Human-Elephant Conflict Must End

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 19 2021

As humans and elephants are equally valuable it is imperative that the human-elephant conflict that has reached high levels today has to be ended sooner than later. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised people in Medirigiriya last Saturday (16) that he will bring a permanent solution to the Human-elephant conflict soon.

The Asian elephants of yore lived from the Euphrates and Tigris to the Yangtze-Kiang. The elephants in Asia are now restricted to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Borneo. Their population is around 35, 000 to 50,000, today.

When Sri Lanka was inhabited by pre-historic hunter-gatherers it was sparsely populated and wild elephants lived in almost the entire island. However, the elephant was not hunted for food by them like the Arctic men who feasted on woolly mammoths. The wild elephant population during the pre-historic period would have been about 5,000.

The clearing of forest land in the dry zone for agriculture with the migration of people from India to the island in the 5th century BC drove the elephants away from the centres of civilisation and their capture for domestication depleted elephant populations. Elephants were captured to be sold to other countries or to be used as ceremonial and work elephants. 

Even during the medieval period to colonial times wild elephants were not killed but were captured and tamed to be used, in war, to adorn Buddhist temple processions, in cultural pageants and employed as work animals. 

King Dutugemunu used war elephants to reduce the Tamil stronghold at Vijithapura, a fortress of exceptional strength. “His elephant Kandula took a conspicuous part in breaching the walls of Vijithapura. Mounted on his elephant Dutugemunu challenged Elara to a combat, and the latter accepted his challenge. ‘Elara hurled his spear, Gamani evaded it; Gamani made his elephant pierce Elara’s elephant with his tusks and he hurled his spear at Elara and at this Elara fell with his elephant’. 

“With these dramatic words, the ancient chronicler has given us a vivid picture of this memorable single combat between two valorous foes – a combat which decided the island’s history for many centuries to come,” say historians S. Paranavitana and C.W. Nicholas, in their magnum opus ‘University of Ceylon: Concise History of Ceylon’.

In more recent times, King Rajasinha I of Sitawaka used elephants in his battles against the Portuguese. In his attacks on the Colombo Fort from 1579 to 1588 he used as many as 300 well-trained elephants. 

When the British cleared the land for the cultivation of commercial crops such as coffee, tea, rubber and coconut a large number of wild elephants were killed. However, the forests in the dry zone with the tanks constructed during the ancient period, formed an ideal elephant habitat, and offered a refuge for elephants. The chena cultivation practised by remaining inhabitants of the dry zone maintained the habitat in an ideal condition for elephants and helped to support high elephant densities. 

With the dwindling forest cover in the country their natural habitats were reduced drastically. The result was wild elephants finding it difficult to get their food in the jungle intruding into human settlements as never before causing the so far unsolved problem of the human-elephant conflict. 

When land was opened up for cultivation during the post Independence times, also, wild elephants were confined to forest reservations and barriers in the form of electric fences were erected to keep them away from human settlements. This time the people looked at the elephant differently. Elephants remained in areas cleared for agriculture, resulting in the present situation in which wild elephants destroy not only crops and property but life and limb as well. Judging by the number of human and elephant mortalities occurring almost daily today the human-elephant conflict has reached its zenith.

The silver lining in the cloud is that there are scientific solutions to the problem of wild elephants.  These have been included in Department of Wildlife Conservation’s National Policy. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa saying recently that a solution to the human-elephant conflict will be found, based on new technology and promptly appointing a Task Force comprising scientists and researchers to go ahead with the task expeditiously augurs well for the country.

It is of relevance that the Committee on Public Accounts too has pinpointed the need to handle the problem wisely as Sri Lanka has recorded the highest number of human and wild elephant deaths in the world. So, it is fervently hoped that the President, advised by the Task Force’s report leading to the formulation of a National Action Plan for solving the human-elephant conflict, will take prompt action to perform a task that has been long overdue. This is a problem to solve which steps should have been taken at some point after Independence and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the heart and the mind to do it. The fact he has allocated Rs 3 billion only the other day for erecting and repairing electric elephant fences shows that he has come to grips with the situation!

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 19 2021

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