How the Moragahakanda Project terminated the ‘Great Elephant Gathering’
Spanning over 8,000 hectares of land, the Minneriya National Park has been home to an abundance of gentle giants for centuries. Elephant herds visit the Minneriya Tank in search of food and fodder especially when the water levels subside. From May to September Minneriya National Park eventually became the site for the ‘Great Elephant Gathering’ known to be one of the most spectacular natural phenomenons in the world. However, since 2018, elephants have been unable to enjoy the lush grasses of the lakebed with the construction of the Moragahakanda Dam project. The project has eventually marked the end of this gathering of elephants and conservationists believe that this too is an irreversible consequence of another unplanned development project.
The Minneriya tank and its significance
Minneriya National Park (MNP) has been the site for the “Great Elephant Gathering” and has gained an international reputation as “one of the 10 greatest wildlife wonders of the world”, after being ranked as such by Lonely Planet. “Large numbers of elephants gather on the grasslands of the lakebed of MNP during the dry season commencing in May, with the number of elephants reaching the peak in September, numbering around 400 elephants,” opined Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, Asian elephant researcher and former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. “Elephant numbers start reducing with the onset of the North East monsoon rains in late October. The monsoon rains and water releases from the cascade reservoir system tend to fill the Minneriya reservoir, and grasslands of the lakebed get submerged during the period from December to April. With the release of water for agriculture in April, the grasslands of the lake bed emerge in May and with it, is associated a gradual return of the elephants. This unique natural phenomenon has taken place on the grasslands of the Minneriya reservoir for over a hundred years.”
Although the popular myth is that elephants return to Minneriya during the dry season for water, the scientific reason is that the elephants return for the lush grasses of the lakebed. After being submerged for several months, the grass on the grassland has perished. With the reduction of the water in the reservoir, fresh grass grows on the lake bed. Fresh grass is higher in protein than mature grass, thus is the main attractant for elephants to Minneriya. Water in the reservoir is an added bonus. The gradual reduction of water during the dry season facilitates the growth of fresh grass throughout the dry months from May to September, when fodder elsewhere is minimal for elephants in the dry season.
“When resources such as food and water are plentiful, elephants being social animals congregate in large herds, culminating in the “great elephant gathering” in August/September,” Dr. Pilapitiya explained. “In addition to there being large herds of elephants, the abundance of resources triggers natural biological behaviors of the elephants. Having plentiful resources stimulates the sexual hormones of elephants and it is common to observe females in estrus and males in musth. The unusual sight of mating elephants and its associated male-male competition, musth posturing and other interesting elephant behavioral characteristics can be observed at this time. Therefore, Minneriya is the best site not only to observe large herds of elephants, but is also a unique location to see interesting elephant social behavior. There is no other such site among the 13 Asian Elephant range states and has been a magnet for attracting tourists, foreign and domestic, in their thousands.”
A decline in elephant numbers
Any human manipulation of this unique natural system would result in irreversible adverse impacts on the “great elephant gathering”. “Since the completion of the Moragahakanda reservoir in 2018, there have been unseasonal water releases into the Minneriya reservoir during the dry season, commencing around June/July, which has resulted in fluctuating water levels in the reservoir. Associated with the fluctuation of water levels of the Minneriya reservoir is a reduction of the elephant population in Minneriya. Unseasonal water releases have been observed during the dry seasons of 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021,” he continued.
“The irrigation authorities responsible for water releases into and out of the Minneriya reservoir started filling the Minneriya reservoir up to 70-85 MCM1 (or 70% of reservoir capacity), which is the water level needed in Minneriya to “spill” water to the Yoda Ela for onward transmission to reservoirs in the north east in 2019 and 2020. Although limited grasslands were available during this period, elephants and their movement is triggered by historical experience. It has been observed since 2018, when unseasonal water releases are made to Minneriya, even the slightest increase in the water level triggers the movement of several herds of elephants out of Minneriya, regardless of the available grasslands. The trigger for these elephants to move is the increase in water levels, which they most likely associate with the impending monsoon. As elephants have historically moved from Minneriya when the monsoon commences, incoming water and increasing water levels may be their trigger for movement in June/July. Continued filling of the Minneriya reservoir in the dry months results in a reduction of elephant numbers with increasing water levels.”
Observation of the elephant numbers during the peak of the “elephant gathering” which is during the month of September, reveals an alarming decrease of elephants during the peak of the gathering as seen in the table below.2
Based on the above elephant population counts, it is increasingly apparent that we are gradually losing the “Great Elephant Gathering” in Minneriya, as there is approximately a 95% reduction of elephants of the gathering compared with numbers in 2017.
Aggravating HEC due to anthropogenic factors
However, Dr. Pilapitiya further said that the irony of this situation is that water from the Moragahakanda Reservoir and Irrigation Project was never intended to be sent to the Minneriya reservoir. Haphazard decisions have ultimately impacted elephant behavior. “The Moragahakanda Reservoir was constructed to channel irrigation water through a 28 km long tunnel to Hurulu Wewa for onward transmission through the cascade system to the Wayamba and North Central Provinces. There was no intention of sending any water from Moragahakanda reservoir to Minneriya. However, Sri Lanka is well known for reversals of decisions with changes of Governments. So while the construction of the Moragahakanda reservoir had commenced, the decision to go ahead with the construction of the tunnel was being debated after a new Government came into power and after many reversals of decisions, the construction of the tunnel commenced in January 2021, while the Moragahakanda reservoir was completed in 2019. Based on the conditions in the country today, the completion of the tunnel may take another 5 years. In the meantime, there is excess water in the Moragahakanda reservoir so a decision was made to send it to Minneriya reservoir for onward transmission to Kantale and Kaudulla reservoirs.”
Certain decisions seem plausible, if the matter was something to do with humans only. But when dealing with elephants, the decisions may cause more harm than good. “As a result of poor management, planning and politically motivated reversals of decisions, the elephant population in Minneriya is being adversely affected. According to some policy makers, the excess water being sent to Minneriya reservoir is only a temporary phenomenon, and unseasonal water releases will cease upon completion of the tunnel and the situation in Minneriya should return to normal. If we are dealing only with humans, this may be plausible. But we have to realize that we are dealing with elephants. After a few years of arriving in Minneriya in May and finding the reservoir full with no grasslands for fodder, the elephants will find alternative grazing lands, most likely using crop lands for grazing. Data shows that the human elephant conflict (HEC) has increased 6 fold in the areas surrounding Minneriya between 2018 and 2020. Since the reservoir was full in 2021, anecdotal evidence shows that HEC in 2021 was significantly greater than the 6 fold increase. Once elephants find alternate grazing lands and get habituated to crop raiding, even if the situation in Minneriya returns to pre-Moragahakanda days, it is unlikely that the elephants will return to Minneriya for two reasons—(i) how are we going to send messages to elephants who have moved to new areas that there are grasslands in Minneriya and that they should return; and (ii) once elephants are habituated to raid crops, it is extremely difficult to stop them from doing so because they realize that crops are much more nutritious than natural fodder.
Long term impacts on jumbos
With reduced fodder, elephants will move inland, in search of food and this would in turn aggravate the human-elephant conflict. “Based on anecdotal evidence, we can assume that without the grasslands of Minneriya, the dry season fodder availability for the elephants of the Minneriya/Kaudulla population is significantly reduced, and since there isn’t good elephant habitat in the vicinity, elephants will be forced to raid crops. Generally, crop raiders are adult males and it is very rare that herds are involved in raiding. This is because crop raiding is a high risk activity for elephants and herds are very risk averse particularly because of their calves. Yet in 2021, there were 9 adult female elephants who were killed by gun shot injuries and hakka patas (jaw bombs) in the areas surrounding Minneriya and Kaudulla. Elephants are subject to being shot or exposed to hakka patas only when they raid crops. This is a clear indication that herds have started crop raiding in this area. So the short-term risk to elephants are increased injuries and deaths due to HEC. The long term impact will be that the elephant population will gradually reduce to the “carrying capacity” of the area. With reduced fodder, the body condition of elephants, particularly, females and calves will decline and long term survival is at stake. Evidence of this trend is already emerging. Therefore, the long term conservation future of this elephant population is at stake,” Dr. Pilapitiya further stressed.
Consequences of ignoring EIAs
Similarly, to the Moragahakanda project, many other so-called development projects have been done without prior assessments or planning. Contrary to the mandatory requirement included in the National Environmental Act (NEA) has a mandatory requirement that all prescribed projects must follow the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process prior to project construction, Sri Lanka has failed in fulfilling the ‘spirit’ of doing EIAs. However, this is the mechanism available in Sri Lanka to ensure prescribed projects including mega projects do not adversely affect the environmental and that ecosystem services are not compromised.
“EIAs if used wisely are very effective planning tools, identifying and mitigating all possible direct or indirect environmental and social impacts, ensuring the long term sustainability of the development project,” Dr. Pilapitiya added. “However, in Sri Lanka we see the EIA as only a regulatory requirement and most projects try to do the minimum to get their project approved. This is particularly true for mega projects undertaken by the Government. Long before the EIA is commenced, decisions as to the scope of the project, project location and in some cases even the engineering design has been finalized. Therefore, the EIA process is manipulated to justify the project. This is one of the main reasons that we face and one of the major issues that compromise the overall benefits of the project. EIAs should be done at the early planning stage where it becomes a useful project planning tool in addition to getting regulatory approval. Until Sri Lanka starts to do EIAs in the true spirit of why EIAs are done, we will continue to have unanticipated adverse impacts to our environment and ecosystems.”
“In the case of the Moragahakanda Project, since the project was a combination of two aspects, the reservoir and the tunnel for transmission of water, the EIA should have looked at what would be done to the water if the Moragahakanda reservoir was constructed and the tunnel did not materialize or get delayed. Had this been done, there would have been mitigation measures to ensure that the unintended impacts on the elephants would be minimal,” Dr. Pilapitiya underscored.
1 MCM – million cubic meters
2 This data has been collected as a part of a research project undertaken by Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General of Wildlife Conservation.