Direct from the offices at the Elephant Transit Home, Dr. Tharaka Prasad speaks to Elemotion about this unique orphanage, Human Elephant Conflict, and Sri Lanka’s governmental policies to protect elephants. Interview, Oct, 2011
>The Department of Wildlife Conservation began the Elephant Transit Home in 1995 to rehabilitate and release wild orphans. How do you find these orphans? Why have they become orphaned?
The information is received from the villagers. There is a system where the village head should report the elephant to the police or the wildlife sector, which is then passed on to us. Once we get the message, we go and rescue the baby. They can become orphans by falling into the pits, agricultural wells, or getting caught in traps. Manmade structures cause this situation.
>In what condition do they arrive? And, what are the major challenges they face?
We they reach us, they are heavily damaged, sometimes with bruises and closed or open factures. Once we treat the animal’s wounds, we have to feed it with artificial milk, cow’s milk, which causes lots of digestion problems. If they are intolerant, it can cause diarrhea. After several days of dehydration and diarrhea, the animal can die if we don’t monitor it closely. The main challenges are to maintain the hygienic feed intake and control infections.
>When do you decide that an orphan is ready for release?
In the wild, once the elephant is about 4-5 years old, they can be self sustained . They are less dependent on their mother, so with this principle, we assume that the best release age should be within this period. So, the release groups are made of batches of 4 to 5 year olds. We gather them and keep them as a family, and ultimately release them together. Before we release them, we fix VHF transmit collars on a few of the babies for monitoring purposes. The collars have different frequencies emitting pulser type signals with different channel frequencies which allow us to monitor them. And, these collars have sensors which will show us if it has stopped moving after 20 hours, called inbuild mortality sensors. It will emit a different signal which indicates that the animal has died. So far we have released 78 orphans. Out of 78, only 4 died in the wild due to diseased conditions. Some have integrated with wild herds very successfully, 4 were recorded in calving. There is also one disabled elephant which was released and has adapted in the wild. This is the first in all of Asia. I heard that several programs like Elephant Transit Home have started since then. Some are in India.
>How many are released at a time? How long, and how often are they monitored once released?
There is no fixed number, but we release at least three animals together. The project’s success is based on successful integrations with wild elephant herds. When the orphans are released in larger numbers, they try to live with their own group. They don’t try to join the wild groups. If they live with their own groups, they don’t gain any experience in the wild and don’t know how to face problems in the wild. So, when we release them in smaller numbers, such as 3 or 4, they tend to integrate better. Smaller numbers is more successful than higher numbers. The original plan was monitor twice per week. But, we found that to be not possible because there was lack of infra structures and lack of staff to monitor . So, we try to maintain monitoring once every two weeks. We must track the animal to find the location and observe them. We need to physically see the animal to observe the body condition, and note their companions to see if they are integrating.
>The biggest problem facing Sri Lanka’s wild elephants is Human Elephant Conflict. How does the Department of Wildlife Conservation view and address this problem?
The Department used several GPS collars on wild elephants, about 25, and monitored them for two years and collected data. This was done with the collaboration of other non- governmental organizations one called, Conservation Center for Research. We noted that several animals were living outside the protected areas. First, we tried to drive the animals from their living area into the protected area. Our drives were not so successful because we only considered from where we must drive them away. We did not consider habitat enrichment of the destination. If they have no food or water, they will come back to where they were before. It was our mistake. They do not stay. So, we observed three times that the elephants go when we drive them away, and then they come back. Elephants are clever. Sometimes they break through the electric fence. They know how to escape.
So, we identified certain areas as elephant managed reserves. Now, we try to maintain these areas without disturbing the people. Our target is to cover the villages with a fence. But, there are not enough people to maintain the fences. The villagers are taking the responsibility only during the cultivation seasons. After harvesting , they ignore all. Other seasons, they don’t want to maintain them. The government doesn’t have the extra money to hire the labor to maintain these fences. It is too much money for them. So, the problem persists. Because of the problem, elephants are dying. On average, it is about 200 per year. Every week, three elephants die. The human rate is about 50 human deaths per year.
The death of humans is mainly due to their negligence by making unusual movements at unusual times. They know elephants are there, but they go anyway. Sometimes, alcohol is involved. Other times, male elephants are a problem. They arrive in the villages and break the houses for stored food. Those animals should be removed by the Wildlife Department. But for those males, our plan is to develop elephant holding pens. We’d like to keep the animal inside the pen during their aggressive periods by doing things like putting additional food. And sometimes, we may have to use hormones to control the aggression. We tried twice injecting an inhibition hormone, which reduces testosterone levels. At first, it worked very well. We saw that the animal is not moving much during this time, while normally they would move much more. But, later on, we couldn’t follow up because a collar malfunctioned.
>How much of the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s work is dedicated specifically to elephant conservation?
Elephants are our main concern. It is a keystone species. By protecting this species, you automatically protect other wildlife species too. But also, everyone likes elephants. When they are hurt, people are very concerned. So, we must try to protect them. We have an elephant policy. It has 6 or 7 regulations. These policies concern domesticated elephants too.
>What policies exist to protect domesticated or captive elephants?
They must be registered under our Department by law. But, it does not always happen that way. When the owner requests veterinary assistance, we are legally bound to visit the elephant. But, they never request our assistance. They have their own veterinary advisors. There are some veterinary professionals issuing contradictory certificates too. As soon as the elephant is smuggled from the wild, they might make a certificate saying they observed a cow which was pregnant had this baby. They are issuing these false certificates, and we try to crosscheck with DNA. They have few pairs of genes, so it is easy to crosscheck maternity. But, they won’t allow the blood to be taken from the suspected false mother. In reality, the mother might still have lived in wild and can’t be checked. They say they won’t allow her to be tranquilized because it can risk her life. They make objections in court that the tranquilizer contains highly levels of narcoleptics, which can cause death. Therefore, they will not allow tranquilization to be performed. Or sometimes, they say that the mother had died, and they already burned the carcass.