The Tragedy of Yala

In the past, many of the elephant herds in the Yala National Park spent the dry season in the area extending north from Nimalawa Sanctuary through Divulpotana, Thambarawa and Amarawewa to the Wedihitikanda in the North. This area adjacent to Yala Block I, Katagamuwa and Kataragama Sanctuaries is about 15,000 hectares in extent and is under the Forest Department. Around 1500 families do chena or slash-and-burn cultivation in this strip of land. The people who farm here mostly live in the surrounding villages such as Uddakandara and Ranminitenna.

In the dry zone of Sri Lanka, the rains are very seasonal and mostly occur during the north-east monsoon from November to February. People come into the Forest Department area to cultivate vegetables during the rainy season. At this time most of the elephant herds used to be inside the Yala National Park. When the people finished cultivation and went back to their villages, many of the herds used to come into this area. It was common to see herds of 80-100 elephants, at many of the tanks such as Lolugaswewa, Divulpotana and Tambarawa, in this area during the dry season. They used to feast on the vegetation left over after the people harvested the chenas, but more importantly the natural plants that grew profusely in the now abandoned chenas in the dry season. When the rains came round the next year, the people would come and the elephants moved back into the park. This somewhat uneasy accommodation of people and elephants moving back and forth was greatly beneficial to the elephant herds in Yala and allowed a high density of elephants in Yala Block I.

Building the fence
This arrangement came to a sudden stop in 2000-2001 with the Department of Wildlife Conservation constructing an electric fence between the Yala National Park and the adjacent Forest Department area, and chasing the elephants into the park due to public pressure. However, soon after, a young male was found dead in a dry waterway that crossed the fence close to Bembawa, with one tush entangled in the electric fence. As a result while the fence was left intact, the wires dangling down to the ground on the waterway were removed. This gave the herds a reprieve and allowed them to resume their traditional accommodation with the chena cultivators by using the waterway as a highway between the park and the chena areas.

In separate incidents in 2004, two people in the chena area died in encounters with elephants. In general most people in Sri Lanka believe that wild elephants ‘belong’ to the Wildlife Department (DWC) and it is the duty of the DWC to protect people from elephant depredation. As a result they hold DWC officials responsible for any incident involving elephants. After the second person got killed, a group of people got together in a mob and went and attacked the Bembawa Wildlife Office, assaulted DWC officials and went to the Palatupana office to attack it. In defending themselves one of the mob was shot and killed by DWC officials and others injured. Consequently there was severe tension between the villagers and the DWC. Discussions were held how to resolve the impasse and it was decided to chase all the elephants inside the fence on the border of the park and close the fence. Electrified wires were strung across the waterway once again firmly shutting what had become a thoroughfare for elephants.

Consequences of the fence
The consequences of incarcerating the elephants in the park by the electric fence were profound. The park is mostly mature forest where there is little food for elephants, especially in the dry season. Without access to the bountiful food source they had been accessing for generations, elephants began to starve and became skin and bones in the dry season of 2005. Some of the females and many young elephants in most of the herds died of starvation. Since then, practically every dry season young elephants have died in the park. The herds were decimated. Even 'Gemunu' group whose home range was entirely inside the park did not escape the carnage. The pressure exerted on limited food resources inside the park during the dry season by the herds that were shut in, told on 'Gemunu' group and a number of young of 'Gemunu' group also died. Even after almost eight years, the herds still have not recovered. A couple of generations of elephants are now missing in the Yala herds.

The impact was greatest on the herds that used to go out of the park in the dry season, such as Biso-Menike’s herd and Sudu Aliya’s herd. Even today many years after the fence were constructed, every dry season the remaining females of some of the herds come to the Bembawa waterway and gaze woefully at the bountiful food on the other side of the fence while their babies are starving to death on this side of it. The irony is that the fence was built to stop elephants raiding crops, but the ones who suffered most from the fence, the herds, hardly ever raided. Many males, who are the ones responsible for raiding, remain outside the fence in the Forest Department areas and the Nimalawa Sanctuary, which is under the DWC but outside the fence. Other males simply knock the fence down and walk through in the night, raid cultivations and villages, and knock it down again to enter the park early morning. While inside the park, not understanding why they are being punished and with no recourse for justice, the herds resignedly continue to starve in the dry season.

In the 2012 dry season two elephant calves were found dead by the roadside. One was the calf of Biso-Menike. We had named him Borg. He was one year 10 months old. The other dead calf was a baby less than one year old from Sudu Aliya’s group. Finding two babies dead by the roadside probably means that many more have died inside. If this continues, the Yala elephants will be doomed.

Story by Prithiviraj Fernando