Friday, March 23, 2012

Fence jumping and house breaking elephants!

Continuing saga of Elephant Encounters of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Kind!

An elephant break in
February 15, 2012.  To get to Kalagama, a village located by the historic Kalawewa tank from Gal Wanguwa, where the elephant that was killed by a train was, it took us about 45 minutes.  First, we had to meet up with Ali Ananda (Elephant Ananda) a local contact of Kanchana’s who knew the area well.  Ali Ananda was going to take us to the home that had been broken four times by elephants within the last three months.  Apparently, Ali Ananda seems to be a legendary character in the area.  According to what Kanachana tells us, and endorsed by Ali Ananda, he is sort of an Elephant Whisperer!   He can get wild elephants to come to him—they even allow him to pet them!  And this is all in an area where human elephant conflict is pretty intense and the elephants are prone to kill.  Unfortunately we did not get to see him do any of these amazing interactions with wild elephants that day—but we do hope to make another trip soon to see him do all of these things with wild elephants.

Heading out to Kalagama
Elephant whisperer, Ali Ananda (on the right)

On the way to Kalagama
Ali Ananda led the way on his motorcycle and we followed him.  We drove on winding unpaved dirt roads through some beautiful countryside.  On either side of us, the rice fields spread far into the distance—like a checkered blanket of various hues of greens and yellows with infrequent and irregular seams—which were the irrigation canals cutting through the fields to provide life giving water.  

We drove through beautiful countryside 
We arrived in the neighborhood of New Balalu Weva and were introduced to the son of the household whose home was attacked by elephants four times.  The son, Rifkhan was a slightly built very pleasant young man who also surprisingly could speak fairly fluent English, which makes Bertrand, the TV journalist with the French 3 film crew very happy.  He tells me that we should get Rifkhan to explain as much as possible in his own words what is going on in this areas in regard to human-elephant conflicts.  I readily agree, since it is very rare to find a local stakeholder fluent in English in such an area.    
Filming at New Balalu Wewa
Meeting with Rifkhan - a repaired prior break can be seen on the wall 
Guiding us around his home, Rifkan described to us in English how the elephant had attacked their house two days ago.  He took us inside to the part of the house that was attacked and showed where his father had been sleeping and where the rice bags were stored.  The elephant had come in the night and had been lurking underneath a coconut tree by the house.  The time has been around 9 pm when they became aware that there was an elephant in there garden.  Having experienced previous attacks on their home, Rifkhan and his father had got their flashlights and gone outside to chase the elephant away.  At their effort the elephant had moved back from under the coconut tree as if it was going away and then suddenly charged at them.  As the elephant charged, Rifkhan and his father had run back to the safety of the house.  As they ran inside the elephant had hit the wall on the side it was.  The brick and cement wall had imploded at the impact and a brick had struck Rifkhan’s father on the forehead injuring him seriously.  After breaking the wall the elephant had put its’ head into the room through the massive hole it had made.  Rifkhan had immediately grabbed his injured and semiconscious father and tried to drag him away from the reach of the elephant.  As he struggled to move his father to a safe place the elephant had stretched out its trunk into the room.  With great difficulty Rifkhan had managed to move his father, in the meant time the elephant had reached out and grabbed a bag of rice and walked off with it.  By then due to the yelling and screaming of the entire household, villagers from nearby houses had woken up and in the ensuing pandemonium the elephant had disappeared!  We walked around the house and he pointed out the places that were damaged by previous attacks.  Twice elephants had broken parts of the house by the kitchen.  The recent most previous attack had been to the exact opposite side of the house, which was broken by the elephant two nights ago.

The house that Elephant broke!

Rifkhan explaining how the incident happened
The elephant had put its' head through the hole and taken a bag of rice!
As we discussed about these incidents, Bertrand inquired from Rifkhan what measures the government or any other institution had put in place to address human-elephant conflicts in that area.  According to Rifkhan, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has erected a 35 kilometer electric fence from Aluth Balaluwewa to Galkiriyagama.  The maintenance of the fence in terms of clearing the undergrowth is done by farmer organizations.  When asked who had ownership of the fence, he stated that the Wildlife Department owned it but the villagers had to clean the fence line from overgrowing weeds, grasses and overhanging branches.  That was all they were responsible in regard to the maintenance of the fence.  Since the fence is owned by the Department—they attended to all the major repairs of the fence.  For example if the control room equipment, such as the energizer, solar panels, switches and current storage batteries needed repair or replacement or the fence lines were broken they were attended to by the Department.  Rifkhan claims the electric fence is not effective due to these maintenance issues.  He states, when the fence needs a major repair they have to wait for the Wildlife Department to attend to it.  Sometime this takes time and in fact far longer than the time actually needed to do the repair.  By the time the repair is completed, elephants have already come to the villages and done sufficient damage to their fields and homes.  An example was the latest attack on his home by an elephant.    

From Balalu Wewa we drove to the village of Hettiyamulla.  The village fields are located along the boundary of the forest reservation of the historic Kalawewa.  Here too the Department of Wildlife Conservation had erected a 15 kilometer electric fence, extending along the reservation boundary from Dennewa to Mirihampitigama.  There we met a woman, Seelawathie whose rice fields were by the electric fence, and the night before an elephant had pushed a post down and damaged a section of her fields.  This fence was also managed and operated exactly similar to the fence we had observed at Balalu Wewa.  A common grievance of the villagers here too was about the time taken to do a major repair on the fence by the Wildlife Department.  In addition—this particular fence has been designed, in such a manner that during the rainy season several sections of the fence got inundated making it ineffective and impossible to repair.  The villagers of Hettiyamulla want this section of the fence moved to high ground where it won’t go underwater.

An elephant had crossed this fence the night before at this spot

Damage done to a field by the elephant - trampled crops

The elephant had fed on this field

The fields and the forest are adjacent to each other

Journalist Kanchana going where others fear to tread
 Afterwards we went to the littoral plains of the Kalawewa Tank to see elephants coming out to feed along the edge of the forest reservation.  Since the rains had ended just a few weeks ago the area was still pretty much water logged.  Rolling up our trousers we had to walk along shallow waterways keeping a wary eye out for big water leaches known locally as buffalo leeches.  The water was lukewarm and our feet sank into soft mud making squelching noises as we walked.  After walking about a kilometer we came to a vast open marshy plain covered with short aquatic plants and grasses.  As we walked on to it, we could see in the far periphery a large herd of elephants moving along the forest edge.  They kept appearing and disappearing and always stayed just within the forest edge.  Light was falling fast and we realized that we will not have time to get any closer to them, and even if we did there would not be enough light for us to make it back to the vehicles.  As we were filming the herd, a lone bull wandered out of the forest from our left.  It stood in the open for a long time looking towards us and slowly walked across a small open space and disappeared into the forest.  This was one of the main reasons why we had to get back to the vehicles before it got completely dark.  Elephants were moving in the area and it would not be pleasant to meet up with a solitary bull in the dark.  As soon as it became too dark to film we headed back to the vehicles.  By this time it was too dark to see the leeches so we just waded in and kept going hoping that leeches will not get attached to us.  The last 500 meters we walked by using our flashlights since it has got very dark.  It was relieving to spot the parked vehicles and hear the voices of the volunteers and the drivers.  The volunteers had to stay behind, since it was not too safe for them to accompany us at that time, and also because of the open situation of the location.  We said farewell to Rifkhan and Ali Ananda and headed back to Dambulla.  It was close to 8.30 pm by the time we got to Dambulla where we stopped to get fuel and have dinner.  It was well past midnight by the time we reached our field house in Wasgmauwa.

Wading along water courses to observe elephants at Kalawewa

A herd of elephants in the far periphery of the littoral plains

Rifkhan walking towards the elephants

Talking to Rifkhan about the conflict issues at Kalawewa

The herd kept close to the edge of forest

Bertrand directing

A lone bull showed up

The bull moved across a short open area and disappeared into the forest
It is March 6th and I’m seated in the veranda of our field house in Wasgamuwa when I receive a call on my mobile from Ali Ananda.  He is the local guide who took us around the Kalalwewa area during our visit two weeks ago.  He informs me over the phone that three farmers in the Hettiyamulla Village, which we visited, had over 5 acres of their rice fields destroyed by elephants last night.  The three farmers, Raja, Gamini and Chandré had been guarding their fields in the night when it has happened.  Ali Ananda also informs me that the week before an elephant had killed a man, R.M. Premasiribanda, a 44 year old father of 4 children ages ranging from one and half to eleven years old.  He had been a laborer working at the Gallewa Veterinary office.  According to Ali Ananda within the past few months elephants have killed 6 people in this area alone.

A farmer killed by an elephant while guarding his fields
What is unfortunate about these incidences is that they could have been prevented with some common sense changes to the way the electric fences in this area is managed and operated, and by conducting basic research to gather information on the distribution and ranging of the elephants in the area—especially the bulls who are the main culprits that raid villages habitually.  

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society developed and pioneered the concept to put electric fences along village boundaries rather than along national parks or protected area boundaries.   This innovative program was launched in 1997 under the Society’s landmark and internationally acclaimed and award winning, SAVING ELEPHANTS BY HELPING PEOPLE (SEHP) PROJECT.   After 16 years the SEHP strategy is one of the most successful community-based participatory efforts to resolve HEC in Sri Lanka.  Today the SEHP project and its concepts have directly benefited villagers in 3 Administrative Provinces of Sri Lanka.  In acknowledgment and appreciation of these efforts, in 2008, the SLWCS received a UNDP Equator Initiative Prize, which honors community-based projects that represent outstanding efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Receiving the UNDP Equator Prize in Barcelona, Spain in 2008

National Science Foundation award in 2010

In 2011 selected as the Charity of the Year by the U.S. Ambassador

Receiving a monetary award from the American Chamber of Commerce in  Sri Lanka
The Society designed and developed this concept based on reasonable assumptions made at the time.  Most of it was common sense supported by field observations and data gathered from basic research. Today scientific research and long term monitoring conducted by the SLWCS and other researchers have proven all of them right.

In 1997 the SLWCS made the following observations when conducting research on human-elephant conflicts to gather information to develop sustainable solutions for its mitigation. 

1.      National Parks and all protected area boundaries are administrative boundaries and not ecological boundaries of animals in the park.
2.      Elephants are highly mobile animals that range over a wide area and nearly 70% of the elephants range outside the protected areas.
3.      Containing elephants into national parks with electric fences is not a successful way to manage them, and it also could be detrimental to their survival.
4.      Village boundaries are the definite socio-economic and administrative boundaries of villages so they have real significance to the villagers.
5.      It is more effective to erect electric fences along village boundaries to keep elephants “out” rather than fence them “in” in national parks.
6.      Such an approach while protecting the villagers and their fields will also allow elephants to range freely without causing conflicts.
7.      Local people need to be actively involved in any efforts to mitigate HEC as equally responsible partners, therefore measures that are designed and developed, should be done in consultation with them.
8.      Local stakeholders should take complete ownership and the responsibility of maintaining the mitigation measures that are implemented if they are to be sustainable and effective over the long term.
9.      Public-private partnership is crucial to address HEC mitigation successfully.

Villagers maintaining a fence erected by the SLWCS in Wasgamuwa

Villagers constructing an electric fence 

Villagers sense of ownership of the fence is critical  for its long term success

Villagers participation is the key factor for the success of an electric fence
Achievements of the Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project:

One of the biggest achievements of the Society has been to create tolerance for elephants in people that suffered from intense human-elephant conflicts (HEC).  Through its innovative SEHP project the Society has managed to mitigate HEC and save a vital elephant corridor allowing elephants to move between the Wasgamuwa National Park and several irrigation tanks and forest reserves which are crucial for their survival especially during the dry season.  By minimizing HEC we have helped local farmers to overcome crop loses to elephants and increase their incomes which has helped them to come out of poverty and social marginalization.  Today over 99% of the village homes are made of brick and cement where as earlier they were mostly mud huts.  Ensuring the safety of the corridor has also benefitted other wildlife tremendously.  From a tree hut observation post today visitors get to view herds of elephants and people sharing the same landscape without conflict.  Large herds and massive bulls feed placidly in the vicinity of these villages while people on foot and vehicles move through the area.  It would be impossible to observe this phenomenon elsewhere in Sri Lanka with HEC. 

A new brick house been built next to the mud hut its replacing
Through its conservation, research, community development, empowerment, capacity building and sustainable development programs, the SLWCS has had a significant effect in changing the socio-economic dynamics in the villages where the Society has implemented projects.  Due to these ongoing efforts, there is a marked difference in the attitudes and knowledge of local villagers and increased involvement in conservation and sustainable development initiatives of the Society.  Due to SLWCS’ efforts humans and elephants coexist with minimum conflict at our project sites.  In addition the SLWCS shares its knowledge and resources with community organizations to establish an effective network of partners.

The SEHP project has achieved the following:

  • Prior to the introduction of solar powered electric fences, 70% of the agriculture land was left uncultivated due to elephants frequently raiding fields.
  • After the fences were introduced, elephant raids have significantly reduced in some villages by 99.9% enabling villagers to cultivate all their fields. They are now cultivating seasonal and annual crops, which they could not do before.
  • Alleviated poverty by increasing incomes in some villages by 212%
  • Approximately 7 hours per day per farmer has been saved, which used to be spent on protecting crops in the night.  Villagers can sleep at night now or use that time for other activities.
  • Villagers used to spend on average Rs.5,500 (<$55) per annum to purchase kerosene oil, firecrackers, flashlight batteries and bulbs to protect crops in the night. 
  • Since the SEHP project was implemented, the average monthly cost per household to maintain the electric fence is Rs.500 (>$5) per year.  Therefore the average household is saving Rs.5,000 (approx $50) per annum. 
  • The environmental awareness of some communities has increased by an average of 43%.
  • In two villages, 100% claim their wellbeing and safety has improved since the electric fences were erected.
  • Feedback from villagers shows their mobility, especially after nightfall, has increased due to the security from the fences.
  • The social life of villagers has vastly improved, increasing their quality of life.
  • Reduced stress due to the lower risks of elephant attacks.
  • Children do not have to miss school because of elephants and potential damage or deaths in the village.
The efforts of the SLWCS has proved that HEC can be resolved through research and a participatory effort if all the major stakeholders are committed to work together—which is perhaps the biggest lack to address this issue island wide.  The most challenging obstacle is the obvious reluctance and backpedalling of the government authorities, to work with the private sector to resolve HEC effectively, to save a national asset from unnecessary, cruel and meaningless annihilation.  

The death of a living cultural icon!
It is remarkable, that considering HEC has become today one of the biggest environmental and socioeconomic crises in Sri Lanka, there is no official government support for the public sector to work in partnership and collaboration with the private sector.  Makes one wonder…“when will they ever learn…when will they ever learn.” 

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