Human-Elephant Conflict Aggravates

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 11 2021

Ever since the landmass of Lanka separated from the Indian sub-continent, several millennia ago and today’s Sri Lankan elephant was confined to its forests, they had been peacefully living in co-existence with the indigenous people as well as the Sinhala-Aryan settlers who merged with them around the 5th century BCE for nearly two millennia until the British in around 1850 began the opening up of tea, rubber and coconut plantations by clearing the forests in the montane and the wet zones, it has been documented that elephants came up to Nittambuwa in early British times!

 Owing to the British decimating the elephant population in the Wet Zone, one of them claiming to have shot over 1,000 of them, his tomb said to be attracting thunder and lightning even today, wild elephants began to be confined to the Dry Zone where the human-elephant conflict is mostly prevalent, today, having had its beginnings coterminous with the re-opening of the Dry Zone lowlands for agriculture, especially paddy cultivation post-1833, with the restoration of ancient irrigation works and accentuated with the setting up of the State Council in 1931 with Ceylonese Ministers heading Executive Committees in charge of Agriculture and other subjects. 

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, eminent wildlife researcher and former Director, Wildlife Conservation, has come out with his findings as appearing in the Ceylon Today of 18 July 2021 that, “the human-elephant conflict is mainly due to the majority of the people in the dry zone being not descendants of the ancient farmers who lived in harmony with elephants but rather people who relocated from elsewhere in the country, owing to the rapid irrigation and infrastructure development projects initiated in the Dry Zone. Although a generation and a half has passed since they first moved to the dry zone, they still lack that crucial know-how practised by the ancient villagers to coexist with elephants. 

Hence, the human-elephant conflict is still prevalent in those areas, getting worse by the day”. A number of deaths by wild-elephant attacks has increased during the recent past with the concomitant destruction of house and property and cultivations in the endangered farming communities with elephants getting attracted to, especially stored paddy, the proposed solution to which of facilitating farmers to use iron containers placed at a higher elevation as silos not having materialised still. The blocking of elephant corridors for elephants to pass from one reservation to the other does not seem to be the only reason for them to enter villages looking for fresh vegetation sprouting in slash and burn (chena) farmlands after harvest. 

Senior Professor at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo Prof. Devaka K. Weerakoon, has said elephants prefer tropical thorn scrubs over dense forests because that is where most of their food is found. A grown elephant roughly eats 150 kilograms of plant matter every day and to fulfil this dietary need, they spend 16 hours of the day searching for food. 

“Small plants with relatively shorter lifespan such as grass and scrubs develop physical barriers such as developing thorns, fur, and layers of wax while larger trees with longer lifespans resort to chemical barriers such as developing chemical substances in their leaves that are poisonous to herbivores or just bitter in taste. 

As elephants eat larger quantities of plant material they tend to avoid plants with chemical barriers so their diet mainly consists of grass, thorny plants, and crops cultivated by humans. “The carrying capacity of such thorn scrubs is one elephant for every 33 hectares. 

These are the ones that cause the human-elephant conflict. Elephants confined to protected areas don’t contribute to the conflict,” said Prof. Weerakoon. “Carrying capacity of a primary forest is one elephant for every 500 hectares, way leas than thorn scrubs because the majority of the trees in forests with chemical barriers are not suitable for elephants’ consumption,” explained Prof. Weerakoon. “However, chena cultivation is continued outside protected areas, so as a result, about 60 per cent of elephants in Sri Lanka are living outside these protected areas. These are the ones that cause the human-elephant clash.

 Elephants comprising the remaining 40 per cent confined to protected areas don’t contribute to it,” said Prof. Weerakoon. The bottom-line is that elephants will like to have forage agreeable with their stomachs, palatable and gives them the maximum nutrition. 

Human activities during the last 70 or more years have reduced that prospect: agricultural planners for the human good have not taken into account the plight of the wild animals. So, is more slash and burn cultivation the source of the ideal food of elephants according to scientists and more effective electric fences the solution? It might be beneficial to both wild animal and man for the government to make a compromise between the broader economic necessity, of allowing for more chena cultivation for the well-being of both, those direly in need of land for their sustenance, and meeting environmental requirements. 

There is a notion among the public that it has been customary for anti-government elements to destroy electric fences by getting officials also against the ruling Government or by buying even neutral or pro-government officials to not maintain electric fences properly so that elephants can have a field day causing all the havoc. Let’s hope it does not and has never happened; it was only recently that elephants cleverly putting logs over live electric fences and wading over to villages was reported over electronic media.

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 11 2021

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