Conservation Amidst COVID-19

By USW

Life has been a challenge for everyone these past two years. COVID-19 has made every little aspect different and difficult. Much like everyone else, I too, had to adapt and change to this new normal. The country’s situation was much better in 2020 than in 2021. As the virus started to spread, many rules and restrictions were imposed, our conservation work was hindered.  Meanwhile, the lockdowns enabled increases in poaching, elephant killings, human-elephant conflict and the like.

Against such a backdrop, I tried my very best to stop these unauthorized activities in and around the Udawalawe National Park, relying on the assistance of farmers, villagers, environmental organizations, the Wildlife Conservation Department, and the Forest Department. Both the Wetakhirakanda and the Dahaiyagala corridor were key area of focus for most of these activities. Over the years being in this region and my work outside of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, I have strengthened relationships with these stakeholders – especially the villagers and farmers – which allow me to be updated and be quick to respond to any such activities.

The Dahaiyagala Incident

The beginning of 2021 was a terrible period for the environment. The current government, led by the President, made decisions that caused a number of environmental catastrophes all over the country. These included many illegal land development strategies. Although, the government wasn’t directly involved, their lack of involvement saw an increase in illegal land clearing by local councilmen and thugs in the area. The deforestation of forests such as Sinharaja and Muthuraja are some of the prime examples. In addition, certain places surrounding the Polonnaruwa tank, where elephant sightings are common, were also part of the mass deforestation.

An illegal clearing at the Dahaiyagala corridor.

The President, in a surprising move, seemed to have decided to de-gazette the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor between Udawalawe and Bogahapalessa and distribute that land to the farmers in that region (see: Deja Vu at Dahaiyagala). I was one of the first to become aware of this. It was crucial to quickly bring this information to the public as it would hinder the movement of the elephants traveling from Bogahapitya to Udawalawe and vice versa. This would in turn increase the human-elephant conflict since fencing off parts of the Dahaiyagala Sanctuary would leave elephants no choice but to encroach human habitation in search of food. Environmentalists, some local villagers, civil society activists, ex-officers and I were actively looking for ways to put a stop to this.

Despite the COVID situation rapidly getting out of control, with my family’s support, I was still able to create the necessary awareness to halt the deforestation. My family during this time was very supportive – knowing the risks I was taking by meeting with the public, putting my family and children at the risk of contracting the virus, they still understood the importance of protecting the Dahaiyagala corridor, especially what it meant to the elephants.  Like us, many others shared the same feeling. Working together, the issue was brought under control, which made it massively satisfying. There were certain sections of the Dahaiyagala forest cleared by the local councilmen and local area thugs, however, the main clearing of the land by the government was halted and that was a major win for all of us. In more ways than one, I felt like this was my small contribution to reducing the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.

The Dahaiyagala situation caused a stir all throughout Sri Lanka and helped bring attention to the many other deforestation issues occurring around the country. Many Lankans who usually were oblivious to the environmental destruction, became aware and vocal about the deforestation. In March 2021, I participated in large protest in Colombo, over a thousand gathered, many of them youngsters. Participating in this protest was not in itself a big achievement but it made me see the number of youngsters taking part and gave me hope for our future.

Rambo’s future

Next major thing that happened this year was the attempt to relocate our infamous Rambo, the elephant. Rambo once thrilled the tourists who flocked to Udawalawe. The chance to feed him fruits was a popular attraction for the local and international tourists alike. More than once, the Department of Wildlife conservation (DWC) initiated steps to capture the 50-year old Rambo and relocate him to Horowupathana Elephant Detention Center – which is just as it sounds, a prison for misbehaving elephants. Now on hard times with no tourists to be fed by, Rambo has been raiding nearby farmlands for fruits as well as the sugarcane fields just across the road. As he is now a threat to the farmer’s crops and their lives, the DWC decided to take this action to reduce human-elephant conflict.

Rambo was a year-round resident of Udalawawe National Park, where he is supposed to be protected. This was not his fault – it was people who created the problem. I did not want to see him spend his last few days in some detention center. He has a right to live in Udawalawe and I was determined to make sure he does. To get this information to public, I started telling his story bits by bits to my followers on Facebook and hoped for the information to spread.

Soon many heard about the plans in store for Rambo. Environmentalists and other activists reached out to me and we started to work on finding ways to halt this relocation.  During this time, a revered monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, got together with me and was able to speak to the farmers and convince them that relocation was not a permanent solution. If not Rambo, sooner or later it will be another elephant in the same situation.  Ven. Sobitha Thero and I also spoke to the DWC Director and he finally agreed to stop the relocation of Rambo and let Rambo stay in Udawalwawe. The director also assured us a solution to crop raids in the coming weeks, which we communicated to the farmers.  Rambo being able to roam free in Udawalawe National park is a small victory for me.

However, over the next few weeks and till this day, DWC are yet to provide a solution for the crop raids. With each passing day, the farmers are becoming restless and I fully realize that my word and responsibility are on the line. We do worry that one day, man or elephant, someone will get hurt.

Rambo pleasing the tourists.

What Comes Next?

The Covid 19 situation now has been out of control in Sri Lanka and the country is once again imposing travel restrictions and lockdowns in many parts. However, this hasn’t reduced the environmental destruction or elephant deaths. Many were electrocuted and shot this past year, and Sri Lanka is on track to break its world record for elephant deaths again. During every situation I dedicate myself to be involved in some way.  One of the saddest moments of this past year was when I witnessed a female elephant consuming the “hakka pattas” – a man-made grenade (Read: Explosive Food and What It Tells Us About Ourselves). She suffered for two days, despite the assistance of some local villagers and Dr. Malaka Kasun, the veterinarian’s, care, she passed away.

Ever since I was a child, I always loved the environment, and it’s that love that propels me to go above and beyond any situation, dedicating my time and effort completely to the cause. Regardless of the country situation, I still continue to help the farmers in any way possible. I make sure the next generation is educated about the environment so that the cycle of destruction does not carry forward. I believe that mother nature can cure and solve all our problems, but in order to do so, we must love the nature and protect it as best as we could. I live by these principles and I will do my part in this world. Let us hope as the year progresses, things turn out better.

Sameera Weerathunga is the Field Manager and Project Coordinator of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project.

Follow these stories @trunksnleaves, #DefendDahaiyagala and #UWERP.


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