About a century ago Sri Lanka’s sprawling rainforests were home to thousands of elephants roaming freely. However, with the introduction of tea and subsequent expanding plantations which resulted in severe deforestation in the wet zone and central hills of the country combined with game hunting during the colonial period rapidly dwindled the elephant population within the rainforests. Since gaining independence, situation has become worse with increasing encroachment by tea plantations resulting in once contiguous and massive wet zone rainforests being decimated into small forest patches. As a result, only around 8 rainforest elephants remain in Sri Pada (Central Hills World Heritage Rainforest) and while 3 elephants were known to live within Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest only 2 have been recorded in recent years. These two rainforest elephants of Sinharaja are known to be siblings and middle aged. Genetically, behaviorally and structurally different from their dry zone cousins, the rainforest elephants of Sinharaja have been observed travelling approximately 15km to 20km daily, frequently moving between the fragmented rainforests within Northern Sinharaja, namely Delwala-Walankanda forest reserve, Kudumeeriya forest reserve and to the east the Rakwana hills.
These two rainforest elephants play a major role in controlling illegal activities within Sinharaja and adjacent Kudumeeriya and Delwala-Walankanda forest reserves as those who engage in these illegal activities greatly fear the elephants. Without these two elephants, poaching, illegal logging and mining activities within the protected reserve will quickly gain pace. Unfortunately the Forest Conservation Department has not been successful in preventing illegal activities in protected reserves and while the Department of Wildlife Conservation is better at patrolling, it is a pity that only two wildlife rangers are stationed to look after the entire Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest!
To protect the rainforest elephants of Sinharaja while protecting the property and lives of villagers, it is important to establish Wildlife Conservation offices within the elephant migration routes in northern Sinharaja along Kudumeeriya forest reserve, Delwala-Walankanda forest reserve and Rakwana hills to the east. These wildlife conservation offices should be provided with adequate rangers and equipment. Additionally, GPS collars should be attached to the last two elephants, monitoring their movement and alerting the rangers/villagers appropriately. Agri Fences and Village Fences should be installed to reduce Human-Elephant conflict. Through studies conducted by Ministry of Environment in Sri Lanka such as ECAMP (Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project) during the last few years, use of Agri fences and Village fences have been successfully tested.
The recently appointed Minister & Deputy Minister of Wildlife Conservation initially orders to Department of Wildlife Conservation to immediately capture these last two rainforest elephants of Sinharaja and move them to Horowpathana Elephant holding grounds, which would be a jail sentence for them. These rainforest elephants cannot survive in the dry zone Horowpathana enclosure. Even holding the elephants captive in nearby town of Kalawana mean the extinction of rainforest elephants from Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest. Such action will soon result in a collapse of the entire ecosystem as illegal activities including poaching and deforestation would increase rapidly.
Many experts have studied the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka and have produced valuable reports and action items. Experts including former director of Wildlife Conservation Department Sumith Pilapitiya, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Deputy director of Department of Wildlife Mr. Manjula Amararatne attended one such workshop held on January 24, 2017 at Sri Lanka Foundation. During this workshop, several important decisions and action items were taken to combat human-elephant conflict.
The reasons for these two rainforest elephants to clash with humans is due to them being abused by humans especially those who conduct illegal activities and hence do not want the elephants around them. Poachers and those engaged in illegal logging have attacked these elephants using acid and shot several times. While a few villagers have used fire crackers to scare the elephants away. These activities have caused tremendous anger among the elephants towards humans. Since many villagers prefer to have these elephants live in the forest, timely action should be taken to educate all the villagers as to what and what not to do. Many of these villagers have been hit hard by changing weather patterns and their tea crops have suffered as a result. With the tourism sector in Sri Lanka expanding rapidly, many of the villagers could benefit in the future as a result of conservation.
Destruction of Elephant Habitat @ Kudumeeriya forest in Sinharaja Rainforest Complex
Therefore, we urge the relevant Government authorities to protect the last two rainforest elephants of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest using in-situ strategies identified by the experts, such as GPS/GSM collaring the elephants, monitoring their movements, expanding the number of wildlife rangers and officers, providing better equipment and installing agri fencing/village fencing.
Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka