- A lockdown imposed a month ago to battle the COVID-19 pandemic has created greater freedom for wild animals in Sri Lanka’s popular national parks, generally stressed by over-visitation and unregulated feeding of wildlife.
- Park elephants thriving on food offered by visitors are now seen returning to their old diets and exploring for food more freely.
- As possibilities for poaching increase, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has enhanced its anti-poaching activities.
- Experts are urging the authorities to use the lockdown period to reset the country’s wildlife tourism practices by imposing better controls and management.
YALA, Sri Lanka — Gemunu is one of about 350 elephants in Yala National Park, the most visited in Sri Lanka. It’s thanks to these visitors that he’s developed a taste for food from humans. This habit was innocent initially, but the bull elephant became more aggressive over time, blocking dirt tracks and halting safari jeeps to sniff out food inside.
That’s gone now, along with the visitors, following Sri Lanka’s decision to declare a countrywide curfew a month ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many other elephants, at Yala and elsewhere, have become used to being fed by visitors or looting food from them — all habituated by constant feeding by humans. Yala alone has at least two other such Asian elephants (Elephas maximus maximus), Nandimithra and Arjuna, known to demand food from visitors.
Rambo is an elephant in Udawalawe National Park and probably the first one known for his habit of seeking food from humans. In the early 1990s, he began loitering along an electric fence next to the main road, and soon other elephants in the park picked up the habit — a herd of about 20 pachyderms waiting for food.
It’s also common to find elephants outside national parks posted up by the road, such as along the Buttala-Wellawaya road near the Yala park boundary, waiting to be fed. They also sometimes hold up traffic until they get their fix.
Conservationists and wildlife managers have long warned that these close encounters are a disaster waiting to happen. Authorities have issued repeated warnings not to feed wild elephants, but these messages tend to be ignored.
The COVID-19 crisis has put an end to this practice overnight, with roads empty of traffic and the elephants’ food source suddenly coming to a halt. This state of lockdown doesn’t mean the elephants will go hungry, though, according to Manori Gunawardena, a wildlife biologist and Sri Lanka’s representative of the Born Free Foundation, a U.K.-based wildlife charity.
“Elephants in the wild do not seek food from humans. It is the people who are responsible for habituating these elephants by constantly offering food. The elephants then acquire a taste for this, ultimately seek, demand and associate humans with food,” she told Mongabay.
“The average daily vegetation diet of an Asian elephant exceeds 100 kgs [220 pounds]; so, the loss of the food from tourists will be insignificant to make any impact.”
But even with the lockdown unlikely to be eased any time soon, the elephants won’t necessarily drop their habit and return to their original foraging ways for good, Gunawardena said.
“For elephants, a month or even one year is not considered a long period. They have good memory. When visitors start entering the national parks again, these intelligent mammals will continue demanding food from visitors,” she said. “It may be late to unlearn this food habit, but we must prevent it from happening elsewhere as wild elephants are fed wherever tourists and pilgrims congregate.”
The lockdown also offers a respite to popular national parks such as Yala, Udawalawe, Minneriya, Kaudulla and Horton Plains, which have long faced their own concerns due to over-visitation.
Yala National Park’s Block I, also known as Ruhuna National Park, is at the top of this list, where sometimes the vehicle traffic is so high that the dirt tracks inside the park get gridlocked whenever there’s a wildlife sighting. Authorities have tried several methods to limit visitation and ease the traffic, but none of these have worked for long.
“The wild animals in Block I area within Yala National Park have the highest visitation rate and the park animals now appear quite relaxed,” Pradeep Rathnayake, a wildlife guard with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), told Mongabay. During the lockdown, Rathnayake and his colleagues have continued patrolling the park.
“On regular days, the park traffic is so high that vehicles actually block animals crossing the roads. These animals are made to wait a long time or take other diversions to move within the park, avoiding the busy roads. But now they move freely,” Rathnayake said.
Traditionally, Yala National Park is closed throughout September, the peak of the dry season and a deadly time for the animals in this semi-arid zone where the vegetation dries out. With the COVID-19 lockdown taking place when the park is fresh and green, the animals can “enjoy the environment better,” Rathnayake said.
Sumith Pilapitiya, a former director general of the DWC, says there’s another silver lining in the current situation. Sri Lanka, he said, should use this opportunity to reset the country’s wildlife tourism industry by spurring a paradigm shift in the way the service is provided. He recommended re-evaluating the categorization of Sri Lanka’s national parks; developing a select few for high-end tourism and limiting the number of vehicles gradually; and developing less popular national parks to divert more visitor traffic there and minimize pressure on the more popular parks.
The loss of the income generated through wildlife tourism is expected to have a significant impact, but this break is an ideal opportunity to put the “house in order” and start afresh in a proper manner, says Srilal Miththapala, a tourism and hospitality specialist and international board member of the Asian Ecotourism Network.
Fear of increased poaching
While tourists have had to comply with the islandwide curfew, poachers appear undeterred.
Pilapitiya said there’s now more opportunity for poaching activities to go undetected, which means the closure of the national parks could result in increased poaching. “Even though visitation has its problems in national parks, the movement of people within protected areas in itself is a deterrent to poachers, especially as the DWC has limited staff to undertake patrolling,” he said. “DWC should be conscious of this reality and commit field resources for effective anti-poaching operations during this lockdown.”
The department has already stepped up anti-poaching measures and apprehended several poachers, according to Chandana Sooriyabandara, the DWC director general.
“In a normal situation, wildlife field officers have to get involved in facilitating wildlife tour operations, attend administrative meetings and court proceedings. With the lockdown, our officers are relieved from such tasks and are now deployed for anti-poaching activities,” Sooriyabandara told Mongabay, citing this as the reason for increased detections of poaching activities.
Prithiviraj Fernando, a pioneering elephant researcher who leads the Centre for Conservation and Research, told Mongabay that there’s a possibility, if the lockdown drags on, of a decrease in government allocations for patrolling and an increase in poaching.
He also said there’s no data yet to show a decrease in human-elephant conflict over the past month. But he said it’s possible there’s been a slight decrease due to limited human activities such as night travel, less consumption of alcohol, and fewer instances of people chasing elephants. “However, damage to crops and houses by elephants are unlikely to be any less,” Fernando said.
Banner image of Gemunu, a male elephant at Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka, famous for halting vehicles to sniff out food, courtesy of Riaz Cader.