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Shell shocked jumbos add to Lankan Tamils' woes

Artillery and mortar shelling in the past few months has led the elephants in Batticaloa and Trincomalee to flee in the vicinity, reports PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Jun 18, 2007 17:28 IST

With their jungle habitats subjected to incessant aerial, artillery and mortar shelling in the past few months, elephants in the Eastern Sri Lankan districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee had to flee, much like the Tamils from the villages in the vicinity.

"This time, we have had Internally Displaced Elephants (IDEs) in addition to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). It's time we had an IDE rehabilitation scheme also," remarked a foreign aid worker in a lighter vein.

But it has not been a laughing matter for the Tamil villager.

At the height of the shelling and aerial bombardment, hoards of disoriented and angry jumbos had descended on the villages on the edges of their habitats, destroying huts and even pucca houses.

Tiled roofs were smashed in the frenzied search for grain. In a trice, whole plantain farms disappeared and standing crops were in a shambles.

"About 2,000 houses were destroyed in West Batticaloa, more than the number destroyed by the shelling and aerial bombing!" aid worker U Kumar told Hindustan Times. But an International Red Cross official said the number might have been 500.

The most affected villages in Batticaloa district were Kachikodiaru, Swamimadam, Thandamalai, Ayithiamalai, Unnichchai and Pavatkodichenai.

The situation had apparently been worse in Trincomalee district. "If 5 per cent of the houses were damaged by war, about 40 per cent have been damaged by elephants," The Sunday Times said, quoting the Verugal Divisional Secretary, A Umamaheshwaran.

The Sri Lankan government, burdened as it is with the IDPs, seems to have little or no time for the IDEs. With the Thoppigala jungles set to become a major theatre of war in the coming weeks, jumbo migration and depredations are set to increase rather than decrease, the refugees from the affected villages say.

LTTE avoids killing jumbos

The LTTE's military spokesman, Rasiah Ilanthirayan, claimed that unlike the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, the LTTE's military units cared for the environment.

"We have strict rules about treating wildlife. We have identified the endangered species and these could not be killed. The elephant is one of them. We do not shell areas which are populated by these species," he said.

"In case elephants encroach on our area looking for water during the dry season, we are expected to shift our camps rather than drive the jumbos away or kill them," Ilanthirayan said.

Island wide conflict

The Man-Elephant conflict is not peculiar to the war-zone in Sri Lanka.

Economic development, human encroachment, and climatic changes have led to elephants leaving their habitats and attacking human settlements in the past 50 years.

"The threatened farmer kills the intruder," say University of Peradeniya zoologists, Charles Santiapillai and Chaminda Wijesundara.

In the past 50 years, 1,500 to 3,000 elephants may have been killed by irate villagers, they say. In 2001 alone, 300 elephants, mostly bulls, had perished.

"It takes about 5 sq km of land to support an elephant without upsetting the natural balance that exists between the elephant and the thorn-scrub habitat in which most of our wildlife occurs today.

Therefore, the present population of about 3,500 elephants would require about 17,500 sq km or 27 per cent of the land area for its exclusive use. The system of protected areas covers only about 12.5 per cent of the land area (or 8,200 sq km). Thus, national parks alone cannot ensure the long term survival of the elephants," Satiapillai and Wijesundara say.

They emphasise the need for an island-wide awareness of the reasons for the Man-Elephant conflict and for steps to avoid actions, which exacerbate the conflict.

Indiscriminate shelling is one action, which should be avoided.