Is it too much ‘Water for Elephants’..?

By Malaka Rodrigo

During the height of the drought, hundreds of elephants gather at the Minneriya tank bed in search of fresh grazing grounds. But will excessive water in the Minneriya tank be too much ‘Water for Elephants’ – question conservationists and tour operators...

Elephant conservationists as well as Tour operators in Sri Lanka were alarmed over disturbing news last week that could threaten the Great Elephant Gathering at Minneriya. The recent heavy rains filled out most of the small tanks, which meant that water from the larger Minneriya and Kawdulla tanks would not be required for irrigation, as much as in previous years. According to reliable sources, it is intended to stock this excess water in the Minneriya and Kawdulla tanks for future use. Though this will be good for irrigation and paddy farming, excess water will also prevent the creation of grazing grounds during the dry season, that triggers the annual Gathering of Minneriya Elephants.

The ‘great elephant gathering’ is a phenomenon of the vast grassland created on the large reservoir beds, as water is drawn for irrigation during the dry months of the year in July-August. Experts say that these large tanks shrink as much as 25%, and the water receded tank beds are covered with grass, providing a rich grazing ground for elephants during the drought, when there is a shortage of food in other areas. The event has been promoted as one of the major wildlife spectacles in Asia in past few years, attracting hordes of tourists to see 200 – 300 elephants at a single location. So ‘the gathering’ also carries a great economic value and also helps to boost Sri Lanka’s image as a major tourist destination.

“Whilst it was the common belief that the large elephant gathering was due to the availability of water in the reservoirs, it is these rich grasslands created annually on the reservoir beds that attracts the elephants, on the contrary” confirms Associate Scientist- Dilmah Conservation Trust, Manori Gunawardena, who had conducted the research on the demography, social organisation and ecological needs of the Minneriya and Kaudulla elephant population.

The study funded by Dilmah Conservation Trust also pointed out that it is vital that these grasslands in the reservoir beds are maintained during the dry season, and therefore a critical period to sustain the elephant population. The young elephants are greatly affected during the dry season due to lack of food, according to the previous researches. “Should these large reservoirs be maintained as stock reservoirs, where the water levels remain full year round, the elephants will be deprived of this much needed food source, and would be forced into other areas in search of fodder, since the Minneriya and Kaudulla elephant populations move within a landscape that has a large amount of agriculture on its peripheries. So it is likely that conflict with humans and crop raiding will increase” says Manori, who studied these Kawdulla and Minneriya elephants extensively under this project.

Environmentalists also worry that the Moragahakanda Multipurpose Irrigation Project will continue to release more water for these tanks, which will stifle grazing grounds created for the Minneriya and Kawdulla elephants in future. Director General- Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja, when contacted, said that, large areas of grasslands will be lost by stocking water in Minneriya and Kawdulla, which will deprive the elephants. The DWC is also on alert and will start discussions with the Mahaweli and Irrigation departments to coordinate activities beneficial to wildlife, irrigation and tourism et al.

While the gathering has grown in repute as a major tourist attraction in Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, similar gatherings take place on emerging grasslands of many large reservoirs islandwide during the drought. Maduru Oya, Gal Oya, Parakrama Samudra, Kalawewa, Lunugamvehera all host a gatherings of elephants during these critical dry months of the year by providing much needed grazing grounds.

Water for irrigation is essential for agriculture, but if not carefully controlled, it will give rise to other problems such as human-elephant conflict while undermining tourist attractions. Hence, conservationists and the business community together request the need to asses all the governing factors carefully, at the planning process, before implementation of the outcome of their deliberations.

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