Wild animal menace and impact on economy | Sunday Observer

Wild animal menace and impact on economy

7 May, 2023

Sri Lanka is a tropical country, home to a large number of different animal species. Elephants are the biggest animals found in Sri Lanka and people have established a very good rapport with them from time immemorial.

Our ancient kings were proud of having many elephants in their herds as it displayed the grandeur of the kingdom. Elephants are very intelligent, obedient, loyal and brave once they are properly tamed and trained for different activities. History reveals that our ancient kings used elephants for constructing huge tanks, massive structures, preparing large paddy fields and most of all, to fight enemies in the battlefront. However, with the passage of centuries, elephants are now used for only ceremonial functions and to display our cultural heritage.

Thick jungles are the traditional homelands of the elephants. The elephant population has been rapidly increasing over the past few decades. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake embarked on the Senanayake Samudra project and the Gal Oya Multipurpose Development Program in elephant infested jungles, which had to be cleared for human settlement. Senanayake, with expert advice and systematic planning found alternative habitats and drove away the wild elephants to their new settlements without culling a single elephant as they are considered national assets.

Subsequently when the Mahaweli diversion scheme was inaugurated under President J.R. Jayewardene, similar steps were taken by the Mahaweli Ministry to free the areas from the wild elephant threat. However, due to an increase in the elephant population in recent years, it has become a grave social menace where we hear of shocking news almost everyday due to the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC).

Habitat destruction

Independent observers, environmental analysts and animal lovers’ organisations directly accuse unscrupulous politicians, their siblings and henchmen for this current plight as most of them had indiscriminately cleared the thick jungles in the Sinharaja and most other Wet Zone lands to set up luxury hotels. Roads and pathways have been built in the thick jungle, ending the free movement of wild elephants and destroying their habitats. Although there are a number of State institutions from which they have to obtain permission for such projects, it is not known if they had followed the due procedures. They had also paid scant respect for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports.

Owing to this haphazard manner of meddling with State lands infested with wild elephants, their natural livelihood was completely disturbed resulting in the loss of adequate food and shelter and their corridors were blocked making life uncomfortable in their habitats. It is unfortunate that wild elephants now roam the adjoining villages, paddy fields and cultivated lands destroying the entire livelihood of poor peasants. During the past few years, the death and destruction caused by HEC in many parts of the country is immense and cannot be enumerated in monetary terms.

The unbearable nuisance to daily lives of rural dwellers from wild elephants is clearly a problem. In a country with limited land mass, increasing human and animal populations and the expansion of human settlements bringing humans into closer contact with animals have aggravated this issue.

The Government allocates a huge amount for the conservation of wildlife annually. In addition, the Government has to pay compensation to the bereaved families for the loss of lives of their relatives which also amounts to millions of rupees annually. These wild animals destroy houses, belongings and crops, depriving the livelihood of the hapless farmer community and this invariably becomes a burden on the national coffers.

Limited success

Although the authorities had taken some measures to prevent wild elephants from moving from the jungle to villages, such as setting up electric fences, cutting long ditches and providing the peasants with firecrackers (Ali Vedi), they do not seem to be very effective as the animals are quite used to these ploys.

The Government will have to initiate an effective, vibrant and rigorous plan with expert advice to bring this menace under control. The Government should also take drastic and stringent measures against the unscrupulous parties who had infiltrated the thick jungles and set up business ventures with no respect whatsoever to the laws of the land.

It had been observed during the past few years that there had been a tremendous increase in the monkey population all over the country. Some years ago monkeys inhabited only rural areas, predominantly forests. In recent years, they had come to cities and suburban areas looking for food and shelter which had caused yet another grave problem. Although the monkey problem is not as dangerous or fearsome as HEC, the damage caused to the agriculture sector by monkeys is far worse and destructive.

From the time of sowing the seeds for cultivation and right up to the time of reaping harvest monkeys destroy crops. They destroy all types of vegetables, yams, fruits, bananas, coconuts, thambili (king coconut), water melons, papaw and even flowers like lotus, manel, and ornamental flowers. There is a substantial population in the country whose main livelihood is based on such agricultural produce.

The Agriculture Department had roughly estimated that over two million coconuts had been destroyed by monkeys during the last harvesting season which is a great loss to the national coffers. Small and medium scale farmers, vendors and all other stakeholders constantly complain that they would be compelled to cease their cultivation unless some concrete solution is found with regard to this most urgent problem.

Monkey menace

Pilgrims, travellers and tourists who visit sacred places such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Kandy, Kataragama and other religious and culturally important locations are inconvenienced by these toque macaque monkeys who sometimes try to grab food and even their belongings. There had been instances where these monkeys had crept into the vehicles through shutters and ransacked the belongings of pilgrims when they are out at the shrines, including the milk powder of their infants causing severe hardships to the pilgrims. Vendors of wayside boutiques and food stalls in these locations, whose livelihood totally depends on the pilgrims and travellers are deeply frustrated with this monkey menace and plead with the authorities to find a solution.

These vendors say that their daily income had been gradually decreasing due to the monkey menace and now they find it difficult to make ends meet. It is said that there are well over three million monkeys in the country and the Government should take immediate steps to mitigate the fast growth rate of these animals. Moreover, it is a threat to human lives as they can cause “Monkeypox”, a deadly epidemic which spreads very fast.

It is true that with our longstanding cultural and religious background, we cannot afford to cull these animals in big numbers, but as suggested by the Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Amaraweera if there is any possibility to export them to China or to any other country for whatever purpose, we should not waste time listening to the arguments of critics of various organisations funded by the INGOs who have different agendas besides animal welfare.

As usual, these environmentalists and civil society activists may object citing age-old enactments, gazette notifications and obsolete laws. But they fail to realise the enormous amount of national wealth which goes down the drain due to this problem at a time when the country is engulfed in a deep financial crisis and the untold severe suffering of the poor masses directly victimised by the monkey menace.

If the prevailing laws do not permit the export of animals, the Government should immediately formulate new laws to facilitate the export of these animals for the greater good of the public. Delaying remedial measures may aggravate the situation further.

Wild boars, peacocks and giant squirrels (Dandu Lena) also cause irreparable damage to the cultivation of poor farmers in most parts of the country. The farmers earnestly request the Minister to export these animals too along with monkeys if possible so that they could engage in their cultivation unhindered.

The public opinion is that the State should enact new laws to suit current global trends without being religiously biased or upholding primitive sentiments. A large number of cows, goats, chickens and pigs are slaughtered every day in the country for human consumption with the approval of the authorities and no organisation objects to it. It is difficult to perceive the logic and rationale behind their vehement objection to the export of these destructive toque macaque monkeys to avert a serious problem.