By Salik Ansar
Day by day, elephants are losing their habitat. Hour by hour, they are losing their sources of food and water. Now, they are faced with yet another threat – falling into man-made trenches. These falls, and getting stuck in trenches, could be life-threatening. In 2021, the State Ministry of Wildlife Conservation decided to dig trenches to try to prevent elephants from crossing into human-occupied lands. However, experts fear the decision will cause more harm to the animals than good.
As a nation, Sri Lanka has suffered over the last few years: the economic crisis caused by the dwindling economy, the rise in inflation and questionable policy decisions; large-scale deforestation; mismanagement of state funds… the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, human-elephant conflict (HEC) appears to have been at its highest these last two years, with losses from both sides. While many NGOs and concerned individuals are constantly finding innovative ways to mitigate HEC, Sri Lanka’s governing body – the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) – has also been busy finding solutions. After deliberation, the DWC has resorted to digging trenches to mitigate conflicts in the selected area. But as you’ll see below, we ask the question: is this really a solution?
The plight of the elephants is simple, day by day they are losing their habitat, their sources of food is decreasing, and now they are having to navigate dangerous trenches in order to feed themselves.
Who thought of this solution?
The State Ministry of Wildlife Conservation, in a sudden change of events, decided to dig trenches in an aim to prevent elephants from entering human-occupied land. To understand this sudden decision, we need to delve into the political landscape. Over two years ago a new political party came into power and with them came promises: a promise to find a solution to HEC in all affected areas in the country.
Tring to uphold these promises, the state minister along with the President of Sri Lanka appointed a “Presidential committee” to look into many state matters, including the matter of resolving HEC. The committee had members who were wildlife experts, and they came up with an action plan for HEC mitigation, which did not include trenches. However, the state minister, who is not a wildlife expert himself, came up with the idea to build trenches around farming communities where HEC is at its highest.
Are Trenches the right solution?
According to the former Department of Wildlife Conservation head, Dr. Pilapitiya, trenches have been tried before and it has failed, not only in Sri Lanka but in many other ranges across the world. It is ineffective and inhumane.
“In Sri Lanka, trenches have been tried in combination with DWC electric fences at the Pelawatte Sugar Company and the Lunugamvehera National Park in the south and Kathnoruwa in the northwest but proved ineffective. Private landowners in the Puttalam area have also tried out trenches but without success,” Dr. Pilapitiya points out, with evidence in hand.
The view from Thailand
Earlier this year, we initiated a collaboration with partners in Thailand to monitor elephants in agricultural fields using camera traps. Trenches have been in use for some time to keep elephants away from the pineapple and other fruit crops in the area. Having habituated to this tactic by now, it was interesting to see how the elephants behaved. In the video below, PhD student Tyler Nuckols from the University of Colorado Boulder is filming elephants entering the agricultural area using night-vision binoculars. Instead of serving as a barrier, some wiley individuals use it as a shelter for hiding from the night patrols! This is only natural, given that elephants often use dry river banks as movement paths.
Many experts feel that trenches will cause more harm than good. In Sri Lanka especially, the trenches are ineffective, as the heavy monsoonal rains fill the trenches and eventually the sides collapse. Moreover, the trenches will be a barrier to the movements of smaller animals. As is observed in other parts of the world, smaller animals will get caught in these trenches and eventually succumb to slow deaths without food, water, shelter or a means to escape.
Another point to note is the cost. Trenches are expensive both financially and environmentally. In order to build them, heavy vehicles tread into the forest, thereby damaging the sensitive ecosystem and surrounding environment.
Despite all this, in December 2021, the DWC expedited this trenches project. By the end of the month, excavations began in Wilpattu, Lahugala, and Udawalawe, using additional DWC resources and were excavated within weeks. DWC plans to excavate more trenches in the coming months.
How are we dealing with this now?
Many environmental NGOs banded together to stop the trenches project. The Centre of Environmental Justice (CEJ) was the pioneer in this struggle. They immediately filed multiple lawsuits against the digging of trenches in several areas in the country, including the Protected Areas under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No 2. Of 1937. They argued that trenches are not a strategy to mitigate HEC, particularly without either expert recommendations nor considerations of past experiences. The case is scheduled for a hearing this month and CEJ is hoping for a favorable response. Meanwhile, historic protests over the economic crisis has precipitated a change in political leadership. Fingers crossed that the case and future environmental decisions meet with a favorable outcome – stay tuned!