Environmentalists call for fast and severe crackdown on killers of Dala-Poottuwa

DWC holds crucial two-day workshop on the proposed revisions to the National Policy on the Conservation of Wild Elephants – 2006

Sri Lanka’s psyche and conscience have been violently shaken by the “premeditated murder” of the majestic and beloved ‘Dala-poottuwa’ of Galgamuwa, with wildlife experts stridently calling for an impartial investigation and stern action, without fear or favour, against the “murderers”.

There is a clear need to send a strong signal that the wanton killing of tuskers for their ivory by poachers will not be tolerated, is the consensus among environmentalists, who expressed serious concern that in the tragic case of Dala-poottuwa it seems as if people who were supposed to set an example by preventing such a crime are allegedly involved.

Even though tuskers have been killed for their ivory in Africa and in Asia, usually there is no such trend in Sri Lanka, the Sunday Times learns and this is why the crackdown on the murderers of Dala-poottuwa needs to be fast and severe, was the opinion of all environmentalists.

As the howls of protests against the killing of Dala-poottuwa continued, a crucial two-day workshop on the proposed revisions to the National Policy on the Conservation of Wild Elephants – 2006 was held yesterday and on Friday by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

“Ivory poaching is rampant in Africa and Asia but in Sri Lanka it is not so. This is not due to a strong conservation cover for them but because there is much veneration of tuskers in the country,” said Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) who has been studying elephants for several decades.

Stressing that the killing of any elephant is illegal and thus poaching tuskers is a criminal offence, Dr. Fernando points out that tuskers have a special place both socially and culturally in the country. As such a concerted effort should be made to safeguard these majestic elephants as well as all elephants.

He said that Dala-poottuwa was killed for commercial gain and those who did this should be dealt with severely because their crime is against Sri Lankan society which holds tuskers close to its heart. At the same time society or the people, have a major role to play in protecting these creatures and should treat tusker-poachers as social outcasts.

Before detailing how tuskers can be protected, he gives an overview on these pachyderms: Among Asian elephants only the males have tusks, with the percentage of tuskers varying in different populations. The Sri Lankan elephant population has the lowest percentage of tuskers estimated at around 5% of males. As such Sri Lanka may be having about 75-100 tuskers, assuming that there are about 6,000 elephants. The very low incidence of tuskers in the country is due to the historical capture and killing of tuskers, dating back thousands of years and not due to natural genetic causes but anthropogenic action.

Dr. Fernando then analyses what measures can and cannot be taken to protect tuskers. Citing the case of Kenya where iconic tuskers were protected with armed guards round-the-clock, he says that even that failed to prevent poachers killing some of them. In Sri Lanka, where elephants are in thick scrub during the day and come out only at night and their behaviour of actively avoiding people or reacting aggressively to close approach due to past experiences with people, makes it almost impossible for them to be guarded day and night.

Pointing out that the male-elephants may have home ranges of hundreds of kms especially during musth when they walk long distances across trackless forests, rivers and mountains, he says that it would be impractical to follow them on foot or by vehicle.

Next, Dr. Fernando looks at GPS (Global Positioning System) collaring of elephants to determine their whereabouts, but rejects that from being a blanket protective mechanism for tuskers. “Placing a collar on a wild elephant would pose a risk not only to the life of the elephant but also those performing the collaring. A collar also lasts only about two to three years, while such collaring and monitoring would come at a high cost — Rs. 1 million per tusker. Another important factor would be that a collar will not prevent an elephant being killed,” he says, adding that it may be of use in specific situations where a tusker is at high risk.

He picks on the crucial role that society can play as being the “most effective” in protecting tuskers. The major pillar of such action would be social condemnation against the killing of tuskers. In the case of the Galgamuwa tusker, the incident would have been known to a number of others who are relatives, friends and associates of those directly involved. If society deems that such actions are despicable and unacceptable, those who may be tempted to resort to such a killing would have second thoughts.

Another urgent need is to reject tusks as objects of value and desire, according to Dr. Fernando. The Galgamuwa tusker was killed for its tusks because Sri Lankan society places great value on them. As such there is a need to change opinion to make the possession of tusks unacceptable. Destroying all tusks, including those held by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in public would send a clear signal to all and sundry. There should also be a denunciation of the display of tusks in public places and use of tusks and replicas in religious and cultural ceremonies.

He also touches on the need to make people see tuskers as a symbol of pride, in turn, inculcating a sense of ownership. Villagers need to feel that these iconic tuskers are their very own, which would help protect them. However, a major obstacle that would have to be overcome is the human-elephant conflict (HEC).

Meanwhile, a media briefing on Wednesday at the Burgher Recreation Club, Colombo 5,was opened by the President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, Rukshan Jayewardene with “this is a celebration of the life of a great tusker and the mourning of his untimely death”.

During the briefing which covered ‘A call to action to save the last tuskers of Sri Lanka’ and the ‘Implementation of a comprehensive policy addressing the HEC’, he have a historical view on who would have migrated to Sri Lanka first, pointing out that elephants came to this land long before humans.

Environmental lawyer Wardani Karunaratne urged the public to apply strong pressure on the authorities to safeguard not only elephants but all wildlife, explaining that with societal lobbying as a starting point, it would go a long way in influencing decision-makers.

Picking up the law, she stressed that “we have laws but there are serious questions on implementation and enforcement”.

The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) is an “old” piece of legislation of 1949 which was amended in 2009, she says, pointing out, however, that it does not capture the ‘iconic species’ such as elephants adequately. “Offences against these species are not adequately dealt with. There is also no specific recognition for tuskers.”

Underscoring that possessing ivory should not be a status symbol, she added that Sri Lanka needed to show not only its people but also the world that it is serious about safeguarding and protecting tuskers by destroying all the ivory being displayed in different places.

Courtesy -Sunday Times-

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