- Sri Lanka continues to face the brunt of the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, with depleted foreign reserves resulting in acute fuel shortages nationwide.
- The shortages and limited rations are affecting conservation efforts, including the timely treatment of wild animals, regular patrolling to thwart poaching, and mitigation actions to limit human-elephant conflict.
- Fuel allocations for the wildlife conservation department have been halved, and both wildlife and forest officials say this has made operations extremely difficult.
- The threat of forest fires also looms as the dry season gets underway, which typically calls for more patrols to prevent burning by poachers and forest encroachers.
COLOMBO — Anyone who’d ever seen Maheshakya in the wildernesses of Kebithigollewa in Sri Lanka’s North Central province agreed that, as elephants went, he was an exemplary specimen with large tusks. Earlier this year, he got into a fight with another elephant, which left Maheshakya seriously wounded. As he lay in pain, still alive and conscious, a poacher cut off one of his tusks. Twenty days later, Maheshakya was dead.
In the time since Maheshakya had suffered his injuries during the fight, veterinarians from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) were able to check on him just twice. Before this year, Maheshakya would have received many more visits, possibly preventing the loss of his tusk and subsequent death. But Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis, the worst in the country’s history, meant that was not to be.
“If we had more opportunity to treat the elephant and visit frequently, there was a chance of saving his life. But we did not have fuel in our vehicles to make this journey regularly,” said Chandana Jayasinghe, a wildlife veterinary surgeon at the DWC.
Sri Lanka has declared bankruptcy and lacks foreign reserves to import essential goods for its people, such as medicine, fuel and gas. Kilometers-long lines at gas stations have become a permanent scene throughout the country, and although a rationing system is helping shorten the wait times, what little fuel is available isn’t enough for wildlife officials to do their regular work. This leaves response teams, like the one Jayasinghe works on, often unable to go out on rescue missions.
Rescue operations affected
Some public services such as health, law and order, and public transport have been declared essential services by the government, and as such the ministries and government agencies administering them get priority access to fuel. But the DWC doesn’t fall in this category, so its personnel have to wait in line like all other motorists.
“Because of the fuel shortage, we think twice before attending to a case,” says Akalanka Pinidiya, a DWC veterinary surgeon in central Sri Lanka.
When an elephant death is reported, the usual procedure is to conduct a postmortem to determine the cause of death. But because of the need to save fuel for rescue missions, officials are now largely forgoing the need for postmortems, Pinidiya told Mongabay.
“Other than the elephants, the department receives a handful of other animals such as birds, small cats, porcupines, and barking deer sent by regional range offices for treatment. But this has stopped now,” Pinidiya says.
Range offices also face fuel shortages, and residents who would usually hand over injured animals have more pressing needs of their own to attend to over trying to save animals in distress, Pinidiya says.
The DWC runs a number of wildlife rescue centers that house and treat injured animals. These operations, too, have been severely impacted by the fuel shortage.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Attidiya, in the Colombo suburbs, now attends only to essential rescues.
“Usually, our vehicle goes to pick up distressed animals when we receive a call. But now the center has to ask people to bring the injured animals as a way to conserve the limited fuel available and save it for critical cases,” says Suhada Jayawardena, a veterinary surgeon with the rehabilitation center.
The center recently received a phone call from the Wellawatte neighborhood of Colombo, less than a 20-minute drive away, about a turtle with a damaged flipper. Even though it was only 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the center, there was no way to get there. Help came from Coast Guard personnel stationed in Wellawatte, who obtained a supply of fuel for “essential service” and delivered the turtle to the rescue center. But the vast majority of animals in need aren’t that fortunate.
“People inform us about the animals needing assistance with good intentions and it is heartbreaking to turn down their requests or to ignore. The idea is to help every animal if possible, not select,” Jayawardena says.
The wildlife officers, like all Sri Lankans, face severe difficulties just getting to work each day. Many have begun cycling if the trip isn’t too far; Jayawardena bikes the 8 km (5 mi) from his home to the rescue center.
“This is an unprecedented level of crisis triggering other crises such as the rescue operations getting hampered,” says Chandana Sooriyabandara, director-general of the DWC. “Some of our services are severely [restricted] by the fuel crisis, but we always try to arrange fuel for those cases that are essential to be addressed.”
At the start of the year, the DWC allocated fuel quotas for various purposes from its annual budget, prepared just as the economic crisis was deepening. Since then, fuel has become scarce and prices have doubled. That has effectively halved the quotas determined by the DWC, in turn forcing cuts to rescue operations.
“We have sent directives to use the fuel efficiently and to increase the foot patrols to address poaching issues,” Sooriyabandara tells Mongabay.
That doesn’t bode well for Sri Lanka, the country with the highest rate of human-elephant conflict. Hostile encounters between people and pachyderms kill some 300 elephants and 50 people annually. These conflicts often stem from elephants entering villages and eating farmers’ crops. Wildlife officers are typically on call to intervene and chase them away. But the fuel shortage has drastically reduced this vital engagement, leaving both villagers and elephants at greater risk of harm or even death amid the lack of professional intervention, says M. Peiris, chair of a national union of wildlife guards.
A delay of just one hour in delivering preventive action can prove costly. In a recent incident in Saliyapura, in North Central province, an elephant reportedly entered the village and killed one person and injured another. The wildlife office near Saliyapura said it didn’t have enough fuel to send officers to the village to chase the elephant away, Peiris tells Mongabay.
Increasing illegal activity
The lack of patrols has also led to a rise in illegal activities in protected areas, according to Sajeewa Chamikara, an environmental activist with the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR).
In Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka, for instance, large-scale gem mining is being carried out illegally in the absence of patrols.
At the same time, Sri Lanka has entered the forest fire season, when poachers and forest encroachers start fires to flush out animals that they then kill or capture. Most of these forests fall under the DWC’s management, but with the shortage of fuel, “this will retard their ability to quickly respond,” Chamikara says.
“We have to expect that the economic crisis would impact conservation as people who lose livelihood would tend to poach animals [as a nutritional] supplement and also to earn money,” says Rukshan Jayawardene, a conservationist with the Colombo-based NGO Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL).
Against this backdrop, enforcement activities should be intensified instead of curtailed, and the DWC should be fighting to get more fuel and funds, Jayewardene says.
“The government should declare wildlife conservation an essential service and provide the required resources as some of the lost natural resources would be irreplaceable,” he says.
Banner image of Maheshakya, a tusker wounded in a fight who succumbed to his injuries some 20 days later. Wildlife vets paid only two visits to the injured animal, with an ongoing fuel shortage preventing them from making more frequent checks. Image courtesy of Chandana Jayasinghe.