An elephant-sized mess in Horowpothana: Conjoining elephant conflict and elephant conservation

  • Are SL authorities clueless or careless?


By Sumudu Chamara


The National Audit Report of 2020 on the “Performance of the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground” revealed the startling fact that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Sri Lanka’s state authority overlooking matters relating to wildlife, was unaware of what happened to 31 elephants that were in the said premises.

The report, which evaluated the activities implemented by the DWC between 16 October 2015 and 30 September 2019, noted that according to the findings of the elephant census conducted in June 2019, out of 52 elephants retained in the holding ground, only nine were remaining. The report added that 12 elephants had died during the same period – five of them due to malnutrition resulting from the lack of sufficient food, and two due to unattended translocation to the said holding ground.

The report also revealed that the DWC lacked information as to whether the remaining 31 elephants had died or fled the holding ground.

The holding ground, located in a land of 997 hectares in Horowpothana, Anuradhapura, was established in accordance with a cabinet memorandum dated 17 March 2012 with regard to establishing a wild elephant holding ground. It was the first of four elephant holding grounds that were planned to be set up in Sri Lanka.

However, the report further stated that it was observed that the objective of the establishment of the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground had not been achieved.


Confining elephant habitat: An ineffective method of conservation?


Environmental activists and groups in general are of the opinion that even though restricting the natural habitats and movements of elephants may be beneficial to a certain extent to reduce the incidence of the human-elephant conflict, in the long run, it cannot be identified as a method that can deliver the expected outcomes.

They also expressed concerns about separating elephants from their natural and/or adopted habitats, and/or curtailing the elephants’ involvement with their natural and/or adopted habitats, as being detrimental to the entire ecosystem and ecological balance.

According to the Oxford Reference of the Oxford University Press, the term “ecological balance” describes “a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms, in which diversity (genetic, species, and ecosystem) remains relatively stable but can change gradually through natural succession”.

When contacted by The Morning, Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Chairman Attorney-at-Law Ravindranath Dabare opined that confining wild elephants to a limited area is neither an effective method of elephant conservation nor a good strategy to deal with the increasing incidence of the human-elephant conflict.

Speaking about the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground, he said the premises does not have adequate space for elephants and that this lack of space, in turn, results in a number of issues since elephants require a large amount of food per day and prefer to walk throughout the day, both of which are limited in this holding ground. He stressed that restricting elephants’ movement to a limited area is tremendously unfair to the entire ecosystem and elephants themselves, and that elephant conservation programmes should be conducted with a focus on how such programmes may affect elephants in the long run.

When queried as to what the level of effectiveness is of confining elephants to a specific area in order to conserve them and reduce the incidence of the human-elephant conflict, Centre for Conservation and Research Sri Lanka (CCRSL) Chairman Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando said the major purpose of taking such measures is to address the human-elephant conflict rather than conserving elephants.

“If elephants were retained there, it is the same as them being in captivity for a lifetime. Therefore, whether they are alive or dead does not make any difference from a biological perspective, as they cannot transfer their genes to generations to come and they will no longer hold any role in maintaining the ecological balance. Therefore, these types of methods cannot be identified as effective methods of elephant conservation,” he explained.

Expressing his opinion on the 31 elephants unaccounted for at the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground, Dr. Fernando said that Sri Lanka’s wildlife authorities should take the responsibility for the missing elephants, as it was them who took the initiative to confine the elephants to the said holding ground and that they cannot abdicate on their responsibility. He also raised concerns over the total number of elephants that had been retained at the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground since its establishment in 2013, even though the report in question covers only the period from October 2015 to September 2019. He opined that the total number of missing elephants is more likely to be over 31.

Meanwhile, the report further revealed that without determining the maximum capacity of the land area of the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground, it had been intended to retain 30 rogue elephants, adding that it had been observed that such elephants had been deprived of the needs integral to their lives and an appropriate environment to express their natural behavioural patterns. Accordingly, this had led to the deaths of 12 elephants.

Raising concerns over the wellbeing of the elephants, the report revealed another observation, which is that the health condition of the elephants retained at the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground had remained at a poor level and that no follow-up action had been taken on the health of the elephants.


Elephants are a ‘keystone species’


“Elephants are animals that cannot and are not meant to be retained in holding grounds or other types of restricted areas. They are a key species whose absence or detention adversely affects the environment. Environmentalists identify elephants as a ‘keystone species’, and their existence has a direct link with the ecological balance. Significantly limiting the movement of and removing elephants from an ecosystem will result in a great deal of damage to the environment they are in, and may even cause that particular ecosystem to cease to exist,” Dabare stressed.

According to the National Geographic Society, one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational organisations with a focus on environmental and historical conservation, geography, and natural science, a keystone species is an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem, without whose existence the particular ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.

“Keystone species have low functional redundancy, which means that if the species were to disappear from the ecosystem, no other species would be able to fill its ecological niche. The ecosystem would be forced to radically change, allowing new and possibly invasive species to populate the habitat,” the National Geographic Society further stated.

Elephants are identified as an herbivore keystone species, whose consumption of plants contributes to help control the physical and biological aspects of an environment.


Proper land management could help manage situation


“Deforestation and poorly planned development projects are the main reasons that lead to the destruction of elephants’ habitats and migratory routes, which in turn compels elephants to enter and/or attack villages,” Dabare said, adding that the incidence of the human-elephant conflict can be greatly reduced by effectively addressing the issue of the underutilisation of Sri Lanka’s land resources.

According to Dabare, 33% of Sri Lanka’s lands can be utilised for agricultural activities. However, out of this 33%, only 10-11% of lands have been utilised properly. “Instead of deforesting the wild animals’ habitats, we should learn to cleverly manage the land resources we have, and priority should be given to utilising underutilised lands,” he added.

He opined that elephants have more of a right to freely exist in their territory than humans and that deforesting elephants’ habitats is tantamount to trespassing on their lands. He claimed that the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground incident shows that the authorities do not have a proper plan as to how to address the human-elephant conflict, while the Government seems to be under the impression that they own forests and that the forests exist for human needs.

Dabare added that the CEJ has filed a case in the Court of Appeal, seeking a court order for the introduction of a management system for the wildlife zones as well as the elephant population. Respondents of this case include the DWC and the Ministry of Environment.


Research vital to find solutions for conflict and conservation


Speaking on the importance of conducting proper research in order to be used for, among others, elephant conservation methods, environmental activists who spoke to The Morning expressed mixed views.

Dabare, speaking on research pertaining to elephants in Sri Lanka, claimed that there are issues with regard to the research methodologies adopted by those carrying out research pertaining to wildlife, in particular elephants, and that Sri Lanka currently does not have a proper research culture. While stressing that research methodologies used in Sri Lanka need to further improve, he also claimed that Sri Lanka has had to depend on private researchers as Sri Lanka’s research culture still needs to be developed in order to carry out certain research.

“Sri Lanka has neither the adequate facilities to conduct proper research on elephants nor the dedicated government research arms. What Sri Lanka currently does is conduct sample research which involves taking samples from a certain area and interpolating the findings to cover the entire country. It cannot be accepted as a very effective method. Wild elephants pop up in various areas of the country on different occasions – some in small groups of three or four, and some in large groups. There should be a way to conduct researches on these elephants as well. When an elephant enters a village, there is no way for us to know whether they were there in the first place or came from another place. We are concerned about the elephants that are unaccounted for; they may have become someone’s private property by now, and if that is the case, they may be used for entertainment purposes,” he added.

However, speaking on research conducted on elephants in Sri Lanka, Dr. Fernando said that Sri Lanka is the country where the most number of research has been conducted on Asian elephants and that Sri Lanka has produced a number of research projects that have gained international recognition.

“The field of research is essentially a science that is universal to the entire world, and the application of appropriate scientific methodologies is what makes a research successful,” he explained.

In response to the claim that Sri Lanka does not have a proper research culture, Dr. Fernando said it is true that there is no major research culture within Sri Lankan universities regarding researching elephants, adding that the CCRSL has conducted the most number of research into elephants in Sri Lanka.


Authorities’ response


State Minister of Wildlife Protection, Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches, and Reforestation and Forest Resource Development Wimalaweera Dissanayake told The Morning that a ministry-level investigation is to be carried out into the incident at the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground.

He said this investigation will be conducted under his direct supervision and that necessary steps would be taken based on its findings. However, Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera, claimed that he was not aware of the incident involving 31 unaccounted for elephants at the said holding ground.

Many attempts made by The Morning to contact DWC Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara yesterday (21) to discuss future steps in connection with the situation of the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground proved futile.

However, speaking to The Morning on this matter on Monday (18), he said the DWC would be conducting an investigation at the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground in connection with the 31 elephants that have, according to the National Audit Report of 2020, either fled the area or died.

Sooriyabandara further stated that in order to clarify what has been said in the report in question, an independent investigation needs to be conducted during the dry season in Horowpothana, which he said would start in July this year. Speaking of the number of elephants currently at the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground, he further stated that they did not have the necessary information and that they hoped to conduct an elephant census at the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground in July this year.

As remedial measures for the issues identified concerning the situation of the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground, the report put forward several recommendations.

“Constant supervision should be exercised on the protection of the elephants from their release to the holding ground. A conducive environment should be created to cater to their basic needs. A proper follow up mechanism should be put in place on the elephants. The welfare of the elephants should be properly maintained,” the report stated.

Lastly, the report also recommended that steps should be taken to make the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground a successful project before the establishment of another holding ground in Sri Lanka.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that the information revealed in the report calls into question Sri Lanka’s wildlife conservation projects, especially the Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground, executed with two main objectives: Conservation of elephants and reducing the incidence of the human-elephant conflict. Even though the findings of this report may be important in rethinking the establishment of similar facilities for elephants in the future, this calls for the authorities’ attention towards ongoing projects as well as projects scheduled to commence in the foreseeable future.

Given that Sri Lanka is a country gifted with limited but unique natural resources, this incident also emphasises the importance of conservation projects being effective in the long term, rather than being merely attractive in the short term. The Horowpothana Elephant Holding Ground can be more than a failed project, if the relevant authorities use it as a lesson to prevent the recurrence of such incidents in the future.