Political interference standing in the way of elephant conservation - Expert



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By Ifham Nizam


The Department Of Wildlife ‘doctored’ last elephant count in 2011 and claimed that there were 5,728 elephants, says one of the foremost authorities on Sri Lankan elephants,Jayantha Jayawardena.


Jayewardena, who is the Managing Trustee of the Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust and also member of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group told The Island that the last time the Wildlife Department carried out a census of elephants; they had a man from the famous American circus Ringling Brothers, to advise them. That count showed that there were 15,000 odd elephants in Sri Lankan jungles. The department then ‘doctored’ the figure and came up with the altered number 5,728 elephants.


Jayawardena said that he was not happy with ongoing initiatives,"I am certainly not happy. In fact, I do not think that anybody will be happy with the elephant conservation programmes that are being conducted now."


Jayawardena said that from time to time different governments had various plans, programmes and agendas for elephant conservation. However, none of those had been successful, not even, at least, to the extent of reducing human-elephant conflict, let alone conserving the elephants for the future.


The Department of Wildlife Conservation was responsible for most of those programmes, but since they were done in an ad hoc manner and more designed for fighting fires than long-term conservation planning, they fell by the wayside. Another reason for failure was that the department did not encourage public participation in their programmes, he said.


"They are reluctant even to let the public know what their plans are. Another reason is that political interference in wildlife department is rife. It shows that our politicians lack knowledge of our wildlife and common sense as well," he added.


Jayawardena noted that "One of the outcomes of this interference is that the staff of the department is reluctant to take any initiative fearing that they may be faulted". Earlier senior officers could not run the department because of political interference. "We already have a plan for elephant management, developed in 2011, and if the government can implement it then surely we can reduce the incidence of the human-elephant conflict."


"We have good officers in the department and they are very keen to protect our wildlife. However, political interventions had rendered them ineffective."


"I have been involved in wild and tame elephant studies since I started as a tea planter in my youth. I have always done what I could for elephant conservation. I have also helped others engaged in research, study and observation of elephants I am now doing what I can as an individual and also through my Non-Governmental Organisation the Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust. I am concentrating on the human aspect of the human-elephant conflicts."


He said that most of those engaged with elephants were frustrated and fed up with the present situation brought about by the department’s attitude and performance. Decisions made by them from time to time had sometimes have detrimental effects on the elephants.


Citing an example, Jayawardena said that the electric fence between Lunugamvehera and Yala NP, prevented the movement of elephants and had caused elephants to starve to death.


"In the future if the department wants to use my knowledge and experience I will be happy to help them," he added.


Jayawardena said the present elephant count that would be conducted in most parts of the Dry Zone in an inopportune time as it was still raining. Due to the availability of enough water inside the jungle the elephants were unlikely to venture out. Normally, waterhole counts were done in the dry season because elephants had to come to the remaining water holes for drinking.


"With the unexpected showers elephants will remain inside the jungle canopy and cannot be seen. The persons who are participating in the elephant count must have a practical knowledge of elephants and their behaviour to enable them to identify the different elephants. The brief training given by the DWLC is not enough for such a count that should continue for at least 48 hours continuously."


Jayawardena also said that a wide research study by Dr. Prithivira Fernando and his team had authored a report titled ‘First country-wide distribution survey of the endangered Asian elephant: Toward better elephant Conservation and Management in Sri Lanka’. Their work would be very useful to conservationists and researchers in that it would provide realistic information on the distribution of elephants and humans throughout the island, the expert added.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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