Fuel shortage forces wildlife conservation department to scale back operations

Maheshakya has been widely recognized as an exemplary specimen of an elephant, with large tusks. He roamed the wilderness of Kebithigollewa in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Maheshakya got into a fight earlier this year with another elephant, which left him seriously injured. Even as he lay in pain, still alive and conscious, a poacher cut off one of his tusks. Twenty days later, Mahesakya was dead.

Since the tusker suffered his injuries in the fight, Department of Wildlife Conservation vets have only been able to check him twice. Prior to this year, Maheshakya would have received many more visits, possibly preventing the loss of his defense and his subsequent death. But Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis, the worst in the country’s history, meant that was not going to happen.

“If we had more opportunities to care for the elephant and visit him frequently, there was a chance to save his life. But we had no fuel in our vehicles to make this trip regularly,” said said Chandana Jayasinghe, a veterinary vet with the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Sri Lanka has declared bankruptcy and lacks foreign exchange reserves to import essential goods for its people, such as medicine, fuel and gas. Mile-long queues at gas stations have become a permanent scene across the country, and although a rationing system is helping to shorten waiting times, the little fuel available is not enough. so that wildlife officials can do their regular job. This leaves response teams, like the one Jayasinghe works on, often unable to go on rescue missions.

A man queues to buy gasoline in Colombo in June. Credit: Reuters.

Rescue operations affected

Certain public services such as health, public order and public transport have been declared essential services by the government and, as such, the ministries and government agencies that administer them are granted priority access to fuel. But the Department of Wildlife Conservation does not fall into this category, so its staff has to queue like all other motorists.

“Due to the fuel shortage, we think twice about taking on a case,” says Akalanka Pinidiya, a veterinarian with the Department of Wildlife Conservation in central Sri Lanka.

When an elephant death is reported, the usual procedure is to carry out an autopsy to determine the cause of death. But due to the need to save fuel for rescue missions, officials are now largely forgoing the need for autopsies, Pinidiya told Mongabay.

“Apart from elephants, the department receives a handful of other animals such as birds, small cats, porcupines and barking deer sent from regional offices for processing. But that has stopped now,” says Pinidiya .

Range offices are also facing fuel shortages, and residents who would usually hand over injured animals themselves have more pressing needs to meet rather than trying to rescue animals in distress, Pinidiya says.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation operates a number of wildlife rescue centers which house and care for injured animals. These operations have also been hard hit by the fuel shortage. The Attidiya Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on the outskirts of Colombo now only handles essential rescues.

“Usually our vehicle will pick up animals in distress when we receive a call. But now the center has to ask people to bring in injured animals to keep the limited fuel available and save it for critical cases,” says Suhada Jayawardena, a veterinarian at the rehabilitation center.

The center recently received a phone call from the Wellawatte district of Colombo, less than 20 minutes’ drive away, about a turtle with a damaged fin. Even though it was only six kilometers from the center, there was no way to get there.

Help came from Coast Guard personnel stationed in Wellawatte, who secured a supply of fuel for “essential service” and delivered the turtle to the rescue center. But the vast majority of animals in need are not so lucky.

“People inform us that animals need help with good intentions and it is heartbreaking to refuse their requests or ignore them. The idea is to help each animal if possible, not to select,” explains Jayawardena.

A member of the wildlife department loads a dead sea turtle that washed up on a beach weeks after a container ship caught fire and sank off Colombo, Panadura in Sri Lanka in June 2021. Credit : Reuters.

Wildlife officers, like all Sri Lankans, face serious difficulties getting to work every day. Many have taken up cycling if the journey is not too far; Jayawardena cycles the 8 km that separate her home from the rescue centre.

“This is an unprecedented level of crisis that triggers other crises such as rescue operations that are hampered,” said Chandana Sooriyabandara, chief executive of DWC. “Some of our services are severely [restricted] by the fuel crisis, but we are still trying to find fuel for the cases that are essential to treat. »

Earlier this year, the Department of Wildlife Conservation allocated fuel quotas for various purposes from its annual budget, prepared just as the economic crisis deepened. Since then, fuel has become scarce and prices have doubled. This effectively halved the quotas determined by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, in turn forcing a reduction in rescue operations.

“We have sent directives to use fuel efficiently and to increase foot patrols to address poaching issues,” Sooriyabandara said. mongabay.

This does not bode well for Sri Lanka, the country with the highest rate of human-elephant conflict. Hostile encounters between humans and pachyderms kill some 300 elephants and 50 people a year. These conflicts often stem from elephants entering villages and eating farmers’ crops. Wildlife officers are usually on call to intervene and chase them away.

But the fuel shortage has drastically reduced this vital commitment, putting both villagers and elephants at greater risk of injury or even death due to lack of professional intervention, says Ms Peiris, president of a national union wildlife wardens.

A delay of just one hour in taking preventive action can be costly. In a recent incident in Saliyapura, North Central Province, an elephant reportedly entered the village and killed one person and injured another. The wildlife office near Saliyapura said it did not have enough fuel to send officers to the village to hunt the elephant, says Peiris mongabay.

Due to the lack of patrols, large scale gem mining is taking place in Yala National Park (pictured) in Sri Lanka. Credit: Patty Ho, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Lkcl_it, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Increase in illegal activity

The lack of patrols has also led to an increase in illegal activities in protected areas, according to Sajeewa Chamikara, an environmental activist with the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform.

In Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka, for example, large-scale gem mining is carried out illegally in the absence of patrols.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has entered forest fire season, when poachers and forest invaders start fires to flush out animals which they then kill or capture. Most of these forests fall under the management of the DWC, but with the shortage of fuel, “this will delay their ability to respond quickly,” says Chamikara.

“We should expect the economic crisis to have an impact on conservation, as people who lose their livelihoods would tend to poach animals. [as a nutritional] supplement and also to earn money,” says Rukshan Jayawardene, an environmentalist with the Environmental Foundation Limited, a non-profit organization based in Colombo.

Against this backdrop, law enforcement activities should be stepped up rather than reduced, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation should fight for more fuel and funds, Jayewardene said.

“The government should declare wildlife conservation an essential service and provide the necessary resources, as some of the lost natural resources would be irreplaceable,” he says.

This article was first published on Mongabay.

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