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Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground 

11 Oct 2021

  • An unsuitable habitat for elephants? 
With the shrinking of forest population due to development projects initiated in  parallel to the population growth, migration patterns of the elephants too have changed. As a result, elephants invade the villages and cause damages to the properties and human lives by behaving violently. This has severely aggravated the human-elephant conflict, thus claiming approximately 60 to 70 human lives and 200 to 300 elephants annually. In addition, a large number of physical, property, and crop damages have been reported.  Even though, after having captured the rogue elephants, they had been released to national parks located in various parts of the island as a remedial measure, those elephants had returned to their original habitats and caused hazards to the people as usual. Therefore, provisions had been allocated by the 2012 budget proposal, to construct four elephant retention holding grounds to retain and rehabilitate the wild elephants that behave causing severe hazards to the people.  As the first phase, for the establishment of a wild elephant conservation holding  ground within a land area of 997 hectares at Horowpathana in the Anuradhapura Zone, approval had been received in accordance with the Cabinet Memorandum No.12/0151/549/001 dated 17 March 2012 and that centre constructed at a cost of Rs. 345 million was opened in 2015.  The Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) is the world’s first-ever Elephant Holding Ground. It has an area of 997 hectares and has the capacity to hold 40 elephants. It was established in order to retain and rehabilitate rogue elephants captured from around the country. Many elephants from all over the island have been translocated to the Horowpathana EHG this way.  According to reports, the EHG has housed up to 64 elephants since its inception, out of which 16 elephants have died; 10 from malnutrition, three from electrocution, and three from being shot.  A severe lack of food  The food requirement of a well-fed wild elephant is 300 kg per day on average and an elephant spends nearly 17 hours to have meals in order to meet its food requirement. While partaking meals, a vast quantity of food is wasted by crushing and thrashing by the elephants. Therefore, in addition to its normal food requirement of 300 kg, another 100 kg or an approximate amount of food should be provided in supplying foods. Accordingly, if 30 elephants are retained in the holding ground, their daily food requirement is 12,000 kg. Scientist Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando stated that elephants are dying of malnutrition due to the holding ground lacking sufficient food sources. “A typical wild elephant would require up to 200-300 kg of food. EHG had external sources of feeding in the past, which stopped in 2019,” he explained.  It was also brought to light that the Horowpothana Wildlife Range Office lacked the necessary instruments to weigh the externally supplied foods and therefore, a scale fixed in a private rice mill was used for that purpose. Nevertheless, an officer had not been deployed to carry out supervision at the weighing holding ground and payments had been made without confirming the accuracy of the weight of food items. At the same time, it was also observed in audit that the insertion of the externally supplied foods in the food retaining section of the holding ground (over the fence) was difficult and a platform had not been prepared to insert the foods conveniently in the food retaining section.  Unsuitable habitat for elephants  When in conversation with Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General Chandana Suriyabandara in terms of the holding grounds’ many alleged issues, he commented that the DWC is managing as per the requests by convenors. “We have not observed any issues with the holding ground and we have implemented measures to deal with issues that arose when the ground was first established,” he further commented.  On this same note,  Department of Wildlife former Director-General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya stated that the EHG location is a forest area with both primary and secondary characteristics, which is unsuitable for elephants. He further explained that most elephants’ preferred habitats are grassland forests.  The forest in which the Horowpathana Elephant holding ground is located is a mixed and dry evergreen forest of secondary nature. Similarly, apart from the elephants, various animals such as buffalos and deers live in this forest reserve and an electric fence is required to be erected around the land in which the elephant holding ground is expected to be constructed. Dr. Fernando highlighted that all the animals living in the area should be recognised through the conduct of a census and removed before the construction of the holding ground. Similarly, he added that some trees of the forest reserve have to be removed before the construction of an electric fence. Therefore, an assessment on the impact that may pose to the environment should be carried out before the commencement of this project, whereas no assessment whatsoever had been carried out in that connection.  According to the report of the elephant census conducted in June 2019, out of 52 elephants retained in the holding ground, only nine elephants were remaining and 12 elephants had died for various reasons. The Department lacked information as to whether the remaining 31 elephants had either died or fled the holding ground. On this topic, Dr. Fernando highlighted that it is simply not possible for elephants to “go missing” and questioned why there was no proper management of the holding ground.  While elephants continue to suffer from severe malnourishment within the Horowpathana EHG, the Government plans on building another EHG in the Lunugamvehera National Park. The Horowpathana EHG is merely a stop-gap measure to the long-standing Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in Sri Lanka.

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