Friday, July 6, 2012

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the second electric fence erected under the Saving Elephants by Helping People Project of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

Oh give me a place where elephants roam...where people and elephant share land in peace...
It is Sunday, May 27, 2012 and the time is around 3.30 pm. We are all gathered at Weheragalagama village to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the second electric fence that was erected around a village by the Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS).

A section of the crowd that attended the celebrations
The electric fence was provided by the SLWCS in 2002 through a grant given by the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. The Chief Guest at the event is the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives, the Honorable Patricia A. Butenis. Irrespective of what the occasion was—makes one wonder how did the U.S. Ambassador managed to get herself into a remote and backwoods area like Wasgamuwa in the first place!

Passionate animal lover, environmentalist and a huge proponent of everything pachyderm, the Honorable Patricia A. Butenis first visited Wasgamuwa in July 2010. During her visit, Ambassador Butenis was able to see and experience firsthand the work that the SLWCS has done successfully to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in the Wasgamuwa area through its international award winning SEHP Project. The Ambassador was also able to meet and speak to the villagers who had benefitted from the SEHP Project.  It was during this first visit that the Weheragalagama villagers invited the Ambassador to be the Chief Guest at the 10th celebration of their electric fence.  As an outcome of her visit and probably motivated by what she had observed and experienced, the Ambassador selected the SLWCS to receive the U.S. Ambassador’s Charity of the Year Award in 2011. This award was supplemented by a monetary award from the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Sri Lanka.

The U.S. Ambassador been greeted by villagers during her first visit in July 2010

Talking with the Weheragalagama villagers. 

Observing elephants from the Tree Hut

Watching elephants from the Defender
A bull elephant probably showing how pleased he is to see the U.S. Ambassador at Wasgamuwa

Hanging out with Dodam the giant squirrel after a sunrise hike
Receiving the Charity of the Year Award at the AmCham Ball 2011
It is not an easy journey to get to Wasgamuwa. Even traveling in a good SUV (4WD vehicle) it still takes close to 7 hours to get there! The journey takes one across the incredible diversity of terrain, climate and habitats that Sri Lanka is so richly endowed with—of course not forgetting the equally diverse conditions of the roads that need to be traversed! These conditions range from roads that feel like magic carpet rides to what must be roller coaster rides in hell! Twice the intrepid U.S. Ambassador unflinchingly braved these conditions to visit our projects and give us her support. This was Ambassador Butenis’ second trip to Wasgamuwa, which alone is testimony to the incredible commitment she has made to support local efforts to save and protect Sri Lanka’s endangered wildlife.

Selecting a place to hold the celebrations
Villagers preparing for the celebrations

A villager getting ready to decorate the road to welcome the U.S. Ambassador

The first stop was by the control room of the electric fence where village elders welcomed Ambassador Butenis and she was invited to unveil a stone plaque commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the electric fence, and the 16th Anniversary of the Saving Elephants by Helping People Project.  The flags of the two countries waved over the event.  The Ambassador and other dignitaries present were escorted to the plaque by a traditional drummer and dancers.  After unveiling the plaque the Ambassador was taken by procession  to where the official ceremony was to take place. 

The U.S. Ambassador arriving at the control room to unveil the commemorative plaque

Unveiling the commemorative plaque

Reading the commemorative plaque

Carved in stone in Sinhala and in English recording for posterity the goodwill  of  people and nations. 
The ceremony was held atop the bund of the Weheragalagama Tank underneath a grove of Maila (Bauhinia racemosa) trees giving the dignitaries a breathtaking view of the tank, the jungle and the hills of the Himbiliyakade forest range. Overhead the national flags of Sri Lanka and the United States of America fluttered in the breeze wafting from the tank. The celebrations commenced with the lighting of the traditional oil lamp after which the venerable Haguranketha Seelananda, Chief Priest of the Weheragalagama Temple conducted the religious service.

Lighting the traditional oil lamp

Venerable Haguranketha Seelananda conducting the religious service
On behalf of the U.S. Ambassador, a Sinhala translation of an official letter sent by Dr. Meenakshi Nagendran, Program Officer of the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service was read out by SLWCS Project Manager, Chinthaka Weerasinghe. Copies of the translated letter were distributed among the attendees. Following are some excerpts from the letter sent by Dr. Nagendran of the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service:

The Asian Elephant Conservation Fund (AsECF) of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has supported Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) since 2002 on their pioneering efforts regarding conservation of wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka.  SLWCS developed the idea of protecting villagers and their property, by fencing in agricultural lands and villages, while allowing wild elephants to continue to roam the landscape. The fence at Weheragalagama was a life saver in many ways; it enabled affected villagers to save money, and in some cases even send their children to university because they were able to harvest their crops and earn a living instead of spending all their money on crop and home protection from marauding elephants.

Today SLWCS’ Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) program has served as a model to national and international efforts to address human-elephant conflict (HEC).  By allowing wild elephants to roam the landscape, the SLWCS is trying to meet the ecological needs of Asian elephants and helping protect people, their property and their lives.  Putting elephants behind fences in protected areas and cutting off their seasonal movements has been shown to have very detrimental effects on elephants, including leading to their starvation and mortality.  The work of SLWCS and others is very important in mitigating HEC and allowing to the extent possible of unrestricted movement of elephants. The SLWCS’ SEHP electric fences allow elephants to feed in the vicinity of villages but effectively stop them from entering the villages or their fields.

A villager reading the translated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service letter
Athula-Kumara is 29 years old and is the incumbent president of the Weheragalagama Village Electric Fence Operations and Maintenance Society. He is addressing the crowd. Athula-Kumara with moist eyes and a catch in his voice recounts to the gathered audience what life was like before the 10 kilometer electric fence was erected around their village in 2002. He recalls vividly as a small child how terrifying it was to live in a village that was frequently subjected to raids by elephants. 

Athula-Kumara was only six years old when his family moved to Weheragalagama under a government enforced land settlement program. He remembers how elephants used to practically come every day to the village. According to Athula-Kumara it was not only their livelihoods that the elephants deprived them off. He says as little children they were even deprived of been cuddled and pampered by their father since his entire time were spent protecting their home and field from elephant raids. He tells how during those days his father had to go out every day to protect crops. During those terrifying days their house alone had been broken six times by elephants and their entire worldly possessions destroyed as a result. Every time an elephant broke their home it set his family back pushing them further into poverty. He recalled the toll on his parents since they had to toil all over again to rebuild their home and furnish it with bare essentials and necessities. With no lumber yards or hardware stores nearby and most importantly no money—practically every piece of material to build a house had to be brought from the jungle or begged or borrowed from elsewhere.

Every evening before his father left to protect the field he would first make sure, his mother, him and his siblings were all safely up on the tree hut that was in their home compound. Even though all farmers had a house on the ground—basically a simple wattle and daub mud hut with a thatched roof, to protect themselves in the night from marauding elephants, every house had a tree hut in their compound. The men, before they left in the evening to protect their fields, first made sure their women and children were safely tucked away up in the safety of the tree huts in their homes. Today, Athula-Kumara points out these activities have become obsolete and even completely forgotten by some villagers because of the protection offered by the electric fence that has been provided by the SLWCS. He compares the hardships they underwent due to incessant elephant raids in the past with the worry free lifestyle they spent now because of the electric fence.

Every farmers home plot had two huts one on the ground and on a tee nearby

In their fields they had a hut on the ground to rest during the day and a tree hut for protection from elephants 

Athula-Kumara draws attention to how especially their social and economic situation has changed. Over 95% of the houses in the village today are built with brick and cement. Most farmers owned tuk tuks, motorcycles and land master two-wheeled tractors with some farmers becoming rich enough to afford 4 wheel tractors and even trucks. Our houses have furniture, television and HiFi sets. He says this is all because now we can harvest everything that we cultivate. Today after the main rice crop has been harvested farmers cultivate cash crops in the time between the two main rice cultivating seasons. Farmers grow cash crops such as water melon, gherkin, soy, mung bean, peanuts, sesame and corn bringing in additional income. Earlier farmers were deprived from making a living to barely survive due to repeated elephant raids. Today the challenges they faced mostly dealt with whether they had sufficient water to cultivate, market access and to get a fair market price for their produce.

Continuing on, Athula-Kumara reminds, that today when we come home after working in the fields we take our children to the tank (irrigation reservoir) to show them elephants. This is because today elephants do not come to the village so we have to go out of the village to show elephants to our children less they forget the wild animals that live in our neighborhood. He also laments the fact that new comers to the village and the younger generation were not aware of the past. Therefore they did not appreciate the electric fence for the benefits it has brought to the entire village. Athula-Kumara calls upon everyone present to look upon the fence as a boon that provides benefits to the entire village, therefore everybody in the village is responsible to contribute to its long term maintenance and operation. Concluding his talk, Athula Kumara appeals to the villagers not to forget the fact that the benefits from the electric fence they will continue to enjoy today, tomorrow and in the years to come.
A wattle and daub mud hut been replaced by a more affluent brick and cement  house
Since its inception in 1997 the SEHP Project has provided in addition to the two villages in Wasgamuwa, solar powered electric fences to the Somawathiya Rajamahavihara and four villages along the southern boundary of the Lahugala-Kitulana National Park. These electric fences were provided at the request of the local stakeholders and the Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka. The electric fence we constructed in Lahugala is 23 kilometers long and was funded by the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Canadian International Development Agency and the Alexander Abraham Foundation. The electric fence for the Somawathiya Rajamahavihara was funded by the Alexander Abraham Foundation.

Villagers erecting the Weheragalagama electric fence under the supervision of Sunpower  Tech  staff
When we first went to Somawathiya in 2004 it was an incredible place. Only a handful of diehard devotees would venture into that remote and foreboding region at the time!

What an incredible place! The Chaitiya bathed in the glow of a full moon
Somawathiya was one of the last northern frontier areas at the time since it was located just south of the boundary claimed by the Tamil Tigers. Several times the temple itself was attacked. The last attack happened just before one of our visits to the temple! Tamil Tigers had shot at the chaitiya and at the priests while they were bathing in the river. When we arrived we were shown the bullet holes on the chaitiya. Located in the flood plains of the mighty Mahaweli Ganga—Sri Lanka’s longest river—the temple was a magnet for wild elephants.

The flood plains of Mahaweli attract hundreds of elephants during the dry season
Somawathiya also periodically goes under water during very heavy Northeast Monsoon rains. Some years the floods get so bad the priests have to be airlifted by helicopter! One year during such a major flooding we attempted to reach the temple by navigating the Periya Aru - a tributary of the Mahaweli Ganga in a motorized Zodiac inflatable dinghy that we launched from Sungawila. Our attempt to reach the temple was completely thwarted by a huge swarm of angry bees that attacked us repeatedly aroused by the deep hum of the 4-Stroke 40HP outboard Suzuki engine. I guess this is another story for another time.

Navigating the flooded road to the temple
One day we were at a meeting with the chief incumbent of the Somawathiya temple, Venerable Sri Sumangala—who was this short dapper cherub looking man with a mischievous smile. Sri Sumangala was explaining to us the problems the temple was facing from wild elephants. According to him elephants would come practically every day and nothing was safe from their probing proboscis. They ate the puja (offerings) and then toppled the offering tables, broke statues and tried get into buildings, and as a form of amusement chased around the few devotees who were brave enough to come to the temple.
A wild elephant strolling in front of the historic Chaitiya with a devotee running to safety
On that day a bus load of devotees had also come and they were going about attending to their religious activities. A wild elephant just sauntered into the temple like a domestic cow and started to chase the devotees. Fortunately, the devotees—old and young—managed to escape unscathed by coming into the building where we were in and by getting into the bus with some even clambering onto its roof!

A wild elephant casually saunters to where a group of devotees are 
Oh what fun! Chasing pilgrims
The elephant then came and poked its head right through the doorway into the room we were having the meeting. When this happened we were seated around a short table going over a map discussing the layout for an electric fence for the temple. The discussion came to an immediate halt - since it seems we have got a “trunk call” of immense proportions! Anyone looking into the room would have observed an astonished and silent group consisting of the Chief Priest, myself, three SLWCS staff persons and one elephant head! Well actually the elephant was not astonished, it was sniffing about the room waving its sinuous trunk as if smelling a rat—“oh so you guys are planning to fence us out from the temple eh!” To say we completely lost the thread of our discussion would be an understatement.

What is going on here? Planning electric fences ah?
We soon learned though the biggest culprit was not the elephant—it was our dapper host the Chief Priest with the mischievous smile!  After we had collected our wits together and recovered somewhat our composure, Sri Sumangala called out to his retinue of junior priests. In a short while they brought water melons, bread, pumpkins, and papaya in baskets, which the Chief Priest fed to this particular elephant he had named, Raja. Apparently Raja was the Chief Priest’s pet wild elephant. In fact later we found out that the Chief Priest had a separate budget to purchase food just for Raja.  I must admit that on few occasions not wanting to hurt the feelings of the Chief Priest I too had contributed to the Raja Fund.

Venerable Sri Sumangala feeding Raja

Venerable Sri Sumangala, Raja and the historic Somwathiya Chaitiya in the background
During the dry season over 300 elephants would descend on the grass fields at Somawathiya, but with the onset of the rainy season in October with the exception of a few bulls they would all leave. We continued to meet Raja at the temple where he was a regular.  Though several bull elephants came habitually to the temple only Raja were fed by the Chief Priest. Over the years I got to know Raja pretty well. The five or seven bulls that lounged around the temple knew they were into a good thing—there was always food at the temple irrespective of the season. I knew a giant squirrel called Ollie that had the same penchant to a religious place of worship at Wasgamuwa for the same reasons.

Even after the electric fence was constructed Raja was a regular visitor

Raja and I got to know each other pretty well
Around 2007, Raja disappeared for a prolonged time and then when he returned we noticed that he was nursing tenderly with the tip of his trunk a T56 bullet wound that was behind his right ear. The Chief Priest told us that he had notified the Department of Wildlife Conservation about it. Unfortunately up until Raja disappeared again in late 2007—this time probably for ever since he has not returned by the end of 2010—no vet from the Wildlife Department had come to look at Raja according to the temple personnel.
Last time I saw Raja before he disappeared for ever.
In 2006, the SLWCS provided the temple with a 1.5 kilometer electric fence that was constructed in a manner that still allowed elephants to walk through the temple without coming into contact with the devotees, temple staff and buildings. Today devotees to Somawathiya can venerate the Lord Buddha amidst wild elephants in safety and without fearing for their lives. Earlier the few devotees to the temple kept an eye out for elephants and moved to safety as soon as they saw an elephant approaching the temple premises. The danger of course increased sharply during dusk and night time since it is very difficult to spot elephants in the dark. This became extremely dangerous especially when devotees were organizing and planning events on the days leading to Poya and other important Buddhist events. Especially because most of these activities including the main Poya day religious activities are conducted during the night.

Up until the end of the war only a few devotees used to visit the temple. But with the ending of the war now hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the temple. What is remarkable about Somawathiya is that even with such a large influx of visitors to the temple—up until now there has been no incident with elephants.
Linda Reifschneider, founder president of Elephant Support Group observing a wild elephant from the Chaitiya
In 1997, the SLWCS came up with the innovative concept to completely encircle a village with a solar powered electric fence and build the capacity of the villagers to maintain the electric fence over the long term. At that time other than for fencing elephants in national parks (which is still practiced by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) there was no effective solution to resolve HEC. Over the years the following international organizations have provided funding support to the SLWCS to construct solar powered electric fences. The Wildlife Trust, Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Elephant Foundation, Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Canadian International Development Agency, and the Alexander Abraham Foundation. Technology and materials for all the electric fences were supplied by Sunpower Systems Private Limited.

Once the SLWCS developed the concept to erect an electric fence completely around a village the Society contacted Sunpower Systems Private Ltd., to get their technical support to construct the electric fence. Sunpower Systems are the agents for New Zealand based Gallagher Inc., who produced the best electric fence equipment. When Sunpower was made aware of what the SLWCS was attempting to do, they in consultation with Gallagher Inc—gifted all the control room equipment to a value of ~US$7,000 to the project. At the time the CEO of Sunpower said, “rather than being just a supplier and a contractor, we want to be a partner in such an innovative and pioneering project!” That was 16 years ago! That first fence has been continuously operating for the past 16 years affording protection to the Pussellayaya Village in Wasgamuwa. Today concepts developed and successfully applied by the SEHP Project are being emulated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Mahaweli Authority, various other conservationists, elephant researchers, and organizations based in Sri Lanka and in other South and Southeast Asian elephant range countries. Since 2008 the SEHP Project has won four national and international awards.
UNDP Equator Initiative Equator Prize 2008

National Science Foundation Award 2010

AmCham Sri Lanka Award
After the official ceremony was over, the Weheragalagama villagers invited Ambassador Butenis to a reception that had been organized under the spreading branches of a Maila tree. Underneath its cooling shade on a trestle table made of local wood the villagers had laid a spread of local traditional foods and herbal tea made from Eramusu (Hemidesmus indicus). At the reception, after partaking in some light refreshments, Ambassador Butenis got to meet the locals and pose for photos with them. Very generously she had brought some gifts to give to children which were distributed at the reception.

A villager serving Kiribath

Meeting the locals

The village cultural troupe with the Ambassador

SLWCS Staff with the U.S. Ambassador
Soon after Ambassador Butenis left since she had to be back in Colombo in time for Memorial Day, which is a major holiday in the USA. Just fifteen minutes after Ambassador Butenis left, a herd of 30 elephants arrived at the Weheragalagama tank!

A herd of 30 elephants came down to the tank at the end of the celebrations
The visit of the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka as the Chief Guest of one of our projects marks another outstanding mile posts that highlights, the efforts of the Society to develop effective and sustainable solutions to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka. The Society sincerely appreciates the support Ambassador Butenis has given to us during her tenure as the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka. We wish the Ambassador all the very best and hope in the years to come she will continue be a friend and supporter of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society!

Thank you and please come again!


  1. Great efforts and nicely composed …. Keep it up Ravi… Good Luck. Janaka Mudalige

  2. Thank you for your continuous efforts in resolving the HEC. Sad that finally no one responded to Raja's wounds.