From Conflict to Coexistence
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe Ceylon Today Features
Elephants are a treasured wildlife in Sri Lanka. On one hand they are the reason why the majority of tourists arrive at our shores, generating muchappreciated foreign revenue, and they are also an integral part in our cultural heritage. From elephantheaded gods to Buddhist literature and carrying the sacred Tooth relic in the country’s annual cultural and religious pageantry Dalada Perahera, elephants’ involvement in our society is a deep-rooted one.
However, as of late, the human – elephant conflict (HEC) has seen an exponential growth to a point where humans have now begun to loathe the giants once venerated. While it is certain that it is us who have invaded their homes and created this conflict for both of us, it is also not fair to ask people who are living in HEC-prone areas to be more compassionate towards elephants who constantly raid their crops and at times, kill their breadwinners.
Human – elephant conflict in Sri Lanka
Elephants are found in eight out of the nine provinces in the country, and 18 out of 25 administrative districts of Sri Lanka, making them one of the most wide-spread animals in Sri Lanka. With such a population distribution, it is almost impossible to completely avoid HEC. According to the data gathered by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) between the years 2011 and 2020 a gradual increase is observed in HEC. In 2011, the number of elephant deaths were around 250 – 255 but gradually increased to peak in 2019.
In 2020, the number read 322 – a slight drop from the 2019 number and it is believed the COVID-19 travel restrictions have resulted in this drop. Conversely, in 2011, 60 human deaths were reported due to elephant attacks and this also peaked in 2019 to reach 122. Although 322 elephant deaths were reported in 2020, only 77 of them were reported illegal killings. Approximately 50 per cent of all elephant deaths are due to natural causes and accidents and the rest is due to human activities – sometimes deliberate – such as gunshots, electrocution, poisoning, and explosives (hakka pattas).
Reasons for HEC increase
Some natural causes such as climate changes causing prolonged droughts and the spread of invasive flora in national parks in turn cause HEC but the majority of HEC causes are human-made. The main culprit is loss of habitat. Elephants love to roam and forest clearance that has been going on for eons has obviously resulted in HEC increase.
The unsustainable land use in development projects happening in the dry zone has forced elephants out of their habitats and the demarcation of nature reserves has blocked elephant corridors, restricting their movement among national parks. Dairy farmers entering national parks in search of fodder for their cattle has also resulted in HEC, especially in the Flood Plains National Park, Polonnaruwa. Apart from these, the dumping of garbage by municipal councils near elephant habitats have also resulted in quite a few elephant deaths.
Over the years DWC and other responsible Government agencies have taken numerous different methods of HEC mitigation with varying success. The immediate methods include DWC officials reporting to a scene and chasing elephants away and trans-locating elephants, although the latter has proven to be less successful since most of the times elephants have found their way back to their original habitat.
Since the DWC lacks manpower the farers in HEC-prone areas are given explosives (ali wedi) to scare the elephants away. In an event of a property and life damage, the DWC compensates for the losses and there is also a programme to compensate for the crops destroyed, although this is not done by the DWC. Elephant transit homes and elephant holding grounds run by the DWC are also contributing towards HEC mitigation, although the latter has come under much scrutiny.
Awareness is the key
The main HEC mitigation method in practice is the elephant fence for its efficiency but if not properly placed and maintained, the effectiveness of the fence may drop. Elephants are intelligent animals and they quickly adapt to new changes and therefore, it is imperative that the techniques of elephant fence too should be updated accordingly.
In Galgamuwa there is a certain elephant fence project wherein instead of fencing the forest, the fence is placed encircling the village. Another ‘seasonal fence’ where a temporary electric fence is built around paddy fields and other crops is also practiced in Galgamuwa which also is a prove success.
The temporary fence protects the crops until harvesting after which the farmer removes the fence, allowing elephants to enter and eat the residue. This way both parties are satisfied and coexistence is also ensured. The ‘killer’ elephants are almost always bull elephants and they are mostly nocturnal so, avoiding night time travels in HEC-prone areas is a must to reduce human deaths due to elephants. To counter HEC it is vital to constantly study the subject and therefore, the DWC is working together with different other institutes who contribute to HEC mitigation via inventions and knowledge sharing. Lots of innovative methods such as hanging electric fences, elephant-repelling incense sticks, and angular electric fences have been successfully experimented in different parts of the country.
The DWC is also implementing a rather expensive measure called habitat enrichment where areas in national parks are enriched by removing invasive flora, creating grassy and bushy landscapes elephants prefer, and creating waterholes. There are plenty of other mitigation methods currently being entertained by the DWC but above all these methods it is vital to understand that there is no way we can separate elephant from us. Both needs to live and the best way forward is coexistence, Rather than demanding for quick fixes or being quick to point fingers at the DWC when something goes awry, the best way is to be educated about the new mitigation methods and render our support to the officers who are working tirelessly for the betterment of both humans and elephants.
(These thoughts were shared during Mobitel Webinar on Human elephant conflict which was held recently)