Text by Rohan Wijesinha
Photographs below by Selvam Canagaratna
In the Sunday Island of January 31, 2015, this author published an article titled “The Uda Walawe National Park: where Wildlife supports People”. In the latest issue of Sanctuary Asia (Vol. XXXV No. 5, May 2015), Sri Lanka’s renowned elephant expert, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, warns of the tragedy that awaits this same elephant population as they face starvation; a grim fate for a species that has helped a once remote and relatively unknown area of Sri Lanka attain economic prosperity.
The problem at Uda Walawe is that in the last two years, the elephants’ main source of sustenance, the Guinea Grass, referred to as Mana in Sinhala, has failed to grow. In his article, Dr. Fernando explains this as follows:
“A number of factors impact grassland succession. Fire generally retards succession and maintains grasslands. It burns off the dried-up, above-ground portion of the grasses and kills seedlings of other colonising plants, but the rootstock of the grasses survive. With the next rains, the grasses sprout again whereas other scrub and tree species need to be re-seeded and start from scratch. Therefore, where annual fires occur, grasslands are likely to remain as grasslands. The ‘fire-suppression’ policy adopted by the Wildlife Department is a critical factor that probably encouraged succession and quickened the demise of the grasslands in Udawalawe.
Elephants and cattle have complex impacts on succession. By browsing and trampling emerging seedlings of shrubs and trees, as well as impacting the earth especially by the hooves of cattle, they retard succession. By dispersing seeds of shrubs and trees into grassland by consuming them elsewhere and depositing them in droppings in the grassland, and by overgrazing of grasses, they promote succession. Whether the overall effect is retardation or promotion of change may also depend on the density of elephants and cattle. At lower densities they may promote grasslands but at higher densities cause their decline.
There are an estimated 30, 000 head of buffalo and cattle in the Park, despite the fact that the Law is very clear that domestic stock cannot be grazed within a National Park. At Uda Walawe, however, the cattle owners have long enjoyed local political patronage and when a previous Park Warden had the temerity to enforce the Law, he soon found himself in trouble, and out of Uda Walawe!
Most of the buffalo have now gone feral but there is no determination from the Department of Wildlife Conservation to enforce the Law, and certainly no intent from the politicians involved to do what is right.
Action is Imperative
Dr. Fernando sounds grave warning in concluding his article:
“If we want to bring back the Guinea grass for elephants, quick and appropriate management is imperative, as elephants are slow breeding, and once populations start declining they cannot recover quickly or easily. However, blind knee-jerk remedial attempts may do more harm than good…
The way to figure out how the grass can be restored is by conducting trials with manipulation of the putative agents of change and monitoring. Control plots subject to combinations of different forms of vegetation clearance, fire and grazing by cattle and elephants need to be set up to assess if there is any one or combination of management actions that can restore Udawalawe to its former elephantine glory.”
Nothing was done
In October 2007, foreseeing the possibility of today’s events, and on the request of the then appointed Consultant to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) at Uda Walawe, this author submitted a series of proposals for the better management of the Park to ensure its future survival. Some of these included:
a. Re-institute and enforce the ban on domestic buffalo and cattle being grazed in the Park.
a. Re-plant a 500 metre belt along the electric fence bordering the Tanamalvila Road with a mixture of Teak and indigenous trees. This will not only serve, in the long run, to provide much needed sources of food and shade to the elephants, but will also keep the enterprising “scroungers” away from the fence for a long enough period to break them from their ‘habit’. A further advantage will be that it will deter the spread of Lantana into these areas (the shrub is already taking hold in those areas of Hulankapolla now devoid of Teak).
This belt, too, will have to be separated by an electric fence for the first 3 – 5 years to protect the growing trees from the predation of elephants…
e. Fires are essential to the life cycle of the Park – for the healthy re-growth of mana so vital to the elephants’ diet. However, they must be controlled. For this, it is essential that the Fire Breaks are maintained so that only sections of the Park can be set alight, in rotation, over the years. This will allow the re-generation of trees and reproduction of the reptiles and smaller mammals which used to contribute much towards attracting a wide variety of raptors to the Park.
With careful and enlightened management, Uda Walawe has the potential to be one of the premier Parks in South Asia. Surrounded as it is by 53 villages, it can prove to be an example of how a wildlife reserve can successfully exist surrounded by a large population of people. However, for this to succeed, these people, too, must have a stake in the Park and must have a share in any profits made from it…”
Needless to say, nothing was done, and the elephants, and people, of Uda Walawe now face a bleak future.
A Brave New World?
There has been political change in Sri Lanka, supported by the majority of its citizens, and there is a new found freedom and hope stemming mostly from the reestablishment of an independent Judiciary. Yet, until the Civil Service is also liberated from political patronage and manipulation, the peoples of this Nation cannot expect to enjoy the true fruits of democracy. This is never better illustrated than by the DWC and Forest Department. With heads largely appointed due to their allegiance to the political regime, with little commitment to the sacred charges of which they have been given responsibility, the wild places and wild creatures of Sri Lanka are at the mercy of political rather than National need. No better example can be found than the large scale deforestation of the Kallara Forest Reserve, on the borders of the Wilpattu National Park, with the Laws of the country with reference to conservation and environment being flouted by the encroachers, and the statutory bodies conveniently looking the other way. Though the President has stopped further forest clearing in the area, why is it that the Head of State has to intervene to ensure that the Law of the Land is enforced?
As for Uda Walawe, is there the political courage to have the Law enforced and 30, 000 head of buffalo and cattle removed from the Park? At least those number which have gone feral – about 80%? This is despite that fact that their contribution to the local economy is far, far less than that which is earned for the region by the elephants, and other creatures, of the Uda Walawe National Park. The DWC will certainly do nothing about it unless their political masters instruct them to.
There once was a National Park called Uda Walawe…
As I pointed out in my article of January 2015, the Uda Walawe National Park has directly contributed to the financial upliftment of a once largely unknown little hamlet. Hotels and shops have sprouted in the area, jeep drivers make good living off the tourists, and the Park itself earns millions of rupees, every week, for the coffers of the Government. What will happen if the elephants of Uda Walawe disappear? Starved to death! As Dr. Fernando puts it:
“Continuing to play the fiddle while Udawalawe does not burn would hasten the day we will say: “Udawalawe National Park was once famous for its elephants.”
After all, who will come to see starving elephants?