Don’t stump the ‘Stumpies’ of Hambantota

Ambitious new strategies are being planned to achieve Human Elephant co-existence in Hambantota.
Malaka Rodrigo reports

Last Sunday, World Cup cricket fever officially embraced Sri Lanka with the inaugural match witnessed by a packed crowd in the new 35,000 seat Hambantota Cricket Stadium. Dressed in blue, the mascot of the tournament - Stumpy the little jumbo was seen walking in the grounds waving a bat, while the TV footage captured its real life counterpart, a wild elephant at the boundary of the stadium in the background of surrounding scrub jungle.

The International Cricket Stadium is only one of the major development projects that indicates Hambantota’s transformation from an impoverished small sleepy hamlet to a national centre of Sri Lanka. An international harbour, airport, economic zones, tourism facilities etc are being developed, drastically changing the landscape.

There is already Human Elephant Conflict in Hambantota, but with the projected level of development, this conflict can escalate as witnessed in the Mahaweli regions such as the North Western Province. But the situation is not altogether bleak for the Hambantota jumbos. An ambitious plan is being carried out to take Hambantota development on a different path to co-exist with elephants. Usually the elephants are an afterthought to any development plan, but in this development plan, their traditional home ranges have been left for them.

Managed elephant reserve

It is estimated that about 300 – 400 elephants inhabit the greater Hambantota area. This is about 10% of Sri Lanka’s total elephant population. The first step of the exercise was to identify the general home ranges of elephants in the Hambantota area. The research was carried out over the past two years collaboratively by the elephant biologists of the Centre for Conservation & Research (CCR) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Under the project, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, well known elephant researcher had collared a selected number of elephants from different elephant herds in the area.

The collars were fitted with transmitters that emit signals every few hours captured through satellites. The elephants’ locations were marked on a map to shed light on their movements.

This ‘Elephant Map’ with a boundary proposed as a Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) was submitted to the team of experts designing the new Hambantota landscape for human settlements, industries and tourism infrastructure. Other members of this Strategic Environment Assessment team were consultants on Urban Planning, from the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Central Environment Authority (CEA). They then demarcated special zones for development excluding the areas heavily inhabited by elephants.

Their two-year survey was interesting, says Dr. Fernando. The team collared five elephants from different herds in Hambantota after a preliminary study. They are named Thaga, Sakunthala, Sapumali, Uma, Valli and Wanamali. With this data, Dr. Fernando’s team could clearly identify their home ranges. This area is demarcated as Managed Elephant Reserve (MER). “With the concept of MER, both human and elephant can co-exist in areas designated for them,” said Dr. Fernando.

The elephants can also be a big tourist attraction. “A region where the development vision embraces viable conservation values by using the best available information and innovative planning,” said Manori Gunawardena, wildlife biologist and conservationist who also studied the Hambantota elephants.

Failed elephant drives

Hambantota is encircled by protected areas – Udawalawe, Bundala, Lunugamwehera and Yala, so it could be asked why these elephants cannot be driven to these already existing National Parks?
Elephant Drives have been proven a failure, ironically in Hambantota itself. To facilitate agriculture in Hambantota through the Walawe Left Bank irrigation project, the Wildlife Department was asked to move elephants to the nearby Lunugamwehera National Park.

In 2006, an elephant drive was conducted to chase away a herd of an estimated 100 elephants inhabiting this 600 area selected for development. But 250 elephants came out from the jungles indicating how little is known about the elephant ranging patterns. The elephants driven and confined to the Lunugamwehera National Park faced a worse fate than when roaming near human settlements. Lunugamwehera has an adequate extent of land, but the elephants did not disperse evenly in the park, staying closer to the electric fence penning them which created a resource shortage The fate of these 250 or so elephants in Lunugamvehera National Park is uncertain.

Dr. Fernando estimates there are about 300-400 elephants still in Hambantota. If the 2006 elephant drive which cost Rs.160 million was successful, then how could there be such a large number of elephants remaining in Hambantota, questions Dr Fernando highlighting that the elephant drives are a failure.

“Only the young and some herds mainly consisting of females could be moved by the elephant drive. The large male pachyderms who are really the trouble makers remained in the area,” pointed out the elephant biologist. “Like the humans, elephants too are attached to their homes and those who have higher instincts also returned.”

The proposed MER is aimed at getting development away from the elephants’ path. It is proposed the existing villages and other development projects in the area remain, but not expand. Electric fences will be set-up around these facilities and villages. Mattala Airport will be the only mega scale project located in this MER. An area of 800 ha is demarcated for its first phase and a management plan is set up not to increase the conflict with elephants in the area.

Signs of encroachment

However, the biggest challenge facing this ambitious Human Elephant Co-existence project is the encroachment inside the newly conceived Reserve. People want land for cultivation, house plots, and some indulge in just plain outright land grabbing. Already there are farmers who pump water from the Walawe West Bank project and start irrigation work in an unplanned manner. Although the MER allows existing practices such as rainfed agriculture, it cannot sustain elephants if the habitat is splintered, fenced and diverted further for human use. But if the local politicians too support these encroachers, the whole effort will be pointless.

“This is a really good opportunity to highlight that development and conservation can go together in sustainable manner. There is lots of development on the way and if it is not done in planned manner, it will create a severe Human Elephant Conflict in southern Sri Lanka,” warns Dr. Fernando. The team leader Prof. N. Ratnayake, who is an expert on town planning stresses that lots of effort has been put into the plan.

Here lies a golden opportunity for the planners to showcase innovation in sustainable development providing a global example on Human Elephant Co-existence even amidst massive development.

Whom to conserve - DWC elephants or FD elephants?

Traditionally, electric fences were erected surrounding the National Parks managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). But on the other side, the adjoining lands too are forests that belong to the Forest Department (FD).

So there are often elephants living on both sides of the fence. But with the new proposals by elephant experts, this distinction seems to be disappearing and the electric fences are going to be moved to the Forest Department lands, giving the elephants more breathing space. This will be a big positive for elephant conservation points out Dr. Prithviraj Fernando.

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