Mr. Corea speaks to Elemotion Foundation about the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society’s work, their unique volunteer program, solutions to Human Elephant Conflict, and temple elephants. Interview, October 2012
>What kind of work does the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society do to reduce Human Elephant Conflict?
The way we approach Human Elephant Conflict is to look at what it means in today’s context. Earlier, it was purely seen as a wildlife management issue. But, today, it has transcended to a point where it is one of our biggest environmental and socioeconomic crises, especially in the rural areas. And, of course, anything to do with a socioeconomic crisis ultimately translates into a political issue.
In the beginning, the approach by the government, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, was to fence elephants into the national parks. And, that was not working. One reason is because the national park boundaries are administrative boundaries. It is not the ecological boundary of the elephants, or any wildlife in the park, for that matter. So, instead, we put the electric fences around the villages. The village boundary is a definite socioeconomic boundary which the villagers understand. And that’s exactly where we don’t want the elephants to go. They can go anywhere else. And anyway, over 70% of the wild elephants live outside the protected areas. So, it doesn’t make sense to fence the park. When you complete fencing a park, you cannot ever guarantee that all the elephants are in the park. So, knowing the fact that 70% live outside the protected area, you are just unnecessarily stopping elephants from going through their natural ranging. In our model, the concept is fencing elephants out rather than in.
>How long have the fences been operating? What results have you seen?
We established the first fence in 1997, and it’s still operating and has been continuously operating for nearly 14 years now. We will be celebrating the second fence’s 10th anniversary next year.
The impact has been remarkable. Just by addressing the conflict and stopping the elephants coming into the villages, we have increased income of the average villager by 212%. Agriculture production has gone up by 93-97%. And, you can see this affluence in the village now. When we started our work, 99% of the village homes were mud huts. Today, you can’t even find a mud hut. We had to build a mud hut as a model to show visitors how these people used to live. But, the most important changes have been the attitude of the villagers. They don’t perceive the elephant as a threat anymore. Today, the villagers say, we take our children to show them elephants. (They can be seen right outside the village near the reservoir, especially during the dry season.) Earlier, if the villagers saw elephants, they would be making noises and trying to chase them away. But now, that doesn’t happen at all. The elephants are bathing, drinking, grazing. The people, maintaining a distance, are doing the same; bathing, catching fish, and socializing. It’s remarkable to see these two species which were once in conflict are now, at some level, tolerating each other and coexisting. And, that is mainly because we stopped the negative impact that they had on each other. So, our focus is to create this kind of situation where there is conflict.
>Can this be replicated elsewhere? And, do you think this model can be sustained in the years to come?
To emulate this is in other areas, we need support from the state and government institutions. At that level, there are lots of obstructions for various reasons. Again, it transcends across the three main aspects of this issue, the wildlife management or environmental issue, the socioeconomic crisis, and the political issues. It can become difficult to navigate. An important idea that we need to get across to politicians, administrators and development planners is that our development efforts in areas that have elephants have to be around the elephant—meaning the elephant and its needs have to be given priority. The needs of the elephant have to be in the center of all our development efforts for these areas. This is the most cost effective and sustainable manner to develop. This also ensures that we are safeguarding one of our biggest natural assets. To disregard the elephant in our development efforts will put a huge burden on our environment, economy, and communities. Development efforts up to now which have completely disregarded this important consideration has created intense conflicts, which is highly detrimental to both people and elephants and is very costly to mitigate over the short and long term. If we are to resolve human-elephant conflict to a level where it is tolerable and manageable then we need to be preemptive and proactive. Right now most of the ongoing efforts by the government are reactive measures which are applied in an ad hoc manner, so not surprisingly, the success rate has been dismal. Especially when you compare the outcomes of these efforts with the scale and magnitude of human-elephant conflicts, presently we are losing on average over 200 elephants per year due to conflicts. Around 50 people on average every year are also killed by elephants in conflict areas. In addition just the loss in agriculture production alone has been estimated to be close to US$10 million per year. So as you can see, this is an issue that needs a more focused and integrated systematic approach to resolve it.
In regard to our efforts, a very important issue is how to maintain the status quo of what we have achieved at our project site in Wasgamuwa. How can we sustain this model or maintain this tolerance? It is very fragile. Anything can disrupt this, especially if a plan for large-scale agriculture or human settlement program is created to develop the land area directly outside the villages. That would completely jeopardize balance. Today the common language is economics. If something has economic value, people will tend to pay special attention. One of the ways we are looking at doing this is eco-tourism. Our projects are attractive to a certain kind of tourist who is looking for an exceptional experience.
>You spoke about the electric fences, do you have other projects in place to help reduce the impact of Human Elephant Conflict?
We have other alternative and supplementary programs. One program involves trying to provide farmers with buffer incomes by using Elephant Resistant Crops. If an elephant destroys a villager’s rice crop, they will have an economic buffer with their Elephant Resistant Crops. And, this will keep them from harassing the elephant or trying to poison it. Today, they use some very horrendous methods. For example, they put explosives into vegetables and fruits, so that when an elephant eats it, it shatters their jaw. And, of course, the elephant starves to death because it cannot eat. Livestock is also a good option for places where Human Elephant Conflict is a problem. Elephants have no conflict with livestock, such as cattle. So, rather than permanent cultivations, dairy is a great alternative. If the elephants eat your grass, it is not such a problem as if they ate your bananas, or corn, or rice. These are the measures that we are trying. Some of these concepts of ours are also being emulated in places in India, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
>How important is the economic welfare of villagers in mitigating Human Elephant Conflict?
I would like to expand the scope of the question. More than just the socioeconomic wellbeing, you need to talk about awareness. You want people to understand the various contexts in which the elephant is important. Elephants are important figures in biodiversity, religion, and culture. When you talk about the socioeconomic welfare of people, you are talking about the people who are only at the interface of the conflict, those that suffer when the elephants come into their villages. But, when it comes to awareness, you have to look at people across the board. The Asian elephant and the people of Asia have a relationship that goes back more than 5000 years. There are people who do not know that. And, what is unique about this relationship is that at no time in the history of mankind has there ever been such a relationship between people and a wild animal. And I doubt that there ever will be another relationship like that.
But the welfare of people is very important. I think that in any measure we develop, people should see a tangible benefit that they can relate to. It is also important to make them realize that that change has come because of the elephants. In our discussions with the communities, we try to remind them that we are there today because you have elephants in your backyard. And the affluence you see now is because of the elephant. I think people understand that. I believe it shows because the measures that were applied by us years ago are still being used, such as maintaining the fences
>Tell me about your volunteer program.
It is very important for us. Not just for the money it brings us, but the volunteer is sending a very strong message to the villagers. The elephant was something they took for granted and considered a nuisance. Now, all of a sudden, they see this person who has travelled from far away, leaving everything familiar, coming to an unknown place, and trusting people they have never met. All these things, the villagers question. They are very curious about this person. They look at this person who has come from abroad and they think, “Would I do that?” They see this person alone and having tremendously great time. In this, they see the elephants and projects have a value and that shapes the attitude of the people. If you come to our project sites, the volunteers become part of the village fabric. The volunteers are offered the same acceptance as they give to one of their own people. So, it’s a great environment.
We have been operating the volunteer program since 2002. The revenue that the volunteers bring helps us to maintain the fences, create new projects, and sustain the program. We like having new volunteers come and experience conservation efforts and learn about the local people, culture, and traditions. Our programs offer a broad, integrated experience.
>Tell me about temple elephants.
The temple elephant issue is a huge dilemma. The elephant is very closely associated with Buddhism. I don’t see how this association can be changed. But, from a more humane perspective, there must be a better way to maintain the elephants which are used for this purpose. And that is the issue; most of the temples do not have the facilities to keep elephants. And you can see that easily. You can go to any number of temples, including a prominent temple in Colombo, you will see that the way the elephant is kept is horrible. Some of the major temples, such as the Temple of the Tooth Relic, have more than ten elephants.
One of the solutions that I would like to promote is to have a common facility where these elephants can be kept. From there, the elephants can be transported to the temple functions. So, when the elephants come back to this facility, they can be off their chains and interact with each other. Of course, there will be management issues, such as mixing and matching animals that are compatible. But, I think that is a better way to keep these animals. And, I think overall, it will give credibility to the justification of having to use these elephants. Plus, it shows that on our part, we are concerned. We care about the elephant. We are not just treating it like some inanimate, cultural object. We are looking at it as a living, feeling animal that has certain needs and requirements to lead a fulfilled life. Right now, there is a one way relationship: shackling and keeping them to use for our convenience. There is really nothing from our side that is being done to make that animal’s life better. This needs to be resolved immediately because these animals have a horrible existence. It comes down to what the great Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘A nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals.’ I think we should listen to those words of wisdom.