Stumpy, the cricket ball wielding chubby blue elephant is the mascot of the World Cup to be inaugurated on the 19th February. Ironically nowhere is this more appropriate than in Sri Lanka where the hosts will play Canada on 20th February, and Pakistan against Kenya on the 23rd. The venue of these clashes is the newly commissioned 35,000 seater Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium set in the middle of a coastal forest where Stumpy’s real life kith and kin battle with humans for their very survival.
Throughout this landscape, developmental projects sit amidst natural splendor. On either side of the broad slick Hambantota Bypass road, irrigated banana fields, tsunami rehabilitation settlements, the flashy international conference centre that may host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting were carved out of the elephant’s forest. Besides, an international airport (imagine the sales line, “arrive in a jumbo jet in jumbo country!”), a seaport and a railway line are in different stages of completion. Within a decade, Hambantota has transformed from a sleepy village to an enormous township in a hurry, fuelled by President Rajapaksa’s ambitious plans for his home constituency. It could be a run-of-the-mill development versus conservation story but it may not be, not just yet anyway.
About fifteen years ago, the Walawe Left Bank Irrigation Project brought perennial farming to the area. Then as more and more infrastructure projects were slated to come up, the Wildlife Department was asked to move the elephants to a nearby National Park. In 2006, a drive was launched to herd the estimated 100 elephants out of this 600 sq.km area. But imagine their surprise when they mustered about 250 elephants into the Lunugumvehera National Park. Even more amazingly, elephant biologist Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando estimates that between 300 and 400 elephants were left behind that continue to forage in the remaining 300 sq.km. of forests in the greater Hambantota area.
Strangely, the fate of elephants in the Protected forest was worse than the ones having to battle the developmental juggernaut sweeping through their forests. First the calves died inside the Park, followed by some adults; the rest, in poor condition, pace helplessly along the electric-fenced boundary, looking for a way out. It has been suggested that there is not enough foliage to support such a large population of elephants and it is just as likely that they are home-sick.
Outside the Park, people’s problems with the animals escalated despite removing half the area’s population of elephants. True, the pachyderms had lost about 300 sq.km. of habitat to the new developments and there were choice irrigated crops such as bananas, sugarcane, and coconuts for the picking. But these elephants, that had been subjected to the trauma of tens of thousands of firecrackers, people screaming and shooting at them during the attempt to drive them to the Park, had become fearless. Formerly shy retiring animals, they were now quick to lose their temper with any farmers who had the temerity to chase them. Out of desperation, people resorted to diabolical methods of maiming elephants by hiding explosives inside pumpkins. In this grim scenario, a World Bank funded project hopes to not only resolve these problems but create a unique Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) (under the National Elephant Conservation Policy 2006), a balancing act between development and elephant conservation.
For starters, the area’s zoning maps until the year 2030 have been overlaid with elephant distribution coordinates so any infrastructure plans necessarily includes the animals. A few members of the Hambantota elephant herds are being radio tracked to get an understanding of their use of the landscape and reaction to disturbance. This knowledge will feed into the overall management of the area for elephants. However, the biggest challenge facing the project is encroachment inside the newly conceived Reserve. People want land for cultivation, house plots, and some indulge in just plain outright land grabbing. Although the MER allows existing practices such as rainfed agriculture, it cannot sustain elephants if the habitat is splintered, fenced and diverted further for human use.
The Hambantota elephants are not alone in their plight. Whether it’s Sri Lanka, India, Burma or Thailand this is a tension riddled equation for both elephants and their human neighbours. At least here in southern Sri Lanka elephant biologists are being given the mandate to give the pachyderms a fair deal by the developers. Can Stumpy become the mascot for the development-and-conservation paradigm?