Deforestation and human- elephant conflict
Between 2000 and 2014 Sri Lanka lost nearly 100,000 hectares of forest. One of the most serious cases of deforestation occurred in 2006, in the area where Mattala Airport was subsequently constructed. About 250 elephants were driven away from a 60,000 hectare area of forest slated for development. They were herded into the nearby Lunugamvehera National Park, but had difficulties acclimatizing to the move. Many adults and calves died of starvation as they paced the electric fence surrounding them, searching for a way out. Half of the forested area the elephants had inhabited was replaced with banana plantations, tsunami rehabilitation settlements, an international conference centre and Mattala Airport. An estimated 300-400 elephants remained in the other half of the land earmarked for development. The animals became accustomed to humans and ventured into settlement and farms, leading to increased incidence of human-elephant conflict.
In August 2010, as clearance of 800 hectares of land in preparation for construction of Mattala Airport was underway, the Sunday Times gave credence to reports that large tracts of land were being set alight and that site workers were killing animals to eat them. Journalist Kumudini Hettiarachchi wrote of a ‘massacre of anything that moves, be it four-legged, two-legged or no-legged for food’. A conservationist said that mouse deer, snakes, frogs and even pangolin, scaly ant-eaters listed in the Near Threatened category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. Photographs from within the airport site, in the possession of the Sunday Times, showed the remains of animals - heads, skins and scales - strewn around with vegetation ablaze in the background. Bandu Ranga Kariyawasam of the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, sent a strongly-worded letter of protest to the Chair of the Central Environment Authority (CEA) detailing large-scale animal slaughter and illegal meat selling.
The 800 hectare area had been demarcated with electric fencing, but, instead of fencing the area in stages allowing wild animals to leave, they were quickly encircled, by the electric fence and a wire mesh fence, leading to many of the animals being trapped. A conservationist thought there were indications that this fate had befallen a few elephants. The fencing was supposed to leave a 500 meter corridor through which elephants would be able to pass, but, after pressure from the CEA, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and other officials, only 120 meters had been released. Fencing off the airport site had restricted the roaming habits of approximately 300 elephants in the area, driving them to encroach on human settlements. A conservationist reported escalation of human-elephant conflict in areas surrounding the airport site including Mattala, Badagiriya and Gonnaruwa, with some instances resulting in deaths of humans and elephants.
An airport in the midst of wildlife sanctuaries
Deciding to build a major airport in the midst of several wildlife sanctuaries had been criticized due to the potential risk of bird strikes, collisions between birds and aircraft that can lead to accidents. Bird strikes, occasionally causing air accidents that can be serious, injuring or killing passengers and crew, are inevitably fatal for the birds as they are minced up in the plane’s engines or splattered on the planes’ nose or windscreen leaving smears of blood. Large flocks of birds feed on wetlands in the Mattala area, which is on a migratory route for thousands of birds of many species. As preparations were underway for the 18th March 2013 opening of Mattala Airport an aircraft on a test flight ran into a flock of birds. After the airport opened, just one week later, on 25th March 2013, a SriLankan Airlines plane collided with a flock of birds shortly after it took off, leaving cracks on the cockpit windscreen. Sajeewa Chamikra, Director of the Environment Conservation Trust, said:
“All attempts to educate the Aviation Ministry of the consequences that have to be faced in future when plans were drawn to construct an international airport at Mattala were ignored. Since this area is populated with migrant birds throughout the year we told the government to shift the location to a place with less vulnerability, but their failure to listen to us has now brought several consequences.”
He said it had always been clear that the area was not suitable for an airport and that the lives of birds and animals as well as air passengers would be at risk. Information showing the impact on wildlife had been submitted when the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was open for comments, but the warnings had been disregarded.
The Civil Aviation Authority responded to the serious threat to aircraft safety by beginning to cover up water holes in and around Mattala Airport that attract birds and other wildlife. Food sources such as grass, seeds, weeds and seeds were also removed. Flares and crackers were exploded shortly before the arrival and take-off of aircraft in an attempt to frighten birds and animals away. A petition urged authorities to cease this destruction of water holes and food sources that aimed to ‘turn the airport into an animal and bird free zone’, warning of a ‘deadly impact on the bird population in the region, both migratory and indigenous’. The petition also warned of worsening of human-elephant conflict as the animals would be more likely to enter villages and farms in search of food and water. A week before Mattala Airport was inaugurated a wild elephant attack had occurred on the main access road and the victim subsequently died.
A few weeks after inauguration of Mattala Airport it emerged that hundreds of monkeys had been electrocuted by the high tension wires supplying power to the airport. A Lanka News Web report estimated that between 20-30 monkeys were dying each day, unaware of the dangers of the high tension wires that, as a cost saving measure and in the absence of customary environmental clearances, extended 13 kilometers across their habitat. The power supply to the airport was being disrupted for a few minutes each time a monkey was electrocuted, and the sensitive radar system was also affected.
A battle against wildlife
In June 2013 Ceylon Today reported that, according to reliable sources, shots were being fired in the area around Mattala Airport in order to disperse birds, monkeys and other animals, with some of the creatures being shot and killed, as more forest was being cleared to expand the airport site. Vimukthi Weeratunga, Director Operations of Environment Foundation Ltd., (EFL) told Ceylon Today that killing wildlife around the airport would be off-putting to visitors and pointed out the dissonance of bird strikes and programmes to kill birds with the logo of SriLankan Airlines, the national carrier: a bird. Co-Secretary of Ceylon Bird Blub, Kithsiri Gunewardene, said that most airports adopt more humane methods of keeping wild animals and birds from coming within close proximity of planes, suggesting Mattala Airport stick to the use of flares and firecrackers. Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunewardene said some of the animals are protected species and should not be killed if they are within conservation, reserved or declared forests.
In January 2014 another plane at Mattala Airport had to be temporarily grounded due to a bird strike. A Flydubai plane collided with at least two peacocks when it was about to take off and one of the engines was damaged. A senior aviation official, Civil Aviation Director General H.M.C. Nimalsiri acknowledged that hundreds, possibly thousands, of peacocks posed a serious threat to air traffic at Mattala Airport. He said that a mass-scale culling of the peacocks would be a permanent solution to the problem. But eradicating the birds would cause an outcry from citizens and religious leaders across the country because peacocks are revered by both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Mr. Nimalsiri assured airlines that there would be no bird-strike re-occurrence as precautionary measures, albeit less drastic, were being implemented including an increase in runway patrols to scare away wildlife in and around the airport complex and clearing scrub jungle in the area to discourage birds and animals from making it their permanent habitat. Jagath Gunewardene pointed out that Mattala Airport is under a key migratory bird route where there is a high level of activity in March-April and September-October each year. Clearing of forest cover had attracted large numbers of ground-dwelling birds including peacocks, a matter that Gunewardene had raised in 2007 when the feasibility study for the airport was being conducted.
A week after the peacocks collided with the aircraft a pride of peacocks was photographed on the new extension of the Southern Expressway between Mattala and Hambantotata, linking Mattala Airport with several major economic centers. Yet an iconic artwork belies the systematic destruction of habitats supporting avian populations. A large metal peacock sculpture graces the approach road to the airport hints at a harmonious affiliation between airport operations and birdlife.
Increased human-elephant conflict
A 2015 report by the Auditor General’s Department, Performance and Audit Division: ‘Selectionof Mattala as the Alternative International Airport of Sri Lanka and its Operations’, noted that flights were frequently obstructed by flocks of peacocks straying onto the airport runway. An overarching finding of this report vindicated warnings that building an airport in the midst of wildlife sanctuaries would endanger airline services and lead to an ongoing battleagainst birds and animals.
'In view of the close proximity of the selected site to the National Sanctuary in that area, environmental problems such as the obstruction caused to the Runway by the wild animals and the danger to the existence of the wildlife due to the interference in their natural habitats had emerged.'
The report also confirmed that construction of Mattala Airport had caused an increase in human-elephant conflict. In particular, the access road had bifurcated wild animals’ natural habitat leading them to roam along the road. The report stated that, according to information from the DWC ‘it was observed that due the human – elephant conflict after the construction of the Mattala International Airport an oppressive condition had befallen on both the community life and the lives of elephants’. Between the beginning of 2012 and July 2015 there had been 81 elephant deaths, 30 human fatalities, 22 instances of bodily harm and 300 instances of damage to property.
Fears of human-elephant conflict were heightened in September 2015 when an elephant persisted in roaming on the Mattala-Hambantota road in spite of efforts to drive it back into the wilderness, repeatedly entering villages and causing damage. The elephant, a bull, was reported to be ‘on a rampage’, becoming highly aggressive due to a surge in testosterone levels, a periodic condition known as 'Musth'. The elephant had attacked a three-wheeled vehicle on the road and stormed into villages causing damage to property. Wildlife officials said that construction of the airport in what had been a dense forest had disturbed elephant habitat. Mattala Airport formed an obstruction, blocking an elephant corridor between two national parks; Lunugamvehera located to the northeast of the airport and Bundala to the southeast, near the coast. Erection of an electric fence to keep wild elephants out of the airport led to problems with the continued presence of other species, which apparently been trapped by the fence, then caused regular obstructions to flights. In March 2016 about 350 troops, police and volunteers spent a day deploying firecrackers to drive out about 150 deer and 50 buffalos.
The word’s emptiest airport
On a May 2016 visit Wade Shepard found the airport in elephant territory languishing empty as an embarrassing ‘white elephant’ (a major, expensive building project that is drastically underutilized and costly to maintain). The ‘world’s emptiest airport’ was still staffed, although the number of workers had been halved from 600 to 300, but it was almost devoid of passengers. The only scheduled flights were a single weekly flight operated by Fly Dubai and one weekly flight operated by Abu Dhabi based Rotana. An unused terminal had been used for storing rice and sections of unused tarmac had been rented out for aircraft parking. Mattala Airport had capacity to handle 1 million passengers annually. Yet in 2014 Mattala Airport handled a mere 20,474 passengers and in 2015 the number of passengers plummeted to just 2,379.
USD209 million had been spent on the project, with the majority of the funds, USD190 million, loaned by the Chinese government via the Exim Bank of China. In June 2016 it was reported that the government-owned firm managing Mattala Airport, Aviation and Airport Services Ltd. (AASL), struggling to make loan repayments of over USD17 million per year, was awaiting cabinet approval for the government to invite proposals from local and foreign investors to manage the airport.