One of the reasons that Annette and I took an extra day out of our
holidays after the business functions in Sri Lanka was to meet with one
of the two of the country's conservation organisations we had found out
about prior to coming to Colombo - the other was unable to meet with us
on a weekend. We would expect the Sri Lankan company,now it is
established, to support sensible endangered species protection programs
in the country in which it employs (and therefore supports) human
beings just as the Australian company does - and for the same reasons.
We had some appreciation of the state of endangered species protection
in Sri Lanka from some cursory web based research during which we came
across this quote from one of the web sites:
'25 centuries ago, Arahat Mahinda, a Buddhist monk and son of Emperor Ashoka of India, told the then King of Ceylon:
"O Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to
live and move about in any part of the island as you do. The land
belongs to the people and all other living things equally; you are only
the guardian of it".
Acting on these words King Devanampiya Tissa established the world's first
wildlife sanctuary which he named Maha Meghawanaya (in English - The
Great Raincloud Forest).'
So, at least in mythology, Sri Lanka was the pioneer of wildlife conservation long before the
current Western societies learned to stop killing their neighbours and
each other let alone stop killing the non-human inhabitants of their
locations. Sometimes I get just a little uneasy about the alleged under
pinnings of the "civilised society in which we live in Australia and
the EU and North America which in many ways remain barbaric.
So, with that quote firmly in my mind, it was disappointing to learn a
little bit about the status of wildlife conservancy in modern day Sri
Lanka which apart from all the normal issues has the additional problem
of over 3,000,000 people living in a brutalising and deep rural
poverty of which Australians (including me) cannot begin to grasp the
depths - how do you actually exist on an income of $US1.50 per month?
However I could understand that extent of the difficulty of convincing
people whose whole annual crop (and therefore annual income) has been
destroyed by hungry elephants driven from their 'natural' habitat by
international logging companies (the Great Raincloud Forest contains
too much valuable timber to be left for the benefit of Sri Lanka's
endangered fauna, avia and flora) that shooting the elephants is not
the best option to prevent a recurrence the following year.
The privately funded organisation we met with was the Sri Lankan Wildlife
Conservation Society who has, for some 12 years, been running a
privately funded set of programs which try and reconcile the
conflicting needs of protecting the rapidly diminishing population of
elephants while attempting to mitigate the terrible depradations of
endemic rural poverty. It starkly puts in perspective the dichotomy
where by protecting an animal species you further endanger the lives of
people already suffering terminal poverty. However what was fascinating
to listen to was how by protecting the elephants from being killed a
program had been developed that also protected the human beings
impacted by the elephants need to assuage their hunger by protecting
their crops and in many cases dramatically increasing the villagers
They do this via an almost reverse conservation
model where, with a little imagination, you can envisage that the the
main focus is the human beings are the ones being protected while, as a
side benefit, the human beings have no further need to shoot or
otherwise kill the elephants. They do this by building (solar powered) electrified
fences around the villages and the crop fields which prevent the
elephants from eating the crops (and in the case of banana trees
destroying the future crops by destroying the trees themselves) and
also preventing the destruction of village homes and the killing of
villagers who get in the way of elephants. This works well as long as
the fences are maintained in good order (the electricity is 'free' as
it is provided by solar generators) which is not always the case and
there are many examples of government run programs, both here and in
other countries around the world, where initial success is made useless
by no ongoing funding (or education) for fence maintenance.
This system has worked well and is well documented around the world where
other countries (including South Africa on a massive scale) have taken
it up. However it is still no more advanced than the mythical creation
of a wild life sanctuary 2,500 years ago in that it's limitations are
self evident. A more ambitious program that has been started in a
number of places in Sri Lanka is the 'more outside the nine dots
thinking' of eliminating the problem before it ever becomes a problem.
This is done by crop substitution. Instead of the villagers continuing
to plant crops that elephants don't only find nutritional but actually
regard as highly desirable (bananas, sugar cane, rice) help them change
the soil characteristics to grow crops the elephants not only find
non-nutritional but actively dislike. Brilliant in its simplicity - a
double whammy of alleviating rural village poverty while reducing the
number of elephants shot for crop destruction - much harder and much
longer time frame to become productive.
However they also talked of an even more ambitious program that would be a triple whammy
of protecting the elephants, increasing the villagers income and also
reducing the country's import bill. Currently Sri Lanka imports 80% of
the milk required by its population. The new concept is to change the
banana, sugar cane, etc crops to grass and graze dairy cattle. Cattle
and elephants easily co-exist so the need for fences around the
cropping areas are not needed (at a significant saving in installation
and maintenance though fencing around the villages themselves is still
required). This is obviously a longer term project than simple crop
replacement (you need to develop milk processing and chilling plants
and acquire milk transport vehicles rather than simply loading a 30
year old truck or a donkey cart with pumpkins instead of bananas).
Both the second and third concepts provide a true change to 3,000,000 people's lives and help the Sri Lankan elephant population. We hope
that Exetel can assist these projects in the tiny ways available to us and we hope to encourage more commercial organisations to do the same.
Hi John, I recently attended a trade show and met some of your corporate sales team. We spoke about Exetel and your passion of conservation in some detail. It was refreshing to hear your team talk about you with such pride. Our company is also keen to make a difference. We are taking small steps to tackle both conservation and poverty. We work with organisations such as Keeping Australia Beautiful and Caritas. I am very curious to know how you managed both a growing company and a vision of conservation in the early days. Has Exetel always been so charitable or did you reach a critical point where you felt you were able to start? Thanks. Phil Reardon MD Schoolzine
Thank you for telling me that our people understand our objectives so clearly.
Personally, I have always been very interested in wildlife protection and have always supported various projects to the limit of my financial abilities.
Exetel started doing it once we began to make profits every month at a 'safe' margin so that any commitment we made to a project we could be certain of honouring.
I believe that if all commercial enterprises gave a portion of their profits to the various people around Australia who are involved in conservation programs then there would be no more endangered species and there would be a much more beautiful Australia.