Deja Vu at Dahaiyagala

by SdS

Elephants at the Pokunutenna reservoir.

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.

Left image shows an overlay of the designated corridor, as demarcated years ago by the DWC. Yellow circle shows the rough area within which the (Bogahapalessa) soil consumption sites are located (precise locations intentionally not shown). “Wewa” refers to small man-made reservoirs, used for cultivation but also frequented by animals. The right image is the same, without overlay, for better visibility of the encroachments.
The Dahaiyagala “corridor” sanctuary (left of the roadside canal) is hemmed in by cropland on all sides, a hotbed of human-elephant conflict.

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.

Read article in the Daily Mirror.

As we have written about earlier (see here and here), this is foolishness, pure and simple. Elephants in Sri Lanka have learned not to care about fences.

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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Contribute to our legal defense fund, so we can help our conservation partners fight the case. Contributions are tax-deductible in the U.S. and 100% will go to the fund with no additional fees.

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A Christmas Wish

By USW

Back in 2004, a male calf was born to the young female elephant, 458. The calf had baby tusks and this made his birth all the more special. He was named Therapuththa, or T458. We named him Therapuththa but labeled him as T458, following his mother’s ID, this is because it helps us keep track of him in the future when we catalog his movements, features and characteristics. His name, Therapuththa, was taken from ancient history: it is said that King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors protecting him and Therapuththa was one of the most loyal and endearing ones. The mother, 458, was often spotted with two other female elephants, who we have labelled as 040 and 041. After tracking this herd for so many years, we have unfortunately not seen any calves after Therapuththa. So he was quite special, besides being a tusker, which is rare in Sri Lanka.

He had a good mother, who gave birth to healthy calf and nurtured the calf throughout his life. T458, Therapuththa, grew up to be a majestic and healthy elephant. We noticed that his growth was slower than other elephants his age, but given the fact that he was healthy and his tusks were growing, he turned out to be a beautiful elephant. His herd, along with Therapuththa, was always on the move. One week, we spot them near the 5th mile post Udawalawe and the next week we spot them near another location, for example near places like Mankada lake ground and Pokkunuthena lake ground.

In our work, it’s absolutely important to recognize elephants through photographs, which allow us to follow their lives and behavior. With time, we noticed Therapuththa’s features were also changing. As he grew up, he started moving out of the herd as most male elephants tend to do. He was spotted all around the Udawalawe forest during this period. On one such occasion, around the month of January in 2014, he seemed to have got his leg injured by a rope or snare. We couldn’t help him, due to the fact that he kept roaming all around the forest and we couldn’t keep track of him. However, in March, we noticed that nature was healing his leg. Over the years Therapuththa has encountered similar situations, but fortunately, he has managed to survive and heal.

This past November he faced he yet another problem. This time he had gotten wire (mostly used as fences) wrapped around his trunk. It’s not clear whether this is by accident, or due to a snare like the ones hunters illegally use. Injuries to the trunk are more severe than in the leg and could impede his feeding. We have been in search of Therapuththa hoping to get help to him. We received information from farmers and goat herders that he was spotted around Balaharuwa, Kalavelgala, Habbegamuwa, Pokkunuthenna, and Galpaaye.

Below are some photographs from our own collection as well as those shared to us by Dr. Malaka Kasun Abeygunawardene (Veterinary Surgeon at the Elephant Transit home Udawalawe).  He had received these photos from a visitor to Udawalawe National Park (thank you for reporting this, whoever you are!). Ever since Dr. Malaka got to know about this situation with Therapuththa and his injured trunk, his team, along with us has constantly been on the lookout for any clues to T458, Therapuththa’s whereabouts.

This search has brought together many like-minded and caring well-wishers. With everyone’s help we still find it difficult to locate him. There are many hindrances in looking for Therapuththa, the rainy season has flooded the rivers, lakes and small potholes, this makes it all the more difficult to traverse the area in search of Therapuththa.  With the rain and the mud, it is difficult to identify Therapuththa among other elephants, and it always feels like it we are 10 steps behind when we search for him.  

Message to Theraputha –

We know you are suffering and walking around with pain. We know you overcame this in the past but we want to find you and help you. We hope we are not too late. We hope you hang in there longer. We want people to help us find you. As each second goes by, we fear we might lose you. Even if we don’t find you, we pray you get out of this dilemma and we spot you healthy and alive soon.

We hope we can find Therapuththa, we know many elephants have suffered similar fates, but we pray this is not the end to his life and that the story of Therapuththa will continue.  I am writing this story in hopes that many tourists will visit the Udawalawe National Park in the coming days and weeks and I am humbly requesting them to help us find him and save one elephant from this park. Please contact us or the authorities if you find any information about him. We pray for his safety.

Udawalawe Park Office: 0473475892

Thanks,

Sameera Weeratunga

Field Manager, Udawalawe Elephant Research Project.

Can Lemongrass Help Reduce Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka?

By Salik Ansar  

So-called human-elephant conflict has been a recurring issue in Sri Lanka for years. With no viable and permanent solution, different organizations and groups come up with their own plan and methods of dealing with this dilemma. Some, of course, favor humanity at the cost of the wildlife.

With farmers constantly suffering from crop raids and elephants being subjected to agonizing forms of repellents, Trunks & Leaves dedicated our energy and resources to finding a suitable solution to this issue. Our aim is to achieve peaceful coexistence between people and elephants by developing sustainable agricultural models that are compatible with elephants and, at the same time, securing the livelihoods of farmers. We believe that the solution to this is to understand the problem from both angles: the elephants and the farmers.

A few months ago, we partnered with HDDeS Pvt Ltd, one of the largest exporters of spices, essences and floral extracts in Sri Lanka, to test if incense sticks can deter elephants. This project has been set back due to the pandemic but is still ongoing. But we are now exploring ways to develop alternate sources of income for farmers who lose crops to elephants.

The climate and landscape of the Udawalawe region are fertile for plants like lemongrass, and the value of this plant has increased due to the commercial importance of aromatic oil. This is a product HDDeS needs, and research shows that it is not preferred by elephants. Thus, Trunks & Leaves and HDDeS Pvt. Ltd are interested in trying lemongrass as a supplementary crop to provide additional income which can hopefully offset losses from elephants.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) is an aromatic and tall sedge that grows in many parts of tropical and sub-tropical Southeast Asia and Africa.
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Bees are Helping Thailand’s Elephants and Farmers to Peacefully Coexist – Bee Fences in Asia Part 2

A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand

Guest post by Antoinette van de Water

Beehive fences in Thailand. Photo: BTEH

Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.

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Can bees help farmers in Sri Lanka deter elephants from their crops? Bee fences in Asia – Part 1.

The tiny bee vs. the world’s largest land mammal…

Guest post by Kylie Butler

Elephants outside Wasgamuwa National Park / Apis cerana bees being transferred into a hive (Photos: Kylie Butler)

Over a decade ago now, Dr. Lucy King developed the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent, capitalising on a then-recent discovery that African elephants avoided African honeybees (Vollrath & Douglas-Hamilton, 2002). The beehive fence is a relatively simple, inexpensive deterrent, aiming to be a tool that communities can use independently following set-up. The basic premise is that a series of beehives surround an area to be protected from elephants, and if elephants attempt to enter, they will disturb the beehives, causing the colonies to swarm (refer to King et al. 2009; 2017 for more details). It should come as no surprise, that the success of multiple beehive fence trials in Africa, led to a curiosity as to whether this technique could also help Asian communities experiencing comparable levels of crop-raiding.

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The Consequences of Irresponsible Tourism

By Salik Ansar & SdS

Tourist feeding elephants.

September 27th is World Tourism Day, so today we offer some more reflections based on the Udawalawe experience.


Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic halted travel around the globe, the island of Sri Lanka thrived on tourism. A big part of the country’s GDP is attributed to tourism. According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Association, 783,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka’s national parks in 2018, which is roughly 38% of the travelers who entered the country. The parks earned over 2 billion rupees (over $11 million USD) in entrance fees alone. Clearly, elephants have a huge economic value (more about this here).

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Social Media & Wildlife Tourism: Powerful Tools for Good and Bad

Earlier this month, we launched the Ethical Elephant Experiences campaign to shine a light on the issues that irresponsible wildlife tourism can present and to encourage travelers and travel companies to commit to responsible practices.

Before COVID-19 halted travel, wildlife tourism was becoming increasingly popular, and elephant experiences were at the top of many people’s bucket lists. Wildlife attractions account for 20-40 percent of all tourism worldwide, with up to 6 million people visiting these sites each year. In Asia, there are over 3,800 elephants living in captivity. This is a significant number when you take into account that there are only 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.

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Responsible Tourism & Ethical Elephant Experiences

Mother and calf - ethical tourismOn World Elephant Day, Trunks & Leaves is challenging travelers and travel companies alike to commit to responsible tourism practices when it comes to viewing and interacting with Asian elephants.

 For the first time in recent history, the world has slowed down, the travel industry is on hold, and humankind has a chance to reflect on the way we’re doing things and how we can improve in the future – for both humans and wildlife.

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Explosive Food and What it Tells Us About Ourselves

By SdS

Injured elephant in water.

Photo by Mohan Krishnan of injured elephant in the water.

Somewhere, there is a hungry elephant, following her nose, wandering an ever-diminishing forest in search of food. She ventures to her usual places, finds them lacking. She wanders further from where she feels safe, considering what she may find closer to the villages nearby.

Somewhere there is a hungry person. Perhaps a farmer, perhaps a hunter. He is looking to drive away pests from his land, or maybe to earn a bit of money from bushmeat. He selects a large fruit or vegetable, say a pumpkin or pineapple. He hollows it out, hides an improvised explosive inside, leaves it where some animal will find it.

We know what happens next. Continue reading

When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence. Continue reading