Fencing the conflict

by DJ and USW

A female elephant was seen on the corridor - note the gut shot wounds

A female elephant was seen on the corridor – note the raised bumps on the skin, which are suspected to be old gunshot wounds.

Uda Walawe elephants have access to nearby protected areas (managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) through two separate “corridors;” Dahayyagala, connecting the park to the proposed Bogahapattiya Sanctuary on the northern boundary and Wetahirakanda, connecting it to Lunugamwehera National Park on the eastern border. Elephants can be found outside the park pretty much all along the border except for the southern section. The identified corridors, however, are too narrow at some places (500-1000m). Corridor boundary is marked by electric fencing. The existing fences sometimes run too close to human settlements and at other times they run through forested habitats leaving elephant needs (like water holes) outside the corridor. In such cases, those who maintain electric fences have to walk into elephant habitats for a few kilometres daily and that doesn’t sound practical (as a result, some parts of the fence easily go non-functional).  Given the inefficiency of fenced boundaries and escalating human elephant conflict in the area, the Department has taken a very timely decision to re-define corridors and upgrading electric fences to better serve both humans and elephants. The plan is that eventually the corridors will be broadened while the existing fences will be lengthened and strengthened.

Elephant habitats in the area

Elephant habitats border a critical resource – water.

An Elephant damaged paddy field in Meegaswewa

An Elephant damaged paddy field in Meegaswewa.

Meegaswewa is one of the villages bordering Wetahirakanda Corridor’s southern boundary. This farming community has about 150 families. They farm their own property, borrowed land and even Forest Department and Government Land illegally – yes, land is limited whereas local population growth is not. Elephants roam the entire area; forests provide them food, water and shelter which they supplement with the palatable crops grown nearby. Crop raiding is common along the corridor so the conflict interface is intense. More than 95% of the farmers have experienced crop loss.

Farming ever expands

Farming ever expands.

This intrigued our research team to look at the current context of the conflict in the area aiming at evaluating the projected success of electric fences of Wetahirakanda Corridor. A study was designed based on a questionnaire survey, which was conducted during February-March 2017. A hundred respondents (Male:Female =1:1) were interviewed from 9 villages, revealing conflict-related data for the past five years.

We recorded at least 11 human deaths in and around the survey area, which resulted from unexpected encounters with elephants mostly in the night, with the oldest incident being recollected occurring in 1995. Official records by wildlife authorities for just the past five years show there were a combined total of 17 deaths among all the areas surrounding the park. Records also show that in 2016 there were 5 human deaths , whereas in 2017 there have already been 4 (3 in April alone, within the survey area). So it looks like this year is off to a bad start. In 2016 there had been 26 elephant deaths, of which nearly half were conflict-related. This year there has been at least elephant shot to death already.

Locals perceive that the conflict has been escalating, and the data seem to bear it out. The reason for this recent spike? They suggest land grabbing is directly driving it. Some of the land in the area which locals used to benefit from has been converted to commercial farming plots under corporate management creating a competitive environment. Indeed, we observed timber and fruit plantations nearby, with well-maintained private electric fences. Locals thus complain about lost opportunities from both farmer and elephant points of views. Meegaswewa gives us one of the best examples of complex nature of human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka, particularly of its socio-economic and ecological aspects.

Commercial teak farming in the area

Commercial teak farming in the area.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation is now planning to accelerate their fence project to protect those villages bordering Wetahirakanda Corridor from wild elephants. Although one might expect this to be good news, not everyone is happy about the fact the existing corridor is being expanded. They fear they would lose access to forested areas after the fence, as their livelihood activities totally depend on forested and protected areas – cattle herding, farming, sand mining, poaching etc.We plan a second phase of this survey after the fence project is completed. The fences are expected to help those who are in need, we hope, including wild elephants. Will it? That’s what we want to find out.

Talking to the locals

Talking to the locals.

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Changing Shades of Green

by DJ and USW

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Picture taken in 2011 shows scattered trees and grass species in between

If your garden is left unattended it grows wild after several seasons. Eventually, there will be a mini-forest of a few species carefully chosen by a natural process. This is an ecological succession. The same takes place in the wild. Once a habitat is disturbed but then left undisturbed by humans, it goes through a series of structural changes in the vegetation with time. Continue reading

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Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant

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A young female named Right Hole puts her trunk over the head and back of another female of similar age with the ID [458]. The two are from different social groups, though they know each other.

Elephants are commonly thought to live in matriarchal societies which rely on the strong leadership and wisdom of elders, with strong age-based dominance hierarchies. Our new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology overturns this view, finding that in fact Asian elephants, unlike African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership” [1]. Continue reading

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Collateral Damage Part 2 – Bycatch

By DJ & SdS

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In the fishing industry, the term “bycatch” refers to species that are entrapped in fishing nets that are not the intended target species.  Such victims, many of whom may die and simply be discarded overboard, represent a terrible waste of life.

Well, in Uda Walawe the bycatch this time was an elephant. Continue reading

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Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods. Continue reading

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Collateral Damage Part 1 – Snares

By DJ & SdS

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

A snare is a hunting device resembling a wire noose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to trap wild animals. In Sri Lanka, such poached bushmeat consists of wild boar, porcupine and lesser members of the deer family and is mostly locally consumed. Hunting non-protected species (wild boar and porcupine, which are considered as vermin) is not illegal but other species like deer are protected by the local Fauna and Flora Ordinance.

Locals say snare traps are often meant for wild boars. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate, they also make victims of species like leopard and elephant. During the last five years, more than ninety percent of the leopard deaths occurred in hill country, Sri Lanka was due to physical injuries of ensnaring. Our observations in Uda Walawe and Minneriya National Parks suggest that it is usually less-experienced juvenile elephants are the victims of snare traps, though adults may sometimes show signs of old wounds. Trunk injuries show the animals are vulnerable even during grazing, not just while walking. Perhaps calves’ natural curiosity makes them especially vulnerable. Continue reading

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Imagining Human-Elephant Coexistence on World Elephant Day

by DJ & SdS

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

Human-wild elephant interactions usually bring negative outcomes. The friction stems from the never ending competition of resources, mainly land. A conflict is defined as a state of mind in which an individual experiences a clash of opposing feelings. When the two species fail to share common resources, a conflict naturally takes place.The discussion must invariably focus on those who live alongside elephants. Their relationships with wild elephants vary. While some think total rejection is the answer, others considers having elephants around is fine as long as they don’t disturb their basic lifestyle.

Is human-elephant coexistence ever possible? Continue reading

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Wildlife officers see what “evidence” means.

By DJ & SdS

Workshop participants

Officers from the DWC (middle and back rows) along with workshop facilitators (front row).

Decision making in wildlife management is always challenging; some may bias towards wildlife and others towards human needs. This conflict can be resolved only by making decisions based on facts or scientific data, which constitute a form of “evidence.” Thus, evidence-based decision making is considered the best approach to managing wildlife and habitats around the world. The opposite of this is management based on emotion, political agendas, or even expert opinion (which can often be wrong). Continue reading

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Ethimali Finds Her “Forever Home” In The Wild

by DJ, USW, and SdS (Photos by DJ &UWERP)

The female orphaned elephant calf found in Ethimale, Southern Sri Lanka rescued and brought to Elephant Transit Home (ETH), Udawalawa was later named Ethimali. After several years of rehabilitation, she was released to Uda Walawe National Park in March 2004, when she was about 4 years old, with another 10 rehabilitated juveniles.

Some young females at the ETH show an array of maternal or allomothering characters from an early age, despite being orphans themselves. They seem to select calves out of new arrivals and try to be as attentive to them as possible. She frequently checks whether her orphan is alright and will be the first to respond if the orphan screams or is attacked by another calf. She keeps continuous company for the orphan and with time, it starts to follow her most of the day. When the orphan seeks comfort she allows it to suck on her – in the absence of real milk, even the tip of an ear will do!

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf.

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf in 2004.

Continue reading

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Justice For Elephants in Sri Lanka: Dead or Alive

By DJ, edited by SdS

Is the future more promising?

Monks pay tribute to the slain elephants. Photo by Sanka Vidanagama

Monks pay tribute to the slain elephants. Photo by Sanka Vidanagama

Sri Lanka has been in the international news for her views towards elephants, native and exotic. Animal lovers and conservationists remain hopeful for a promising future.

January 26th marked International Customs Day. Sri Lanka destroyed nearly 1.5 tons of ivory confiscated in 2012 by the local customs, becoming the first to do so in South Asia. The shipment was en route to Dubai from Kenya and contained tusks of African elephants killed by bullets. DNA tracking later sourced the origin of tusks as Mozambique and Tanzania, which are known elephant killing fields. Despite many requests from locals to donate part of the seized stock to Buddhist temples as ornaments, customs was stern with their decision to destroy the total shipment of “Blood Ivory.” Continue reading

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