Save our elephants | Daily News

Save our elephants

Just a couple of weeks after the shocking discovery of Galgamuwa’s majestic tusker Dala Poottuwa’s brutal killing, comes the equally distressing news that another tusker had been killed in a similar fashion in the Puttalam area. What is even more disturbing is the fact that the tusker has been shot dead in a declared forest reserve.

We have heard the refrain that “only elephants should wear ivory” but Man’s greed for exotic animal products knows no bounds. Fuelled by an increased demand for ivory and other elephant products from certain countries, poachers in Asia and Africa have stepped up the hunt for tuskers, often employing very brutal methods to hack off the tusks.

Our elephants and tuskers are in a very vulnerable position and have been listed as “endangered” by several wildlife organisations. As the forest cover dwindles and human habitats encroach on the territory of wildlife, elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) begin come to villages in search of food and water, which is the cause of the much talked about human-elephant conflict. The spread of human settlements, plantations, industry, mining and linear infrastructure facilities are squeezing elephant populations into ever decreasing pockets of forests surrounded by human settlements.

The Sri Lankan elephant population has fallen almost 65% since the turn of the 19th Century and is now estimated to be less than 5,000 in the wild. There are only around 150 tuskers left in the wild while around 250-300 elephants and tuskers live in captivity with religious institutions, state institutions and individual owners.

Around 100 elephants are killed every year by farmers and villagers in Sri Lanka and we also read about villagers being attacked and killed by marauding wild elephants. These elephants also destroy their dwellings and crops. There are no easy solutions to this issue and in fact, Sri Lanka is not the only country in the region to face this problem.

In India, for example, it is even more severe due to population (human: one billion and elephant: 27,000) and geographic reasons. Recently there was a heartbreaking picture in the Indian media of a baby elephant which had caught fire from a firecracker explosion, running away from a mob of people with its mother. Experts have tried everything from electric fences to elephant corridors, but it is extremely difficult to prevent human-elephant clashes given that the elephant is a resourceful animal that finds ways to circumvent obstacles such as fences.

Killing an elephant carries the death penalty in most of the 13 Asian countries having elephant population including Sri Lanka, but this is rarely enforced. However, following the merciless slaying of Dala Poottuwa for his tusks, there are growing calls for enforcing capital punishment for poachers who kill elephants and tuskers. On their part, the authorities have acted swiftly to nab the remains of the tusks as well as some jewellery items made from the tusks. Several suspects are in custody over the incident. The maximum possible punishment should be meted out to the culprits behind this abominable act.

Sri Lanka, as a signatory to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna), is bound to protect its endangered species and prevent their trade in any form, alive or dead. This is important as the country is often identified as a biodiversity hotspot with many unique endemic species. Trade in ivory has been banned under CITES for nearly 20 years. Sri Lanka has made several high-profile detections of ivory bound for third countries and destroyed several such stocks at public events.

Elephants (both Asian and the African Loxodonta africana), along with whales and pangolins are on the CITES priority list for 2018, with a call for more concerted action to prevent poaching. According to CITES, determined action by Governments has brought down tusker poaching last year, with a record haul of illegally traded ivory detected in 2016.

Sri Lanka too must play a more proactive role in CITES’ programmes to designed to help the elephants to thrive – MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System). It is no secret that elephant poachers have links to transnational organised crime gangs that specialize in wildlife trade – intelligence sharing among countries with significant elephant populations is essential to keep them at bay and possibly put them in jail.

Asia has only around 49,000 elephants left in the wild with a further 15,000 captive ones in sharp contrast to Africa which has more than 500,000. But this number could drastically go down if no action is taken to prevent poaching trophy hunting and habitat loss. Sri Lanka has already drafted a National Elephant Conservation Plan that includes aspects such as research and development, education and training, fund raising and prevention of hunting/poaching. CITES also calls for engagement with local communities to gain their participation in biodiversity conservation and land use planning and provide sustainable and alternative livelihoods through financial support. These are significant steps as elephants are a part of our culture, nay, our very soul that deserve to live on without fear and danger. 


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