When we saw the destruction, we felt that strange sensation of history repeating. We’d been here before, a little over ten years ago.
Dahaiyagala sanctuary is a little-known, nondescript little strip of forest north of Udawalawe National Park, one of the two official “corridors” that supposedly links the park to the outside world. It is supposed to lead to another forest area, which conservationists and wildlife authorities refer to as Bogahapattiya. It also borders Pokunutenna village, a hotbed of unrest with respect to human-elephant conflict. Dahaiyagala represents unfinished business to the various parties, in very different ways.
The significance of Dahaiyagala can’t be understood without first describing Bogahapalessa. Sloping upward gently from hot valley and low-land forests of Udawalawe, the cooler hillsides of Bogahapalessa are lush and green, hosting a very different community of plants and animals. The misty slopes are also a watershed, with streams feeding into the river system below. Tucked into the banks of these streams and hillsides are strange cave-like structures. Turns out there is something uniquely valuable here besides the biodiversity – the soil itself. Wildlife eat the clay and minerals, and elephants in particular are master diggers who leave behind these wells and cave-like excavations. Bogahapattiya is one of the many hidden, threatened treasures of Sri Lanka.
Although for years the Department of Wildlife Conservation had been trying to gazette the area they referred to as Bogahapattiya as a protected area, it never succeeded. Being a patchwork of lands belonging to the Forest Department (which generally doesn’t get along with the Wildlife Department), a local temple, and other private interests, Bogahapattiya itself has been encroached and is under constant threat from rich, land-grabbing developers. And it is to this secret Eden which the elephants of Udawalawe and droves of other wildlife seem to move via the narrow strip of forest known as Dahaiyagala and the mosaic of agricultural fields around it. Fortunately, in 2015, under revised mandate, the Department of Forest Conservation made good on its promise to gazette a the large tract of land that it referred to as Bogahapalessa. But a clear connection between the DWC-managed Dahaiyagala corridor and DFC-managed Bogahapalessa never came to be. It’s because of the disputed status of these connecting lands that Dahaiyagala has long been eyed greedily by those who want to get their political edge by pandering to the ever-present desire of people for more cultivation land. Legally-speaking, Dahaiyagala is a corridor to nowhere. Biologically, it could have been a pathway to heaven. But unfortunately, that pathway falls short.
Dahaiyagala which was hardly of adequate size to begin with, has already been severely encroached to the point that it peters out into nothing. Though it should have been around 6km, as the imagery shows, the forested area is barely half of that. What’s more, it doesn’t go directly in the direction of the soil consumption sites at all, so wildlife have to take a circuitous route skirting around croplands. This came to a head in September of 2008 when the UWERP team discovered during a routine survey of the park that someone had started clearing land on the corridor and even penetrated into the park itself. Udawalawe saw few tourists in those days (and even now tours rarely visit the northern edges of the park) so the illegal land clearing had gone largely undetected. Alerting authorities, we learned that the DWC had been in a struggle against a local politician who had forcefully seized the land, saying that it was of no use to elephants. They asked: could we provide data and evidence to the contrary? It so happened that through individual identification, we were able to show that there were seasonal changes to the elephant population in Udawalawe National Park (published later in a study showing that the circulating elephant population of 800-12000 animals was at least twice as high as casual estimates suggested). The data and much public outcry (see image collection below) helped conservation groups and the DWC to successfully mount and win a legal challenge protecting the corridor. Successful, until now.
Last week, we were dismayed to see history repeating, perpetrated by the same people, no less. Close to 400 acres of land have once again been cleared. This time, it would appear, with the blessing of the President himself. Let’s just think about that for a minute while we absorb the following images.
We have an administration that makes a show of trying to end human-elephant conflict, grandly offering to throw millions of rupees at the problem. And yet it is happy to sanction the destruction of natural areas at a staggering rate. Elephants, unfortunately, don’t vote.
The key then, is to get those who do vote, who must live with the now-displaced elephants, to realize that there is a link between deforestation and human-elephant conflict. This may seem obvious, but the dominant thinking in Sri Lanka is still that elephants can be fenced inside the ever-shrinking protected areas as though in a zoo.
The Director General of Wildlife, ever in the hot seat, has tried to delicately handle the matter by stating that what the President actually meant was that only private lands within the sanctuary were to be released, without damaging the integrity of the sanctuary.
What, we ask, is the meaning of such a statement? Private lands cannot be located inside a sanctuary; they are by definition illegal. If the DWC gives away all the protected areas that are encroached (which it is in the habit of doing, under political pressure), what is the point of protecting them in the first place? What’s more, by encouraging these poor people to keep expanding their cultivation areas into areas with elephants, they are actively encouraging more conflict. Elephants in Sri Lanka have been remarkably unaggressive towards people, despite the occasional incident (usually resulting from human behavior). Yet we keep provoking and conditioning them into conflict with us. Humans are not the only ones with culture – elephants also learn from one another, and we are emboldening them more each day. Both people and elephants pay with their lives.
This absurdity has to stop. The conservation community is rallying on behalf of the people and the wildlife by filing lawsuits. This isn’t just about Dahaiyagala, it’s about all the remaining natural areas in Sri Lanka. We can ill afford to lose these, not only for the sake of the species they harbor, but for all the natural and economic benefits they freely provide to people.
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