SLWCS Field Report: The Elephant Diary SLWCS Field Report Elephant Diary: Fencing People In and Fencing Elephants Out! Chinthaka Weerasinghe Opera

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SLWCS Field Report: The Elephant Diary

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Two elephants approaching one of the village electric fences. Taken from a SLWCS PachyDrone.

Rice Cultivations

Some of the extensive rice fields in Wasgamuwa. Taken from a PachyDrone

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The view of rice fields and mountains from the field house on a cloudy day


SLWCS Field Report

Elephant Diary: Fencing People In and Fencing Elephants Out!

Chinthaka Weerasinghe
Operations Manager
Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS)
January 30, 2017

In mid-January of 2017, we began to experience some seriously heavy rain. This was unusual, because unlike the regular monsoon rains it rained practically nonstop for 24 hours for a week! The farmers were severely impacted by this abnormally heavy rain. Most farmlands were inundated and crops either got washed away or perished from being underwater. The other huge threat was from wild elephants!

In the past human-elephant conflict (HEC) used to be a common problem to every village in the Wasgamuwa region. Due to the HEC mitigation measures initiated by the SLWCS, today most of these villages have some form of elephant deterrent measure implemented either by the SLWCS or the Department of Wildlife Conservation to reduce conflict and help people and elephants coexist.

These efforts started with the establishment of the Saving Elephants by Helping People project in 1997. No other elephant conservation project in Sri Lanka has had such an impact in mitigating HEC as the SEHP Project, since the concepts developed by it has been adapted practically by all state and non-state organizations addressing HEC island-wide in Sri Lanka today. We’ve had organizations from India and even Malaysia visit our projects and subsequently adapt our concepts to their HEC mitigation efforts.

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The rain just drowned us from above and from the ground!

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A team from WCS Malaysia visiting our projects

The SLWCS concept to erect solar powered electric fences around villages was developed on the premise that electric fences should be erected along either socio economic boundaries (e.g. boundaries of villages, plantations, towns) or ecological boundaries and not along the arbitrary boundaries of protected areas. Elephants are highly mobile and wide ranging animals and to limit them only to national parks is a harmful disruption to their lives.

Through the SEHP Project the SLWCS introduced the concept of fencing elephants “out” and not “in” national parks. Another unique feature of this model is that the community takes ownership of the electric fence. The fence is maintained and operated by the community with some logistical support provided by the SLWCS or sometimes by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The first electric fence installed by the SLWCS based on this innovative and novel concept has been operating for over 18 years. It has been the model for all similar electric fences erected since then to mitigate HEC in Sri Lanka. This first electric fence is in the Pussellayaya Village in Wasgamuwa where the SLWCS has its’ field operations base now.

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The Pussellayaya Electric Fence under construction in 1998

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An elephant loitering by the newly constructed electric fence

Rain, rain go away…

The incessant rain had eroded the banks of the Hettipola Road and of the Minipe irrigation canal collapsing some of the fence posts and damaging the entire Pussellayaya electric fence. This was further confirmed by the volunteers who monitor every week the electric fences installed by the SLWCS and Department of Wildlife Conservation. When the volunteers find a fence with a problem the news is quickly relayed to the fence maintenance crew for that specific fence to ensure the fence is repaired immediately. Unfortunately with the continuous heavy rain it was impossible to repair the fence since any work done would be a washout. There was no choice other than to wait the rains out. In the meantime a huge dominant bull with two younger companions cashed in on this rain sent opportunity to raid the village.

These three bulls basically settled into the village and in the course of several days destroyed several farms. It became very dangerous to be out in the village after sundown. This was like a throwback to the old days—20 years ago when no one ventured out from their homes after 6 pm.

The fact that there were elephants coming into the village regularly was very concerning since this was the first time that the Pussellayaya electric fence has been in such a state since it was installed in 1998. The other immediate concern was that more elephants will find the damaged fence and come into the village.

With electric fences the last thing you want is to habituate elephants to believe the fence is not live—so it was urgent that the fence was repaired as soon as possible.


Three bulls inside the village

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A field raided by an elephant

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A home destroyed by an elephant

Every day throughout the night it was as if the villagers were still celebrating the New Year! They were lighting firecrackers, shouting and making noise to chase the elephants. From the veranda of the field house we could track where the elephants were by pin pointing where the shouting and noise was coming from and from the flashing bursts of firecrackers.

On several nights and of course very conveniently around 2 or 3 am, I would get a call either from Siriya or from our night watchman Dingirirala alerting me that the elephants were in the field house property. The elephants came to the SLWCS field house on these nights and were hanging out by our pond and bamboo clump. One night we found one bull in the pond and the other two feasting on the bamboo. Fortunately when we beamed our flashlights at them, the three elephants decided to vacate. They ambled down the driveway and went out of our property.

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A bull in musth by our garage during an earlier visit

Finally last week the rains ceased and we quickly mobilized to organize support for the villagers to repair the electric fence. Many sections of the fence were seriously damaged due to the heavy rains. Some of the fence posts, the wires and fixtures such as insulators, tensioners, etc., were completely destroyed so had to be replaced newly.

The SLWCS set out to get the necessary support for the fence repairs from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) office in Wasgamuwa, the Civil Security Department (CSD) and the Divisional Secretary’s office in Wilgamuwa. The SLWCS volunteers were a huge help in this effort since they provided much needed help to dig holes, erect fence posts and to install the fence wires.

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Chinthaka and Chandima assessing the damages to the fence

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Chinthaka supervising a section of the fence repair

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Lifting new fence posts

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and loading onto the tractor trailer

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Chandima with volunteers and villagers by the fence as the tractor hauls in the fence posts

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Unloading the new fence posts

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Volunteer and villagers gathered to repair the fence

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Chandima and Field Scout, Sarath supervising another section

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Erecting a fence post

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Department of Wildlife Conservation personnel from the Wasgamuwa National Park assisting the fence repair work

The Pussellayaya villagers and the SLWCS gratefully acknowledge the support we received from the following offices and people:

• Volunteers: Ebba Ranås, Lisa Vann Veen, Alba Strachan, Victoria Cox and Keiran Emkjer
• Department of Wildlife Conservation, Wasgamuwa
• Department of Civil Security, Wasgamuwa
• Villagers and community organizations of the Pussellayaya village
• All the staff the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

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Volunteers taking a break to get some much needed refreshments that was provided by the villagers

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A happy group of volunteers after assisting in repairing the PG electric fence

Photo Credits:

Chinthaka Weerasinghe/SLWCS
Ravi Corea/SLWCS
Harsha Gammanpila

Big, rumbling thanks to our Corporate Partners for their kind support and to everyone who has donated and supported our wildlife conservation efforts!

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