Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The elephant human conflict

In order to appreciate the surroundings in which this retreat is located, one has to understand some of the issues facing the village today and the historical events that have led to this.

This village is one of only six that existed in this whole district 150 years ago when there were more elephants in the area than humans. One must therefore assume that the community was able to live in harmony with these majestic beasts and the weapons available to them made the killing of elephants or harming them impossible.

Over the last hundred and fifty years, lands in the district were cleared for agriculture, elephants were either captured or killed, and the space available for them to forage for food and roam, drastically reduced.

In order to preserve what little wildlife that remained, the Minneriya National Park was created. This allowed herds of elephants to move into this reservation which was off limits to poachers and farmers. When the water level of the Minneriya tank falls in the months of July through September, the reulting increase in the playground of a couple of thousand acres allows them to gather in the plains to feed on the fresh grass. These are awesome sights, when over 300 elephants gather in one place. This is now being publicized the world over as the gathering of elephants, something unique that one must experience at least once in life.

It was also a well known fact that if the elephants were not in Minneriya they were most likely in the Kaudulla tank, which at that time was not designated as a National Park. There appeared to be elephant corridors where they could move from one to another tank without encroaching on human settlements, namely that of Ratmale and its neighboring village of Rotawewa, which were sandwiched between these two large tanks. Both villages have irrigation tanks which supply water to their rice fields and they appeared to manage the elephant threat by keeping watch over them at night during the growing season and chasing away herds that appeared to encroach. The elephants had sufficient sources of food and at the sound of shouts and the light from fires, kept their distance.

Within the past 5 years after the establishment of the Kaudulla National Park, the incidents of elephants brazenly coming to cultivations of the local farmers has increased by leaps and bounds. They are not herds that do the damage, as herds move along tradional corridors that they are used to. They are instead mainly lone elephants or some who come in twos or threes. It appears from talking to the villagers that these elephants may have been moved from other parts of the country where they may have caused damage to agricultural settlements. This would explain their behaviour. They are following what they have done in the past. If they had got used to raiding crops, and breaking houses where paddy is stored, then they have resorted to the same behaviour. In the past year over 6 homes have been badly damaged in this village when the elephants, with an excellent scent for rice paddy, would break the walls of the side of the house where the bags of paddy are stored.

Many people in the village are now able to grow only enough rice paddy to feed their families. They feel as farmers they must grow their staple food and not been seen to be buying it. They therefore store the paddy in their homes. The farmer's wife parboils and mills to get the rice for the next few weeks of consumption. These farmers eat rice for all three meals of the day and invariably par boil the paddy in large urns prior to milling as a traditional way of eating rice. They believe this essential staple adds more taste and fills their stomachs.

My weekly interaction with the neighbors has resulted in a constant litany of woe of what the elephants did last night. It just never ends. A papaya tree that grows very healthily due to the rich soil in the area, can yield 3,000 rupees ($30) worth of fruit a year to the farmer. When elephants seems needlessly to just knock 10 trees down in a matter of minutes, months of effort in watering and fertilizing these prescious trees comes to naught. The frustration and anger directed at this seemingly mindless act of an elephant drives them to despair.

In many instances the people have resorted to making crude guns where gunpowder is stuffed into the barrel and intruding elephants are fired on. In most instances this does not kill but hurts the elephant skin sufficiently to make them retreat. There are instances however, where they result in wounds that do not heal ending with their painful death over a period of time. These gunshots can also lead to angry, infuriated and hungry elephants bent on further destroying cultivations and property.

This conflict has not been adequately resolved, locally or nationally, except for newspaper articles reporting incidents and sometimes promoting some provocative thought. The locals have had meetings with National Park officials who are responsible for protecting all wild animals, whether they are inside the park boundaries or outside. There are proposals to build an electric fence surrounding the village so elephants do not get in. However despite talk that funds have been passed for construction and maintenance, the people are convinced the funds have been purloined for private use by these same officials. So a general level of despondancy results, and no further action is taken.

In light of the above issues, my desire to see elephants dropping in for a drink of water and some grub on my propertly and my neighbors need to chase them away, are in direct conflict. The local populace must feel that both the establishment of the National Park next door and the resulting visitors are a benefit to them which can in some way compensate them for the harm that is being done to them from the presence of these animals. It is a delicate path that we have to tread and one should not make rash statements in favour of the elephant in the presence of local people, without due consideration given to their feelings.

This place is a great place to get a bird's eye view of this issue and anyone serious enough about proposing a solution can get some invaluable insights into how best to resolve it.

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