Maheshakya was widely agreed upon as an exemplary specimen of an elephant, with large tusks. He roamed the wildernesses of Kebithigollewa in Sri Lanka’s North Central province. Maheshakya got into a fight earlier this year with another elephant, which left him seriously wounded. Even as he lay in pain, still alive and conscious, a poacher cut off one of his tusks. Twenty days later, Maheshakya was dead.

In the time since the tusker had suffered his injuries during the fight, veterinarians from the Department of Wildlife Conservation were able to check on him just twice. Before this year, Maheshakya would have received many more visits, possibly preventing the loss of his tusk and subsequent death. But Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis, the worst in the country’s history, meant that was not to be.

“If we had more opportunity to treat the elephant and visit frequently, there was a chance of saving his life. But we did not have fuel in our vehicles to make this journey regularly,” said Chandana Jayasinghe, a wildlife veterinary surgeon at the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

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

A man waits in queue to buy petrol in Colombo in June. Credit: Reuters.

Rescue operations affected

Some public services such as health, law and order, and public transport have been declared essential services by the government, and as such the ministries and government agencies administering them get priority access to fuel. But the Department of Wildlife Conservation does not fall in this category, so its personnel have to wait in line like all other motorists.

“Because of the fuel shortage, we think twice before attending to a case,” says Akalanka Pinidiya, a Department of Wildlife Conservation veterinary surgeon in central Sri Lanka.

When an elephant death is reported, the usual procedure is to conduct a postmortem to determine the cause of death. But because of the need to save fuel for rescue missions, officials are now largely forgoing the need for postmortems, Pinidiya told Mongabay.

“Other than the elephants, the department receives a handful of other animals such as birds, small cats, porcupines, and barking deer sent by regional range offices for treatment. But this has stopped now,” Pinidiya says.

Range offices also face fuel shortages, and residents who would usually hand over injured animals have more pressing needs of their own to attend to over trying to save animals in distress, Pinidiya says.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation runs a number of wildlife rescue centres that house and treat injured animals. These operations, too, have been severely impacted by the fuel shortage. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Attidiya, in the Colombo suburbs, now attends only to essential rescues.

“Usually, our vehicle goes to pick up distressed animals when we receive a call. But now the centre has to ask people to bring the injured animals as a way to conserve the limited fuel available and save it for critical cases,” says Suhada Jayawardena, a veterinary surgeon with the rehabilitation centre.

The centre recently received a phone call from the Wellawatte neighbourhood of Colombo, less than a 20-minute drive away, about a turtle with a damaged flipper. Even though it was only six kilometers from the centre, there was no way to get there.

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

“People inform us about the animals needing assistance with good intentions and it is heartbreaking to turn down their requests or to ignore. The idea is to help every animal if possible, not select,” Jayawardena says.

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

The wildlife officers, like all Sri Lankans, face severe difficulties just getting to work each day. Many have begun cycling if the trip isn’t too far; Jayawardena bikes the 8 km from his home to the rescue centre.

“This is an unprecedented level of crisis triggering other crises such as the rescue operations getting hampered,” says Chandana Sooriyabandara, director-general of the DWC. “Some of our services are severely [restricted] by the fuel crisis, but we always try to arrange fuel for those cases that are essential to be addressed.”

At the start of the year, the Department of Wildlife Conservation allocated fuel quotas for various purposes from its annual budget, prepared just as the economic crisis was deepening. Since then, fuel has become scarce and prices have doubled. That has effectively halved the quotas determined by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, in turn forcing cuts to rescue operations.

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

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

But the fuel shortage has drastically reduced this vital engagement, leaving both villagers and elephants at greater risk of harm or even death amid the lack of professional intervention, says M Peiris, chair of a national union of wildlife guards.

A delay of just one hour in delivering preventive action can prove costly. In a recent incident in Saliyapura, in North Central province, an elephant reportedly entered the village and killed one person and injured another. The wildlife office near Saliyapura said it didn’t have enough fuel to send officers to the village to chase the elephant away, Peiris tells Mongabay.

Due to the absence of patrols, large-scale gem mining is being carried out in the Yala National Park (pictured) in Sri Lanka. Credit: Patty Ho, Uploaded on Wikimedia Commons by Lkcl_it, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Increasing illegal activity

The lack of patrols has also led to a rise 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 instance, large-scale gem mining is being carried out illegally in the absence of patrols.

At the same time, Sri Lanka has entered the forest fire season, when poachers and forest encroachers start fires to flush out animals that they then kill or capture. Most of these forests fall under the DWC’s management, but with the shortage of fuel, “this will retard their ability to quickly respond,” Chamikara says.

“We have to expect that the economic crisis would impact conservation as people who lose livelihood would tend to poach animals [as a nutritional] supplement and also to earn money,” says Rukshan Jayawardene, a conservationist with the Colombo-based non-profit Environmental Foundation Limited.

Against this backdrop, enforcement activities should be intensified instead of curtailed, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation should be fighting to get more fuel and funds, Jayewardene says.

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

This article was first published on Mongabay.