elephants. What is worrying is that in addition to the bulls, even cows and calves have also been killed in the conflict. If the slaughter of elephants continues unabated, there will be too few bulls left to ensure that all the available females are successfully mated. This will lead to a reduction in the rate of conception and a longer-inter calving interval .

In addition to the loss of elephants, a total of 536 people were killed by wild elephants in Sri Lanka between 1992 and 2001, of which 400 (or 74.6%) were males, 70 (or 13%) females and 66 (or 12.3%) were children. The northwest accounted for much of the human fatalities, with 231 deaths (or 43%).

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has identified several areas where the elephant-human conflict has become serious. These include Kotavehera, Kalegama, Navagattegama, Galgamuwa, Giribawa, Kahalle-Pallekele, Galewela, Pibidunugama, Galkiriyagama and Karuwalagaswewa in the northwest, Heen Ganga to Dumbara valley in the vicinity of Wasgomuwa National Park; Sigiriya-Habarana area in the Mahaweli area, and Ritigala-Kalawewa area.and Haldummulla, Uma Oya; the area between Lunungamvehera, Udawalawe and Bundala; Haltota-Haldummulla area north of Udawalawe National Park in the south.

Conservation measures adopted

1. Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict
Despite the growing concern over the escalation of human-elephant conflict, the problem is far from being resolved satisfactorily. Many techniques have been adopted to mitigate the conflict, and they include the use of thunder flashes, crackers, noise, etc but the elephants soon learn to ignore them as bluffs. Given the serious increase in the incidence of the human-elephant conflict in agricultural areas, the DWLC conducted a workshop to study the problem across the island, and identified three areas namely, the Northwest, Mahaweli and the South for appropriate action. The first National Workshop on Mitigating Human-Elephant Conflict was held in the Northwest to incorporate the views and concerns of government officials, NGOs, academics, biologists and the general public, and a number of recommendations were arrived at for implementation. Similar workshops are planned to be held in other regions.

2. Controlling ivory poaching
Given the rarity of tuskers in Sri Lanka, ivory poaching is not a major conservation issue. Nevertheless, some trade in ivory still goes on. Sri Lanka being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), has ordered that all elephant tusks and ivory carvings be registered with the Department. Only registered ivory can be sold domestically. In a recent survey carried out by Martin & Stiles (2002), it was found that 22 out of 113 antique/craft outlets sold ivory, even though vendors knew that it was illegal to sell it. Kandy has been identified as the centre for such illegal trade.

3. Establishment of new national parks
The DWLC has always subscribed to the view that conserving biodiversity within protected areas is an important part of sustainable development. The aim of DWLC has always been to develop an integrated system of parks, reserves and sanctuaries to achieve the objectives of wildlife conservation. Protected areas alone may not solve Sri Lanka’s conservation problems, but they will certainly go a long way towards achieving it. Given the small size of the island, and the scarcity of land, establishment of new conservation areas has to be justified on ecological as well as economical terms. It is therefore significant that Sri Lanka established a new National Park, the Minneriya National Park in 1998 for the sole purpose of safeguarding the large number of elephants that regularly move into this area attracted by the availability of water and grazing grounds. The DWLC has followed this up by proposing the nearby Kaudulla as the other National Park to be declared soon. In the South, Lunugamvehera has been declared a national park. The protection of these areas would greatly enhance elephant conservation.

4. Establishment of Elephant Corridors
The idea of a corridor to promote the movement of wild elephants from one area to another was first put forward in Sri Lanka in the 1950s, long before the concept became vogue in the conservation community in the west. Elephant corridors have become important today as forests are being converted to other land uses and elephant populations are fragmented into smaller units. The DWLC has identified one such corridor between Minneriya National Park and the proposed Kaudulla National Park. This corridor will protect the traditional pathway of hundreds of elephants that regularly utilize the extensive feeding grounds in the two conservation areas. A more difficult corridor that has been identified is that linking Wilpattu National Park to Karawalagaswewa in the northwest. At present about 800-1000 elephants are estimated to range outside the protected areas in this important agricultural area in the northwest.

5. Increasing the extent of conservation areas
One of the significant developments favouring wildlife conservation in general and elephant conservation in particular was the coming together of the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation under the single Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. Such a move has led to greater co-operation between the two departments and enabled the Department of Wildlife Conservation to acquire Buffer Zones and thereby extend the extent of the protected areas – a move that would greatly enhance elephant conservation. The linking up of conservation areas such as Wasgomuwa, Flood Plains, Somawathiya and Trikonamadu resulted in the formation of an extensive area (110,952 ha) for elephants. This represents the first attempt in Sri Lanka to incorporate the existing national parks and protected areas into an overall development plan (Jansen, 1986).

6. Habitat enrichment
DWC has begun improving the habitat conditions in a number of conservation areas with the view to enhancing their elephant carrying capacity. Furthermore, as Ishwaran (1993) recommends, fallow lands could become important grazing sites for elephants in the dry season. Elephants in the African savanna are known to extend their range into agricultural lands as soon as the intensity of farming activity is reduced (Lewis, 1986). Ishwaran (1993) found that although most of the forests in the Mahaweli River basin, providing optimum habitats for elephants to rest and move, did not in fact contain sufficient food on a year-round basis. The Lahugala-Kitulana National Park, although small in extent (1,554 ha) is an important grazing area for a large number of elephants that annually move to this area from outside to feed on Beru (Sacciopelsis interrupta), a tall reedy grass that covers the tank extensively.

7. Translocation of elephants and elephant drives
Sri Lanka has experimented with translocating wild elephants. The first translocation of elephants took place in 1979 when an entire herd of 10 elephants was immobilized and translocated to a national park (Fernando, 1983). In north-central Sri Lanka, between 1978 and 1979, when the Mahaweli H5 area was being developed, the Department of Wildlife Conservation moved about 140 elephants by driving them from H5 to the Wilpattu National Park (Fernando, 1983). Several elephant drives had taken place in Embilipitiya, Lunugamvehera, and Hambantota areas to drive elephants into protected areas. In 1981, about 15 animals were moved out of the Mahaweli H2 area (Resvehera) to Wilpattu National Park (Fernando, 1983). In 1982, another group of 76 elephants was moved to the southern sector of Wilpattu.

8. Electric fencing
The use of electric fences as a psychological barrier against wild elephants was first tried out in Sri Lanka in 1966 (Jayewardene, 1994). Today it has become a common management tool in mitigating elephant depredations in agricultural and plantation areas. The Pelwatte Sugar Corporation has built about 280 km of electric fence to protect its sugar plantations. The fence has proved reasonably effective in reducing elephant depredations. The DWC built a short fence of 13 km along the southern border of Wasgomuwa National Park to prevent elephants moving out. To date, over 500 km of electric fence has been constructed in several parts of the island both by DWC as well as private companies and NGOs, and the DWC plans to extend its construction in several new areas in the northwest where the human-elephant conflict is most intense.

8. Ex-situ conservation
Although the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala was established for the purpose of caring for displaced, orphaned or injured elephants, from its inception, the authorities concerned were keen to exploit the facility and promote the ex-situ conservation of the elephant through a carefully planned breeding programme, in which at least 18 calves were born between 1982 and 2000 (Tilakaretne & Santiapillai, 2002).

9. Integrating elephant conservation with economic development
As the decline of the elephant in the wild in Sri Lanka has been largely the result of socio-economic and political forces, it is important that its management and conservation should take into consideration human preferences and values. As White et al., (2001) argue, given the limited monetary resources available for nature conservation, policy makers need to be able to prioritize conservation objectives. The mitigation of the human-elephant conflict is high on the list of priorities of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in Sri Lanka, which recognizes it as the most serious conservation problem in the island. According to Dublin et al., (1997), “Most wildlife managers in Africa now believe that the key to finding a long-term solution to the elephant problem is two-fold: to encourage national land-use strategies to minimize the occurrence of conflict situations, and to ensure that in areas here humans and elephants do overlap, that people derive some benefit from their presence.” The DWC plans to promote economic activities that would enable the local communities to derive some tangible benefits from the presence of elephants in their neighbourhood. e.g. manufacture of paper from elephant dung, organic farming using elephant dung, production of biogas using a combination of elephant and cattle dung.

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