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 allows me to be updated and quick to respond to any such activities.
The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is decreasing with approximately 1500 elephants left in the wild in fragmented populations. Deforestation, loss of habitat and poaching for ivory are amongst the major threats to the survival of this species.
The Leuser Ecosystem (which forms a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’) and Ulu Masen in Aceh, Sumatra are a stronghold for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and other critically endangered wildlife (e.g. orangutans, rhinoceros, and tigers). Both Leuser and Ulu Masen are essential for the survival and conservation of the Sumatran elephant, but much of their habitat falls outside the protected areas and in the most threatened lowland forests, creating elephant human contact. This makes it critical that effective mitigation strategies are developed that take into account elephant behaviour and the use of technology such as early warning systems to reduce conflict with the local communities.
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.
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.