Fonseka going ahead with Rs 6 bn project to end human-elephant conflict

... flays media, animal lovers over criticism of his move


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Sustainable Development, Wildlife and Regional Development Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka yesterday declared that in spite of objections by some interested parties he was going ahead with a comprehensive plan to solve human-elephant conflict.

Addressing the media at his ministry, Fonseka said that the project, partly funded by funds currently available with his ministry, would cost approximately Rs 6 bn. Cabinet of ministers recently endorsed the project, Fonseka said, adding that there had never been an action plan to tackle the issue though the conflict claimed the lives of many humans and elephants.

 Fonseka said that he had been forced to explain his position as a section of the media and some animal lovers were engaged in a vilifying campaign.

 According to him, in 2017, 270 elephants and 85 humans died; 185 elephants and 65 humans have perished so far this year. Fonseka said that T-56 assault rifles, trap-guns and hakka-pattas (improvised explosive devices concealed inside fruits etc and had been used to kill elephants. Of the 270 elephants, about 75 per cent had been killed by people, Fonseka said, asserting that the government was finding it difficult to cope up with growing elephant population. 

The top soldier estimated the elephant population, which was approximately 2,500 in 1985, at 7,000 at present.

 Fonseka said that the human-elephant conflict was a national problem. Responding to calls by some environmentalists to create conditions for humans and elephants to live side-by-side, Fonseka insisted that the reality required tangible measures to separate them.

 Fonseka said that about 15 years back there had been 17 elephants in Sinharaja forest though there were only two left out of them now. They, too, would face the same fate if they weren’t moved out, Fonseka said, stressing that electrified fence was the only solution.

 According to the war veteran, in addition to 4,500 km long elephant fence in place now, his ministry was making arrangements to build a further 2,500 km long fence to prevent elephants raiding villages.

 Fonseka said that about 7,000 workers including 3,000 Civil Defence Force (CDF) personnel would be deployed to man the elephant fence. Responding to media query, Fonseka said that President Maithripala Sirisena had ordered the CDF deployment following his request for Army volunteers.

Fonseka acknowledged that the existing fence was not properly maintained and certain sections lacked strength as well as electricity.

 According to him, building one kilometre of the fence would cost approximately Rs. 800,000.

 Fonseka said that the government would make available 10,000 to 15,000 acres of forest to accommodate elephants and intended to move about 100 elephants responsible for deaths of humans to a special area in Horowpothana, where a stronger fence was in place to prevent those attacking villages. 

The Field Marshal called for trebling of Wildlife Department strength to meet growing requirements.

 The minister also explained the establishment of mechanism to swiftly resolve disputes regarding forest boundaries before the commencement of the construction project.

 Responding to a query, Fonseka said arrangements were being made to deploy 7,000 personnel within the next six months. According to him, the project envisaged acquisition of 300 vehicles and as many as 3,000 SAR 40 Chinese-built guns.  

Fonseka assured that he wouldn’t allow any irregularities under any circumstances and the project would be subjected to strict auditing. 

Displaying some paper cuttings from Sinhala newspapers, Fonseka flayed some journalists and animal lovers for being critical of his project. Alleging that they were pursuing an agenda inimical to him and his ministry, Fonseka said that certain statements made by some of them revealed their true intentions. Fonseka said that he had been accused of planning to distribute 10,000 acres among his relatives and friends and also facilitating projects undertaken by some businessmen based in his home town Ambalangoda.

Fonseka said that the said Ambalangoda projects had been authorized before the change of government and various interested parties were engaged in a high profile mudslinging campaign against him. 

Commenting on an organized racket in dealing with stolen elephants, Fonseka alleged several persons, including the former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of having an illegal elephant received through a sannasa issued by his brother, a reference to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Fonseka said that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had an elephant acquired legally. Both were handed over to the Army soon after their defeat at the last presidential election.

Fonseka claimed that altogether 39 elephants illegally removed and given to various influential persons had been taken into custody. However, the Attorney General hadn’t so far authorized legal action in case of five elephants. The five cases comprised elephants released to various persons by way of sannasa. A smiling Fonseka said that if stolen elephants could be released on the basis of sannasa, the same could have happened to gold recovered in the North during the eelam war IV.


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