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Large-scale infrastructure projects threaten ‘Elephant Gathering’

dailymirror.lk – Srilal Miththapala

The gathering of elephants at Minneriya Park has been in the limelight of late due to a planned musical shore in the vicinity. This has caused much concern among environmentalists and adds to that challenges that the gathering face. 
In this treatise we will endeavour to understand exactly what the Gathering is, how important it is for tourism and Sri Lanka, and the challenges that this phenomena is facing today.

The Minneriya Tank or reservoir is situated in the North Central province. It’s huge, ancient, man-made reservoir covering 1890 Hectares ( 4670 acres) , constructed by King Mahasen in the 3rd century AD.  This reservoir fills up during the North –East monsoon. As the rains cease and the dry season begins, the drought takes its toll, and the water in the reservoir starts to dry up. Although the reservoir shrinks dramatically, it never really runs dry. As the water recedes, it leaves behind fertile, moist soil, where lush grass quickly sprouts.  This provides elephants with excellent and much sort after nutritious food. (pix 1)
The entire reservoir is surrounded by scrub jungle, which opens out into the vast plains of the Minneriya tank. This provides an ideal and unique refuge for elephants during the dry season, where there is an abundant source of water, with nutritious grasslands, and also a readymade jungle cover, to retreat to, when the noonday sun becomes unbearable. 

This is what really causes the now famous ‘Gathering’ of elephants at Minneriya. It is not a migration, but really a ‘coming together’ of a number of different herds of wild elephants from the surrounding areas of the North Central Province. It is surmised that elephants from the Wasgamuwa Park, and from far off areas such as Kantale, make this annual visit. This is indeed a unique phenomenon, not seen anywhere else in the world, where such a high concentration of wild Asian elephants are found in such a small area. (See graphic)

The ‘Gathering” has now become a brand for Sri Lanka and tourism. A search for ‘Gathering of elephants’ on Google resulted in 18,000,000 results (0.41 seconds). I am proud to have played a small role in the branding of the Gathering. Around 2005, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne,  formally with the Jet Wing group (now back in the UK ) and I coined this name over a couple of beers after work, at then popular watering hole for mercantile staff, the White Horse pub at Navam Mawatha. Supported by other wildlife enthusiasts in the tourism trade, such as Chithral Jayatilake from John Keells Hotels, the name soon became a ‘Brand ‘ locally and internationally. 

Making some Conservative assumptions, recent studies indicate that the total tourism financial benefits of the gathering to stakeholders in area in 2018 (the best year ever for tourism) is about Rs.8.7 billion (USD 52 million at prevailing exchange rate at that time) ( ref Srilal Miththapala 2022) . 
Apart from this, it is a unique natural phenomena that Sri Lanka should be proud of ; hence its real value cannot be estimated in rupees and cents. 
But off late, the Gathering has had to face several serious challenges. 

Challenges and the musical show

Last week  a ‘music and cultural’ show was planned to be held in the vicinity of the Minneriya National Park. For four days, pop music amplified through sound systems, pandols with powerful lighting was to be used at this event. 
There was an out-pouring of protests from environmentalist as this would distract wild elephant movements and cause damage to the pristine ecosystem of the area. 
There was confusion as to who really gave approval for this event (Deep Jungle) to be held in this location. The location is said to be on a private land off the Harbarana- Batticaloa road, just a couple of hundred metres from the forests of Gal Oya Forest Reserve and the Forest Department ( FD) managed Hurulu Eco Park. 

An area with the high-density

While technically the location does not fall under the administration of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), it is certainly an area with the high-density of wild elephants. The DWC has jurisdiction over all flora and fauna of the country. For example, if a wild elephant is shot at anywhere, the DWC had the power to arrest any such perpetrator. Hence there is no way that the DWC can wash its hands from this issue. 

Former Director General of wildlife Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya had this to say about this event, “The noise pollution from this event is more than adequate to scare and stress these elephants at a time their conservation future is at stake. This will definitely increase the stress level of the elephants resulting in them possibly moving away from that area.” 

Outpouring of protests on social media, print media, and formal complaints lodged by Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Rally for Animal Rights & Environment (RARE) and the Centre for Environmental Justice ( CEJ),  all  worked hard and helped  to have stringent conditions imposed on the event by the courts (including restriction of the usage of sound) effectively restricting the event from taking place. So thankfully at the eleventh hour, the event was prevented from taking place. 
While the musical event was a one- off problem, there is a much more serious problem looming ahead for ‘the Gathering’.

Moragahakanda Irrigation scheme 

As indicated earlier the gathering of wild elephants at the Minneriya Park is primarily for food which is the succulent young grass that sprouts up when the reservoir water level recedes. 
Any artificial tampering with the natural movement of the water levels can cause major disruptions to this ecosystem, which inturn affects the feeding patterns and behaviour of the wild elephants.

The Moragahakanda/Kalu-Ganga irrigation project was originally to supply water through a 24 km pipe line to the Hurulu Oya tank, and then distribute the water from there, to farmers in the north-central province.  Due to delays in completing the pipeline, it was decided a few years ago to divert the water to the Minneriya tank. Many representations were made to the government warning of this calamity that would befall the Gathering. All such pleas fell on deaf ears and the project was commissioned in 2018. 

Since 2018 this discharge of water into the Minneriya tank has completely changed the naturalrise and fall of water levels, consequently disrupting the Gathering of wild elephants. There is scientific and anecdotal evidence that very young calves are dying of malnutrition in the Minneriya. There was much fanfare when twin calves were born last year. But alas due to malnutrition, one of them died. Many adult elephants are in an emaciated condition due to poor sources of food.

A recent study done by Dr. Pilapitya has shown that there is a definite correlation of the number of elephants and the water levels in the reservoir. He has shown that since the water from the Moragahakande dam has been released to the Minneriya reservoir there is a marked depletion of the number of elephants sighted. 
Therefore this is a serious problem that is threatening the environment and movement of wild elephants in the area. It will also have an impact on the popularity of the area as a tourist destination. (some 12% of all tourists visiting Sri Lanka go to the Minneriya National Park- ref Srilal Miththapala 2023) 

Representations made to the Irrigation Department(ID) has met with some understanding, but they have in turn, to deliver water for irrigation to downstream farmers. Hence there is an impasse now. On the one hand the environmentalists want the discharge of water into the Minneriya tank stopped, while on the other hand there is the need for water for irrigation.  This issue was highlighted many times at different forums and representations made to the government. It is sad that no action was taken at that time to listen to the pleas of the environmentalists. If some consideration could have been given to this issue at that time, there may have been alternative ways by which the need for water for irrigation could have been addressed. 

This goes to show the manner in which large-scale infrastructure projects of the government are steam rolled through with scant regard for the environmental consequences, in spite of grandiose Environmental Impact Assessments ( EIA) being done. 

Way forward

Anyway now the damage is done. We have to work out a compromise as the solution. Definitely the future Gatherings will not have the same number of some 300/350 elephants in attendance. But if the water levels can be managed to some extent, all is not lost. 
The Ministry of Tourism and the Sri Lanka Development Authority (SLTDA), realising the value of the Gathering for tourism, is spearheading a dialogue between the environmental experts and the irrigation department to work out a compromise solution. 
It is hoped that we could drive home a compromise solution to prevent this catastrophe from taking place. Hopefully we can save the situation somewhat, and ensure that the ‘goose that lays the golden eggs’ can still continue to do so, albeit at a lower number!  

News Source

Chandana Sesath Jayakody

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