The human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a topic that has been discussed, debated, and analysed countless times over the course of last few decades. Numerous solutions in terms of elephant deterrents as well as changes in administrative decision-making have been suggested but we always find ourselves at crossroads as none of them prove to be the sustainable solution we have been looking for. Not to say that those solutions suggested by the experts in the field are useless but lack of funding, continuity and political interference in the decision-making always end up rendering those solutions ineffective in the end. 

There are multiple facets we have to take into consideration when dealing with an issue. When it comes to HEC the main side is the elephant and on the flip side we find humans. In our previous article (published on 28 August) we discussed the ‘elephant’ side of the HEC and in this article we turn our attention towards the ‘human’ element of the conflict.

As the Chairman of Friends of the Earth, and former Executive Director and current Senior Advisor of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage pointed out during his speech at the recently-held ‘Manuwaruna’ scholarly discourse, organised by the Leo Club of Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, the HEC isn’t something that can be solved through debates and discussions among experts held in air-conditioned rooms in the capital of the country. It requires a hands-on solution and to arrive at such a solution one needs to go to the grassroots levels of the issue and have a clear understanding of all the aspects of the HEC. In detail, he and other experts on the panel discussed how elephants have been wronged due to human activities and how the conflict is not necessarily a fault of the elephant; which leaves us with one party to point our fingers in blame – humans.

However, can the farmers and villagers hailing from underprivileged backgrounds who don’t really have any other option but continue to live in those areas braving HEC, be completely blamed for the HEC? Granted, on some occasions they may have not followed the advices given by the authorities but can we really scrutinise these acts of desperation not having a clear idea of how they continue to live their lives in HEC-prone areas?

Act of desperation

Let’s take a look at two different incidents experienced by veteran Journalist and the Presenter of Ruavahini’s popular nature programme Sobadhara Anuradha Devapriya which was shared during ‘Manuwaruna’ panel discussion.

On one occasion, he goes to Thanamalvila to cover a killing of a wild elephant. A chena farmer is identified as the culprit, for killing the elephant because the animal raided his crops. Upon visiting this man’s home, Devapriya learns that he is a poor man, raising his two children alone since their mother had run away when they were little. He also finds out that the two school-going children are doing rather well in school. “Why did you build your chena in an elephant corridor in the first place?” Devapriya asks the man. “I have been doing chena cultivation all my life and this is the land I always chose for it.

I know where the elephant corridor is, it is much further away from my chena. They started going through my chena only recently,” the man replies. When asked why the elephants have suddenly decided to go through his area, the man notes, “The land where the original elephant corridor is, was brought by a company in Colombo. They built an electric fence around their property and only then did  the elephants start passing through my property. This is my only way of income. Without it, I can’t support my family, I had no other option but to do something about it,” the man shared his plight.  

Reporting an elephant death

Granted the man could have done many other things to deter the elephants, when you contextualise their hardships, you understand better why he thought killing the animal altogether was the solution to his problem. Although the man is guilty in the face of law, it is hard to not sympathise with the man for the situation he was in. Although the crime was committed by the man, is he really to blame? What about the big company that encroached on the elephant corridor? Are they not to be blamed for the death of this elephant? “This is a really sensitive area. If the man is penalised for the crime he had committed, the two children will be left without a father and their education will also be hindered. To make matters worse, they will end up growing up building an innate hatred towards elephants for taking their father away,” Devapriya warned.

When reporting a HEC-related incidents, the media, knowingly or unknowingly, takes one side. Perhaps this is done in order to generate more sales, reads, and reaches in social media but it inadvertently pins the blame on the human. “Sometimes when media reports an HEC incident it aggravates the conflict. They tend to sensationalise the incident for more views and publicity,” said the Senior Lecturer and the Head of the Department of Bio Science, University of Vavuniya, Dr. S. Wijeyamohan. According to him the reporting should be a balanced one that covers both sides of the story.

When reporting a murder, there is a Code of Ethics that journalists have to follow. The graphic details of the crime are omitted from the report and little to no emphasis is placed on the gender and ethnicity of the culprit. However, when reporting an elephant death or an incident of an injured elephant, all the gruesome details are revealed and sometimes images are shown without much censoring. One could argue that reporting differs from man to animals but the outcome of such reporting allows viewers who don’t really have any experience with HEC to sympathise with the animal and hate the villagers. Dr. Wijeyamohan also revealed that when reporting annual elephant deaths some media reports say a certain number of elephants ‘have been killed’ in a year instead of saying ‘have died’. This also aggravates HEC in a way since it doesn’t take natural elephant deaths in to account. “It sounds as if all the elephant deaths have occurred due to human activities, which is not true,” said Dr. Wijeyamohan.

Which life matters most?

As an expert in the field who has studied and researched HEC for over 25 years, Dr. Wijeyamohan is an expert in the field but he tends to stand beside humans rather than the popular opinion which is to sympathise with the elephants. “We tend to think a lot about elephants which is the correct thing to do but at the same time, we should not forget about the humans that have been wronged. I think in order to find sustainable solutions, we need to rethink our approach from the human’s perspective as well. If we can keep the humans happy, if we can keep the humans away from elephants, we can reduce HEC to a minimum,” Dr. Wijeyamohan opined.

“Personally, I value human lives more than elephant lives,” Dr, Wijeyamohan revealed another unpopular opinion. According to him, there isn’t a real comparison between what death is more tragic; a human death or an elephant death. HEC-causing elephants are predominantly males. So, the death of one bull elephant doesn’t really affect the elephant population that much, unless it is a tusker. However, a death of a man who is the breadwinner of the family can have a myriad of consequences; the mother is left without a husband, the children won’t have a father, typically the family’s main source of income would be lost, the education of the children will be halted, and so on, he reasoned.

Milking the situation

As Dr. Wijeyamohan suggested, in order to keep HEC at bay, we need to satisfy humans first. However, the implementation of this is easier said than done as there are some people who try to make the most out of an incident when it comes to HEC. By way of illustration, the second incident Devapriya narrates shows how opportunistic humans can be.

Once in Galgamuwa, Devapriya shares, he had gone to cover a funeral due to an elephant attack. The wildlife officers were hesitant to go because the people of the village were still angry at the officials for the death of one of their own. In the end, Devapriya had gone alone and at the funeral he managed to strike up a conversation with a youth from the area who had agreed to show Devapriya where the elephant attack had taken place. Upon visiting the site, the veteran journalist had immediately realised that the area is an elephant corridor, evident by numerous elephant footprints scattered around the area.

“This is an elephant corridor. What was he doing at a place like this?” he had asked the youth. “Yes, everybody knows this is an elephant corridor but this person was drunk that day and while returning home he had fallen down and fallen asleep,” the youth had replied. After realising the death is not really an elephant attack but rather an unfortunate accident, Devapriya had asked why the people of the village are so agitated if the death is clearly the fault of the man and not the elephant; to which the youth had replied, “That’s because the family won’t be compensated by the Government if it turned out to be the man’s fault.”

Since most elephant attacks occur either at dusk or at dawn, they can be easily avoided if the people decide to stay inside their houses during that time. It might not be the ideal solution but it also is a sacrifice the people will have to make in order to keep HEC to a minimum. The Galgamuwa incident is a result of neglecting this advice. The incident also cast some legitimate doubts over countless reports of deaths due to elephant attacks we have seen over media. When a death occurs the emotions usually run high and it is best to not make any assumptions at that time. Once the dust is settled only can we probe deeper into the incident and look into what had truly happened and what solutions can be taken to avoid any similar occurrences in the future.

HEC is inevitable

The two incidents show how reactive humans can be when it comes to HEC-related incidents. They also show the matter is not exactly black or white but rather grey. Humans tend to be reactive when there is no other option. The farmer in Thanamalvila might not have killed the elephant if he had another way of income. The villagers in Galgamuwa might not have tried to milk the accidental death if the family had enough money already. Ultimately, it comes down to keeping the humans happy, as Dr. Wijeyamohan said. If the humans are happy with the solutions and willing to follow them, the HEC would never occur. Thus, the million dollar question is, what is the perfect solution to ensure the humans are happy.

Realistically, such solution might never be reached in a country such as Sri Lanka. According to the records of the Parliamentary Council, Sri Lanka records the world’s highest rate of HEC, as well as highest elephant population density. In a small island nation where the majority of its area is shared by both humans and elephants, HEC is inevitable. The population is always on the rise and so is the elephant population. “Although there isn’t an official census data to confirm this, Sri Lanka’s elephant population has been on the rise. This becomes evident when studying the number of natural elephant deaths. Each year, that number increases which means the elephant population is also increasing,” Dr. Wijeyamohan said.    

If both populations are on the rise, finding a solution which is beneficial to both humans and elephants is essential before HEC escalates even further. While finding solutions, the authorities and stakeholders should not only adhere to what the experts have to say on the matter, but also should consider whether it satisfies the humans living in the HEC-prone areas. A solution may appear sustainable on paper but if it is not well-received by the people, the authorities will again have to come back to their drawing boards to derive yet another solution for the ever-existing HEC.  

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe