Can elephants and humans coexist?

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A Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the Open University of Sri Lanka Prof. U.K.G. Kalinga Padmalal explaining on why the Sri Lankan administration has failed to address Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC), said, “One of the prime reasons for the failure of the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s (DWC), ‘HEC mitigation programmes’ is that certain Non-Governmental Organisations rely on HEC for their sustenance and therefore would not cooperate with the DWC to solve this pressing problem.”

Sri Lankans have had enough examples over the past 20 years to realise that people and elephants can no longer coexist because they are both competing for the same resource. HEC are not a new topic for Sri Lankans, but the question that needs to be answered right now is why Sri Lanka’s DWC efforts are failing and not lasting.

Academics assert that the lack of a DWC survey on the wildlife elephant population over the past two decades is a major factor in why the government has been unable to find an appropriate solution to lessen these conflicts.

Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC): What Is It?

Prof. Padmalal said, the HEC has been identified and defined as; loss of many human lives, damage to house, property and cultivation; and the psychological impact on children, family, and society.

However, he pointed out that most people do not realise the psychological impact of the communities which are affected by it, and that psychological trauma that they have to undergo, is a major issue in HEC.

Likewise, in the case of elephants, he was critical of the injury, deaths, loss of home range and its habitat. “When talking about HEC and development projects and so on, what is not mentioned is that, when you encroach into or change the ‘land use’ in elephant habitat, you have expanded not only the extent of their roaming territories but also their feeding habits. This obviously has led to the most pressing human-elephant conflict,” he explained.”

Speaking further, he said what is of paramount importance to note even at this point of time, is that when you encroach any ‘elephant country’ with planned or unplanned projects or settlements, you are definitely interfering with elephant habitat as it gives rise to a situation where the ‘new human habitat’ breeds a feeding ground for elephants.

Elaborating further, he said, humans and elephants are ‘frequenting and competing’ on the same land looking for basic but vital resources such as food and water. “The seriousness of this is that, humans and elephants are compelled to battle out and outdo the other even to the extent of fatalities as they fight for their survival,” he explained.

He infers that there are four reasons for this yet unsolved, grave issue, viz. habitat loss, loss of elephant corridors, forest fragmentation and shrinking elephant home ranges.

Conservation measures proposed and failed

Even though the DWC has been quite proactive in attempting to address issues affecting Sri Lanka’s elephant population, only two of those conservation strategies are now being implemented.

Elephant trenches, elephant deterrence, the establishment of new national parks, the establishment of elephant corridors, the enrichment of elephant habitat, elephant translocation, electrical fencing, breeding programmes, the prevention of poaching, and the coordination of elephant conservation are some of the measures that have been lined up for implementation.

Elephant deterrence is the practice of chasing elephants by noise, flashes, and other shocking methods. Dr. Lucy King created the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent more than ten years ago, capitalising on the just-revealed fact that African elephants shun African honeybees. The beehive fence is a reasonably cheap and easy deterrent that aims to be a tool that communities may employ independently after setup, according to a 2018 study by Dr. Lucy King. The main idea is that if elephants try to approach an area that needs to be protected from them, the beehives will be disturbed, resulting in a swarm of bees. The DWC has ceased using the technique, though, as they believe it to be ineffective.

The creation of new National Parks and expanding conservation areas was another action initiated by the State.

Through a motion in Parliament, the Government designated areas in Chundikulam, Delft Island, Adam’s Bridge, Kotuaththawala, Kayankerni, and Madu Road as National Parks, in 2020. The then Environment and Wildlife Resources, Lands and Land Development Minister S.M. Chandrasena later noted that some of these new national parks were long-standing sanctuaries with high biodiversity and historical significance.

Chundikulam, a national sanctuary since 1938, was downgraded to a national park with a size of more than 27,500 acres. Migratory birds are drawn to Chundikulam by its biodiversity. In order to transform it from a sanctuary to a national park, permanent structures were brought down. The Madu Road Sanctuary is home to a sizable population of wild elephants, and that the Madu Sanctuary also has an elephant pass. Because of the Madu sanctuary’s favourable circumstances for mammals, it is confirmed that a variety of species, including leopards, deer, and bears, reside there. So, to preserve it as a national park, we had to remove some communities and agricultural lands, he remarked in 2020.

Elephant corridors were supposed to be established to allow elephants to safely move from one habitat region to another, but only two have been gazetted so far, and all of them are accessible for crop cultivation.

One of the methods that has been used so far is electrical fencing, which creates impenetrable barriers between farming and elephant habitat. However, the DWC is faced with a difficulty in maintaining these fences in good order, due to several concerns.

Why are there more human -elephant conflicts?

Species Conservation Centre President Pubudu Weeraratne said ‘only two methods’ the Government has been using for the last two decades; constructing electric fences and digging trenches. He noted that no Government in the last two decades had taken any viable action to reduce the intensity of HEC.

He claimed that during the past 20 years, as hostilities have increased, so have their casualties. He pointed out that other safeguards failed as a result of the Government’s lack of focus.

Weeraratne asserted that the majority of the development activities occur where the elephant habitation is located, especially when it comes to planned and unplanned human activities. He used the Southern Development project in Hambanthota, which was an elephant herd kingdom, as an example. He claimed that this was one of the main causes of the rise in HEC.

He added that there is no ‘land use’ plan or opening of elephant corridors, which he explained was the reason for the rise in ‘violence’. He cited Dahaiyagala as one illustration. It is a proposed forest reserve that is 2,685 hectares in size and located between Bogahapattiya and Udawalawe National Park. It is home to a variety of species and has enough of greenery and water, making it a haven during dry spells. In 2002, Dahaiyagala was designated as a sanctuary in recognition of its significance as a passageway for elephants and other animals.

Weeraratne asserted that the former President’s visit with the local farmers permitted them to carry on with their farming operations in the elephant corridor, impeding the movement of the elephants.

“Our inadequate handling of the situation is the primary cause of the rise in conflict. Many elephant pathways around the nation have been affected in this manner. Another significant issue is that we lack an appropriate land policy. The politicians who are taking office will determine whether or not a proper policy is proposed. If the President who is appointed hails from Polonnaruwa, he will develop Polonnaruwa, and if the politician is chosen from Hambantota, his sole responsibility is to rebuild Hambantota,” he remarked.

Weeraratne, who criticised the past administrations, pointed out that because there is no policy that integrates land and agriculture for coexistence, politicians even do not know ‘where to produce what’.

He noted that bio-fencing should be used ‘extremely intelligently’ in accordance with the local environment. Some of them according to him, are good, but the location where it is being used is problematic. “Bio-fencing may ‘contract a disease’ and the entire fence will malfunction if it is not properly maintained. Elephants in particular are unstoppable creatures,” he claimed. In contrast, he claimed that trenches are dug for other ‘political purposes or gains, than to halt elephants.

Why measures taken by DWC fail?

The Director (Operations) at DWC, Ranjan Marasinghe said farmers have now claimed all the elephant corridors. He claimed that if they discover any significant location or residence, the various ministries have already taken them for their ‘intended uses’.

He said one of the key factors contributing to the failure of the measures implemented to reduce HEC was the lack of institutional coordination.

However, as things stand, the DWC no longer has any elephant corridors, despite his assertion that creating elephant corridors was one of the best ways to address issues involving humans and elephants. The DWC is typically powerless since they are unable to make any decisions that are not their own, though it is in the best interest of HEC. “We conduct Environmental Impact Assessments for large-scale projects and make note of such items. This is the main problem, he remarked, explaining why we cannot safeguard the elephant corridors,” he said.

He continued by saying that, as can be seen, creating elephant corridors is not a simple task. According to him, if they come across anything like an elephant corridor, they take action to declare it a national reserve or sanctuary because it has a far higher legal status than a corridor does.

Speaking about the shortcomings of electric fences, Marasinghe said that while on some level they are reducing HEC, there are also some issues that they start to fall short of, at some point.

He emphasised that the electric fence is currently the most effective barrier, but he pointed out that the DWC is having trouble keeping up with those fences. “It is difficult to maintain an electric fence that spans three to four thousand kilometres. If an elephant attacks the fence, the fences should be repaired as quickly as possible, and holes should be dug when it rains. Thus, completing these tasks is difficult. People also expect the government to handle everything. It would be easy for us if people could step in and maintain their area-fence as means of safeguard for their own community. The failure of electric fences at some point is also a result of people’s non-cooperation,” he claimed.

Prof. Padmalal highlighted that one of the major conservation challenges that the DWC is facing is the difficulty of declaring elephant habitats. This is happening for four reasons, one of which is invasive species.

He claims that the DWC is doing all of this, while lacking adequate resources, such as ‘elephant management’ staff. “The DWC should recognise that in order to develop conservation methods, they must first clearly identify the conservation challenges such a short-term, mid-term, and long-term action plans. Villagers too, should be prepared to face challenges,” he said.

Prof. Padmalal stated, when the Ministers of Forest and Wildlife are not one and the same person, the land authority is divided, and the ministries’ functions are jeopardised. As a result, he suggested that the two ministries collaborate to identify areas for wildlife conservation, designate them as Managed Elephant Reserves (MER), and increase forest connectivity.

“High profile political intervention is required, because the forest department will not release their lands, preventing the wildlife department from establishing MER. Even if it’s in the case of the Hambantota MER, the wildlife department, would be unable to make regulations because the MER is under the jurisdiction of different agencies,” he explained.   

No survey after 2011

Marasinghe highlighted that no ‘elephant population’ survey has been conducted since 2011, despite the administration’s repeated claims that it cannot be done because it would be highly tedious and expensive process.

Prof. Padmalal blamed the decision on the lack of a survey, stating, “how can the DWC arrive at a proper solution without a proper data to analyse?” He said such is vital to take precautionary measures. “We cannot do or take any action, unless we have a good understanding of the numbers.” he explained.

What can we expect in the long run?

Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation Mahinda Amaraweera said the island is currently home to more over 5,000 elephants and nearly 200 tuskers. He claimed that the new reports of HEC are due to the current drought. He claimed that elephants have begun to go into the communities in search of food.

He claimed that because of the drought, at least 100 elephants are living in various small-scale woods in Anuradhapura and Ampara. He claims that after December, the conflicts would lessen, and the elephants will return to their natural habitat.

Amaraweera added, now that the season for harvesting the paddy has arrived, the elephants are following suit.

When asked if there was any intention of taking control of the elephant corridors and making them accessible to elephants, he responded that it was not possible, citing the Morgahakanda project and the Hambantota airport as examples. These developments, according to him, are arising in elephant corridors. Elephants cannot access these areas since it is not practically not possible.

However, he claimed that the best precautions are being taken to protect both people and elephants from the never-ending struggle between the two species.

What should be done?

Prof. Padmalal, in support of Marasinghe’s argument, said first and foremost, people or villagers should start thinking and intervening in the battle of mitigating HEC by supporting the efforts of  DWC and maintaining the electric fences.

He highlighted that after determining the elephant’s needs, the authorities should devise mitigation measures. “It is understandable that two species competing for the same resources could not coexist. As a result, you should choose an Isolation Principle. In this case, humans must make some decisions. We can visit human habitats when they are close to the village, but we cannot allow elephants to enter the villages and cause havoc. That is why we require the ‘isolation principle’.  This can be accomplished by improving chena cultivation for elephants,” he explained.

Weeraratne concluded by stating that the management of human-elephant conflict as part of an integrated, landscape-scale land-use policy, which is one of the top conservation priorities for the elephant habitat. The other major conservation priorities for the elephant are habitat conservation and maintaining connectivity by securing corridors.

What happened to Minneriya Elephant Gathering?

Minneriya National Park, a protected 8,890-hectare reserve within Sri Lanka’s famed Cultural Triangle, is home to one of the world’s most significant elephant phenomena. Every year, beginning in late August, groups of elephants congregate around the receding waters of the Minneriya Tank, a vast and ancient waterbody spanning 4670 acres and built by the ‘tank-building’ King Mahasena in the 3rd century. When other drinking sources become scarce, elephants come here to drink, bathe, and feast on the young shoots of grass that flourish on the tank’s edges as the water recedes.

This phenomenon is known as ‘The Gathering’, and it usually lasts until the monsoon season begins in October. In the not-too-distant past, there were 400 wild elephants enjoying the tender grass while the babies romped and the ‘young bulls’ flexed their muscles, but now there are only a few. The Great Elephant Gathering at Minneriya, one of the world’s ten greatest wildlife wonders, is no longer taking place.

Marasinghe justified this by stating that a large area in the shallow tank is being opened up for the drought season. “Grassland is born when an area that was not previously covered with water is covered with water. “Every year this happens and because of this, 400 elephants from three areas, gather here. However, the water has of late been channelled to the Moragahakanda Dam project, and the natural grassland ‘water regime’ has changed. Hence the elephants, no longer gather here,” he explained.

BY Thameenah Razeek