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The Elephants in the Room



Jayantha Jayawardene

Take a small-sized developing island nation. Sprinkle in some depleting jungle habitat. Now add five thousand elephants to the mix. Jayantha Jayawardene, founder of Sri Lanka's Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust, tells Pranav Capila, consulting editor with the Wildlife Trust of India, the dangers of stirring such a pot.

Q: You were, I believe, a tea planter at one point of time. What drove you to work with wild animals? A: I have been interested in animals since I was a child. And I was fortunate to have that interest nurtured at school -Trinity College - where I was a member of the Natural History Society. It was just a bit of bird watching, hiking and camping once in a while, but it made a big impact on me at that young age.

Later, as a tea planter, I began camping out a lot in various wilderness areas around Sri Lanka. I grew closer to wildlife, elephants in particular. I took detailed notes when I was out in the wild, observing elephant behaviour, seeing how they interacted with one another.

Q: I read an article in the Asian Wall Street Journal, dated a decade ago, which quoted you as saying that Sri Lankan elephant numbers, unique to Asia, were on the rise. What is the current status?

A: Elephant numbers were depleted at the time and were on the rise. They now seem to be steady at about 5500, neither increasing nor declining significantly.

One reason why people may believe that the numbers are still rising is the large number of baby elephants we find in Sri Lanka annually. However, there are no studies to determine whether these babies ever reach maturity. You see, from the time they are weaned to the age of about eight or nine years, elephants have to compete for food with ungulates such as deer. It is only when they grow bigger that they can reach food sources that are not available to smaller herbivores.

Q: Especially on a small island, a developing nation where the competition for land is acute, doesn't a large elephant population exaggerate human-elephant issues?

A: There are three facets to these issues. One is that man is intruding into elephant habitat: the increase in human population means that more land is required for agriculture, settlements, development etc. That reduces the wilderness area available to elephants - and you may know that the elephant is an umbrella species; by protecting elephant habitat you conserve the habitat of a number of other species.

The second point is that the clearing of jungles is being done ad hoc. The different government departments involved in development activities take chunks of jungle land from wherever they please, without coordinating with each other. Not in a planned way where smaller but contiguous portions of jungle could be left intact. The result: elephant habitat is fragmented, which means that elephants have to travel through human inhabited land to get from one habitat to the other.

The third point is that elephants are smart enough to have realised, over the years, that the food humans grow is highly nutritious. Asian elephants would usually walk 10-20 kilometres a day to find sufficient food. Now they come to human cultivations, which are like supermarkets to them!

Q: In your talk at the Minding Animals Conference (hosted in New Delhi by the Wildlife Trust of India) you said 'conflict' is a one-sided, human centric version of events: it is 'conflict' when elephants hurt human interests, not when humans hurt elephant interests. But how do you sell conservation to people for whom elephant control is quite literally a matter of life and death?

A: I have undertaken two comprehensive surveys in areas of human-elephant conflict around Sri Lanka. I stayed in the villages in these areas, talked to the people there. And if you ask them whether they want the elephants killed, they say no, just get them out of our way, away from our crops.

Q: What's the way forward? I read press reports that suggested there was some talk of exporting Sri Lankan elephants to Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia?

A: Well, Sri Lanka is a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) signatory, so such reports are not founded in reality. It's a question of planning. We have to realise that 70 percent of the elephants in Sri Lanka live outside our national parks - which also increases the incidence of conflict. So at some point of time we have to demarcate the elephants' home ranges, both inside and outside the parks, as protected areas.

Another solution wherever we have intermingling of elephants and humans is to have what we call 'managed elephant reserves,' which place an emphasis on maintaining elephant corridors.

Q: I believe the Sri Lankan Government has mulled a policy to capture 'troubled' elephants and use them for cultural performances, industry etc?

A: Well, Sri Lanka has a requirement for tame elephants, because they are used in temple ceremonies and the like. The number of tame elephants is depleting, however, since there is very little captive breeding. One reason is that elephant owners don't like to have their female elephants 'out of commission' - as they would be when they are pregnant. Second, baby elephants are seen as a resource drain because they are not income worthy till the age of about ten years.

The government used to issue special permits to families that had traditionally raised elephants, allowing them to capture elephants from the wild. This was stopped in the 1970s since wild populations were depleting.

My suggestion to the government of Sri Lanka - I spoke to several ministers about this - was to capture and train elephants that are designated 'troubled'. Such elephants are reported by villagers to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and are thus easily identified; instead of shooting or poisoning them they could be captured and tamed. They could then be given to owners that are registered with the department of wildlife and have been deemed capable of the care and upkeep of such elephants.

The government did actually start a pilot project along these lines. However, when they invited potential owners, about 200 to 300 politicians put their own names forward. So the idea had to be shelved; it has been in limbo for the last five years. It's unfortunate, but that is the nature of the political class in most countries, I imagine!

(This interview was originally published in Sanctuary Asia, August 2015, www.sanctuaryasia.com.)

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