Biodiversity And Elephant Conservation Trust
Founded in 1998, the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust strives to protect the gentle giants of the island-nation of Sri Lanka.
Photo Courtesy: BECT.
Elephants have lived in close association with humans for millennia. The subspecies of the Asian elephant Elephas maximus maximus, found in Sri Lanka, now number just around 5,500. Much like in other parts of its range, the pachyderms have witnessed a drastic loss in their habitat due to human exploitation in this 65,610 sq. km. island nation.
Understanding the need to create awareness about Sri Lanka’s elephants, conservation biologist Jayantha Jayewardene set up the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust (BECT), which has taken significant strides in turning the tide in favour of the gentle giants, both wild and tame, since it was established in 1998. This has been enabled by winning young friends for elephants through school awareness programmes in conflict-prone rural districts. A half-day session in the form of lectures and multimedia presentations on Sri Lanka’s elephants, biodiversity, natural environment and wildlife for students – the awareness programmes have been conducted in 2,100 schools in the past 15 years.
“Given Sri Lanka’s growing human population, conflict with wildlife is set to get worse. By educating young people on the importance of biodiversity, BECT has shown a generation of children and young adults how people and elephants can coexist and prosper. A conflict that was set to get much worse has, as a result, gotten much better,” says Michael Sproule, lawyer and BECT Trustee.
In 2015, BECT organised tours to the Udawalawe National Park so that children from schools in Walawe, Embilipitiya and Colombage-ara could experience the park’s biodiversity first-hand. True learning happens outside the classroom, as they say.
“The education system of most biodiversity-rich countries ignores subjects such as conservation, ethics and social consciousness. At BECT, we sought to mainstream conservation into the primary and secondary education system in schools in areas with a high incidence of human-elephant conflict. There is no gainsaying that it has transformed the attitudes of young people, who now see elephants as part of a shared landscape,” says Rohan Pethiyagoda, conservation researcher and BECT Trustee.
The first national symposium on elephant management and conservation held in May 1998 at Colombo was the first of many events organised by BECT that aimed at raising the conservation profile of elephants. Two hundred and thirty participants from 23 countries came together for an international symposium on human-elephant relations and conflicts held in Colombo in September 2003, the proceedings of which were published in a book titled Endangered Elephants: Past, Present and Future.
Similar to traditions of its neighbouring country India, Sri Lanka has had a history of taming wild elephants for use in war, ceremonial and religious occasions and construction work. Understanding that elephant conservation in the country must include those living in captivity, BECT conducted two surveys in 1997 and 2002 to ascertain the number of tame elephants, their age, mahouts and owners.
In 2002, the Trust monitored the movement and behaviour of a group of baby elephants that were released back into the Udawalawe National Park and identified conservation management and conflict mitigation measures for elephants in Handapanagala from 2000 to 2004.
Further, communities affected by wild elephants have been provided assistance by constructing a bridge and community hall in Galpaya, erecting electric fences around villages in Bundala and Galgamuwa, distributing posters in schools, donating books to children and building houses.
Undertaking training programmes, awareness sessions, and studies are part of BECT’s continuous mission to reduce incidences of conflict by formulating site-specific solutions. “BECT has achieved much in the short period of its existence. We have carried out a variety of effective conservation activities, with the schools’ awareness programme being a major achievement. What makes our efforts very credible is that we operate most often with just three trustees and a project coordinator,” says Jayewardene, Managing Trustee, BECT.
Currently working on a project to construct three-foot (almost a metre) high walls around 25 unprotected wells in Galgamuwa to prevent elephant mishaps, BECT serves as a beacon of hope for Sri Lanka’s remaining gentle giants.
Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust
615/32, Rajagiriya Gardens, Nawala Road, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka.
Tel: -94 7778 95770
Author: Anirudh Nair, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.