By Ravi Corea
For 18 years the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has been working in Wasgamuwa to develop measures that would help turn human-elephant conflict into coexistence. For the first time in Sri Lanka the SLWCS applied the concept of erecting solar powered electric fences around villages rather than around national parks. The first pioneering fence is still functioning after 18 years. Since the society introduced this concept the Department of Wildlife Conservation, other conservationists and NGOs are using it in their efforts to mitigate human-elephant conflicts. Yet such victories can be considered minor compared to the magnitude of human-elephant conflict and the need to address the multitude of issues that contribute to it.
For more than a decade and half the SLWCS has been living in the conflict observing the damage people and elephants inflict on each other and doing its best to develop measures to address them. In the course of 18 years the society has seen farmers trampled and gored to death and an incredible number of crops and homes destroyed by elephants.
The society has also witnessed firsthand the horrendous suffering of elephants that had been shot and injured, and experienced the colossal feeling of loss at their deaths. For most of these injured elephants there was no reprieve.
With no veterinary care and with no policy to euthanise elephants that were beyond help many of these elephants died after a prolonged and meaningless suffering-rotting away slowly as their life passed away in minute gasps.
The corridor is vital for the elephants from the Wasgamuwa National Park to access an irrigation tank that is located outside for water and food. The corridor is also used by villagers and it is not unusual to see both people and elephants travelling through the corridor practically every day. The Tree Hut provides an extraordinary window to look upon a tableau that happens practically every day in a landscape that is both used by elephants and people.
The road that cuts across the corridor is used by schools children, women and men, Buddhist monks and farmers. Every day these people have to travel through the corridor however much they are apprehensive of elephants. It is not uncommon to see school children, men and women walking, biking or travelling in Land Master tractors, motorcycles and tuk tuks while elephants are present on either side.
For nearly 12 years the SLWCS has been monitoring the corridor from a tree hut to gather information on human-elephant interactions. Since that time people and elephants had used the corridor without any untoward incidents. But since recently matters have begun to take a turn for the worst. With new economic immigrants moving into the region, the increasing population, opening up of whatever remaining habitat of elephants outside protected areas for development, disturbances in other parts of the elephants range and definitely the lack of a national effort to address human-elephant conflict has resulted in more and more people taking matters into their own hands.
Some people travelling through this corridor in a mistaken belief that all elephants are dangerous, harass the elephants by making noise, lighting firecrackers and travelling in large and noisy three wheeler convoys to scare them away.
Such behaviour unfortunately makes elephants especially the dominant bulls more aggressive and hostile and prone to attack rather than make them scared of people. School children are highly vulnerable since they have to walk to school and back in the morning and afternoon amidst wild elephants.
On numerous occasions when the situation had reached an impasse because an elephant had become aggressive, the society had helped by transporting people, especially women and children or by escorting safely the various vehicles travelling through the corridor to their villages.
Chandima, a field scientist of the SLWCS, as usual on the day of the incident left with a group of volunteers to the tree hut in the afternoon. He reached the tree hut around 3.30 p.m.
When they got there it was very quiet and there weren’t any elephants or people in the corridor.
After about 10 minutes, a small group of five elephants came from the north side of the corridor and they crossed the road and started to feed along the western side as they moved towards the irrigation tank in the south. They observed this herd through binoculars, took pictures for individual identifications, and notes on their activities. Suddenly, the herd seemed very disturbed and started to walk back fast towards the forest they had come from. Chandima was surprised, as there were no human activities on the corridor and he didn’t hear any noises or gunshots. But he was sure from the behaviour of the elephants that it was definitely a human disturbance that made them rush back to the forest. The herd did not come back again.
A little later Chandima observed an elephant partly hidden by a patch of scrub standing still very close to the tree hut.
It was a lone bull. It didn't come out but waited by the edge of the forest as if checking the area. After about 15 minutes the bull slowly came out and started to feed 10 meteres north of the tree hut.
Shortly a motor cycle came from the south of the corridor. There were four men on the motor bike and they were heading towards the village in the north. Since the elephant was feeding close to the road, Chandima signalled to them about his presence.
They continued on without any incident and Chandima recognized two of the riders.
Then suddenly the same motor bike appeared from the direction of the village and it was travelling very fast. This time there were only two riders on the motorbike.
They stopped where the elephant had crossed the road and one man jumped out with a gun and started to walk toward the elephant which was now 50 meters away from the road.
Chandima immediately realised that this man was going to shoot the elephant, because he had been told by villagers that there was supposedly a group responsible for all the recent elephant shootings in the area.
Chandima shouted to the man from the tree hut, “Hey what are you going to do? Stop! Stop!” But he didn't listen.
Then Chandima changed his tone to an appeal and called out, “Mallie (little brother) please don't do this, you don’t need to do this.”
The man then stopped walking and told something to his friend who was standing on the road. He shouted out to Chandima angrily, “What's the problem? If you want to talk to us then come down from the tree hut”. Chandima replied, “No, I am not coming down, but please don’t shoot the elephant.” Then the man with the gun had started to walk towards the elephant very fast. Chandima knew then that he was definitely going to shoot the elephant. He shouted again” I’m begging you Mallie, please stop and wait I’m coming down to talk to you.”
Surprisingly during this altercation the bull had only moved about 5 meteres away from his original position. As Chandima got down from the tree hut the volunteers and visitors with him were all terrified.
Chandima went down very quickly and ran towards the men. He then pleaded with the men not to shoot the elephant.
Chandima realised that he needed to be careful of the words he used and that he had to talk to them in a calm manner.
Eventually, the man with the gun came back and he looked very angry. The first thing he told Chandima was to delete all the pictures that he or his friends had taken.
To this Chandima had replied that while he could inform the police with the photographic evidence, he was not going to do it, since he wanted to talk with them to provide a solution to whatever the problems they had with elephants.
The men argued “You don’t know the difficulties that we face with elephants every day, we can't get a good harvest from our crops, our incomes are destroyed and we can't even go to the town because of elephants in the corridor.” They continued to tell him their grievances with elephants giving several examples.
Chandima responded by explaining that shooting elephants was not the solution to their problems. By this time they had calmed down and were not as aggressive and had told Chandima, “Because of you, we are not going to kill this elephant, we know about you and the SLWCS, and the work the society had done to help people to protect themselves from elephants.” Chandima was relieved and also realised that this was a good opportunity to get some information about how they shoot elephants.
The two men had explained that if they want to kill an elephant on the spot they increased the number of pellets they put into the cartridge and targeted the area between the eye and the ear. They also try to get as close as possible-depending on the terrain-usually anywhere between 5 to 10 meteres to the elephant to shoot it. If they want the elephant to die some distance away from the place where it was shot, then they reduced the number of pellets in the cartridge. If they want the elephant to suffer, then they target the legs, and if they don't want to kill and just want to chase it away them they targeted the back. After he had managed to calm down the situation and convinced the farmers to leave the elephant alone, Chandima told the men that the SLWCS will try to speak to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to resolve their problems.
The men asked Chandima to speak on their behalf to the Wildlife Department and obtain thunder flashes for farmers to chase elephants from their fields.
Chandima had said he will do his best to arrange a meeting with the Wildlife Department to discuss all these issues and concerns.
As a solution for this problem the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is looking into providing these villagers with a bus service. It would probably be the first elephant friendly bus service in the world.