by DJ and USW
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.
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.
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.
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.