Sri Lanka Caters to Tourist Golfers at Elephants' Expense

By Ravi Prasad

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 3, 2000 (ENS) - Environmentalists and wildlife conservationists in this island nation are protesting against a move to expand a golf course to attract foreign tourists as it would shrink elephant habitat.

The golf course is spread over some 100 acres (40 hectares) of land in Monaragala district in the country's south, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of the capital of Colombo. It attracts hundreds of Western tourists annually. The government has plans to expand the golf course to accommodate more golfers, who on average spend over US$200 a day.

Under the expansion the plan, the government has permitted the owners of the golf course to acquire several acres of adjacent agricultural land and forest area.

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Elephants in Yala National Park (Photo courtesy Nammen)
Officials in the tourism ministry say that the expansion of the golf course would attract even more western visitors, who also travel to the Yala National Park in the southern district and the adjoining areas to see the wildlife.

"Tourist arrivals in the region could reach over a couple of thousands if the golf course if properly developed and marketed. It will change the economic conditions of the people living in the area, who are dependent on rains for agriculture," says a senior official in the tourism ministry.

Wildlife conservationists, on the other hand, claim that the expansion of the golf course would spell a grave disaster for the huge elephant and human population living in the region. "It will block the path of elephants, forcing them to seek a new route through inhabited areas. If the elephants are unable to walk to the Yala National Park and remain trapped in Handapanagala forest, they may go berserk and storm the villages for water and food," Charitha Gooneratne, general secretary of the Sri Lanka Wild Life and Nature Protection Society, told ENS.

Over 100 elephants living in the Handapanagala forest move to the Yala National Park in November, when torrential rains lash the forest reserve. The pachyderms return to Handpanagala in search of water in the month of May and spend the summer in the forest. "For centuries, elephant herds have taken the same path between the two forests and they do it twice a year. If their corridor is blocked, the elephants will not be able to go back to Yala in November. That would upset the established pattern," Gooneratne warned.

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Sri Lankan elephants search for water. (Photo courtesy Srilal Miththapala)
Already, the elephants have been deprived of the source of water by a sugar factory which draws water from the Manik Ganga, a perennial river. Over the past few years, they crossed a distance of over 100 kilometres from Yala to Handapanagala during the summer as water was available in the Manik Ganga. Now the river dries up in the summer owing to the factory's huge water intake, and the elephants must trek back to Yala National Park where they can find water. The expansion of the golf course is threatening to disrupt this seasonal movement between the forests.

"We have urged the government not to allow the expansion of the golf course. Also, we are demanding that a corridor be marked for the elephants, so that they are able to move between the two forests and prevent them from straying to nearby villages," Gooneratne said.

At the same time, Sri Lanka's national wildlife department has begun offering orphaned baby elephants for adoption to help conserve the island's dwindling elephant population. Corporations and individuals can sponsor elephant babies for US$120 dollars a month, a plan that has attracted several sponsors.

The unique program was introduced to fund the departmentís orphanage at Uduwalawe in southern Sri Lanka where more than 50 baby elephants, most of them injured, have been kept.

"Most of them are recovering from gunshot injuries. They were targeted by poachers, but somehow escaped. They are not in a position to fend for themselves because they are separated from the herd," Dr. Nandana Atapauttu, deputy director of the wildlife department, told ENS.

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The elephants of Sri Lanka are classified as Indian elephants (Photo courtesy Srilal Miththapala)
"Itís a flexible scheme and people can have different options for payment. They can adopt a baby for a month or two. They can also choose name of the baby. Those adopting the babies will have free access to forest bungalows and wildlife parks," Dr. Atapattu said. The federal government has decided to give tax deductions to those who adopt the elephant babies.

Officials expect that they would be able to get sponsors for all the babies as elephants are highly revered in this predominantly Buddhist country. Almost all the Buddhist and Hindu temples have their own elephants for ceremonial purposes. These animals are believed to be a good omen and no religious function begins without worshipping elephants.

The wildlife department of Sri Lanka became the first in the world to release elephants raised in captivity into the wild. In 1997 three elephants from the transit home were released into the Uduwalwe National Park. What surprised the officials and pachyderm experts around the world was that a wild herd accepted these elephants within minutes of their release.

In about two weeks another group of four elephants will be released into the wild.

Although there is no accurate census available, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that about 2,500 to 3,000 Sri Lankan elephants are still found in the wild, and a further 500 live in captivity.

One hundred years ago, more than 10,000 elephants were found distributed all over the island. These numbers were rapidly depeleted by big game hunting, rapid development and deforestation. Most of the remaining elephants are confined to national parks, while small herds are found in the northeastern and eastern areas of the country.