Taste of the Waste
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
The Sri Lankan elephant is one sub species of the Asian Elephant and is native to Sri Lanka. A great number of carvings and sculptures of elephants and tuskers among Sinhalese art and architecture and a large number of folk poems, folk beliefs and tales that are woven around elephants are evidence to the close relationship between these wonderful creatures and native culture. Thus these gentle giants are considered a national treasure of Sri Lanka. However, at present the state of these gentle giants is not satisfactory as they have to face harsh treatment caused by the selfishness of mankind.
Sri Lankan wild elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) have faced many challenges from time to time resulting in a notable shrinkage of the elephant population due to irrigation projects, land clearance and deforestation. Hence, in 1986 the IUCN listed the Asian Elephant as an endangered species. Their lands are being captured by humans for agriculture and development, and wild tuskers are being hunted for ivory whilst a large number of elephants are being killed annually as a result of the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). Adding to this a large number of elephants are being held in captivity for cultural purposes where they are subjected to immense psychological and physical trauma.
Hence, news about elephant deaths is not novel in Sri Lankan media as the rates are so high. Similarly, news about a group of elephants that consume garbage at Oluvil has been the uproar in social media very recently. “A herd of 30-40 wild elephants at Ampara has become entirely dependent on human-food-waste and are behaving almost like domestic animal species waiting for tractors to drop the garbage,” was a news item that went viral on social media during the last couple of weeks. Yes, it is indeed a sad sight to see these majestic beasts all gathered around a garbage pit, behaving like scavengers consuming garbage; however, this is only the single result of a far more critical issue which should be addressed without any delay.
As it is vital to look into an issue at a 360 degree angle we at Ceylon Today decided to inquire about this in order to find out what the truth is. To know further about the situation we contacted wildlife experts who have been actively engaged in wildlife conservation for decades. First we contacted Chairman/Scientist of the Centre for Conservation and Research Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, to know about the garbage pit at Oluvil and about the elephants that are used to eating garbage there.
“As far as I know, there aren’t many elephants coming to the garbage dump at Oluvil as the garbage is composted there and also it is in a fairly developed area. There are many elephants that come to the Deegavapiya dump and some to the Buddangala dump,” Dr. Fernando enlightened us.
Why are they attracted to garbage?
Our next question to Dr. Fernando was despite the fact that elephants are a herbivorous species, why and how are they attracted to eat garbage? “Most of what elephants eat at a garbage dump is fruit and vegetable matter that is discarded. They also eat prepared food such as rice and bakery products if available. They (and other herbivores such as cattle) are attracted to such dumps because there is a lot of food there that is better (of higher nutritional value) than what is in the forest.”
We also contacted Former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, to find out further details regarding the issue. Answering a question about why elephants are attracted to garbage Dr. Pilapitiya said that, “If garbage is dumped within elephant habitat, some of the elephants, mainly males will come to consume it. Since there is a greater chance of encountering humans at garbage dumps, the risk factor is great. That is why it is largely males who come to consume garbage, although there are herds coming occasionally. What is garbage? Garbage comprises largely food waste. Approximately 65 - 70 per cent of garbage is considered organic waste which is mainly food and garden waste. Human food is quite nutritious, so food waste is also nutritious - or more nutritious than grass and leaves. That is why elephants get attracted to garbage.”
Garbage and their health
What impact does garbage as food have on the health of these wild elephants? We asked an expert, Director Wildlife Health at Department of Wildlife Conservation, Dr.Tharaka Prasad. “Elephants are monogastric animals (a monogastric organism has a simple single-chambered stomach), which means they have a simple and a less complex stomach; therefore they have the ability of digesting any kind of food.
“The actual problem is that there are high rich foods among food waste; these could be carbohydrate, protein, glucose; and anaerobic microorganisms (an anaerobic organism or anaerobe is any organism that does not require oxygen for growth); especially types of bacteria grow on them and these bacteria expel harmful toxins. So if these elephants consume food which has those toxins their guts will be paralyzed due to the toxins. If these toxins are absorbed by the body, not only the gut, but the entire central nervous system of the elephant could be paralysed. Hence, this is the actual reason for the deaths of garbage consuming elephants.”
“However, the frequency of such elephant deaths is not reportedly high. Only about two elephant deaths per year are recorded due to this occurrence,” further explained Dr. Prasad.
“The above said bacteria grow on high rich food which is anaerobic. Anaerobic bacteria grow on sealed or covered packs of food, as they do not require oxygen for growth; which means a polythene sealed pack. They may swallow polythene while eating these food wastes, but it does not cause death. The polythene can be seen in their dung which means it becomes evacuated from the intestine via faeces.”
Answering a question about why these animals are attracted to garbage Dr. Prasad explained to us that, “Elephants are attracted to human food waste because it is tasty and nutritious. It is tastier than eating trees.”
Dr. Fernando further enlightened us about the impact of garbage on elephants. “The main possibility of negative impacts is the consumption of something that is poisonous, can injure their digestive tract (like sharp objects, glass and so forth) or block it. However, elephants are very selective in what they eat. Therefore the possibility of such occurrences is very low. While they do ingest polythene (particularly lunch sheets when food is wrapped in them) because they are not ruminants (they do not chew the cud), the chances of their digestive tract getting blocked is minimal. In the wild they consume things like the bark of trees and stems of banana which are also not digested but pass through as large masses.”
He further explained that, “On the other hand if you look at the ‹body condition› of elephants that consume garbage (which is an indicator of their health) it is much better than those who do not.”
“The question is whether these elephants (the news is that so far six elephants have died due to garbage consumption) that were supposed to have died from consuming garbage did actually die due to it. If consumption of polythene or anything that is commonly found in garbage killed elephants, many elephants should die daily because of it. Was the actual reason they died established - blockage of the digestive tract/poisoning/damage to the digestive tract and so forth?” Dr. Fernando questioned.
The former DG, Dr. Pilapitiya expressed a different point of view on this regard. Answering our question if garbage consuming is good for their health he replied, “I don’t believe that consuming garbage is good for elephants. They are consuming something that is unnatural for them and it could have long term implications. In my view, consuming garbage is like eating junk food for humans. We like it but is it good for us?”
Well, this is something that we have to consider. What will be the long term implications of these herbivorous species consuming unnatural food such as bakery products and cooked food?
Sorting out garbage is vital
Dr. Pilapitiya further explained, “In my opinion, I would go to the cause of the problem and address that. The cause of the problem is not elephants consuming garbage. That is a symptom of the problem. The cause of the problem is improper garbage management. Garbage is not generated in forested areas! Garbage is generated in urban and semi urban areas. If humans in urban and semi urban areas generate garbage, don’t you think this waste should be managed where it is generated? Why is garbage generated by humans in urban and semi urban areas brought to forested areas which are elephant habitat for disposal or dumping? This is the problem that needs to be addressed. We humans must be responsible - if we generate garbage, we should manage garbage in areas where we generate it and not within elephant habitat. So the solution is to manage garbage where it is generated - in urban and semi urban areas.”
The Human Elephant Conflict (HEC)
Dr. Pilapitiya spoke about the HEC and elephants consuming garbage. “Elephants consuming garbage is a recent phenomenon. 40-50 years ago, there were no garbage dumps within elephant habitat so no elephants consumed garbage. Now according to some studies it appears that there are about 500 male elephants in garbage dumps scattered around the country. If the garbage in these dumps is no longer available to these elephants, there may be an increase in HEC as was observed in the Kataragama area when the dump was not available to elephants. However, if uncontrolled dumping of garbage continues, we will be attracting more and more elephants to dumps and this is not acceptable in my view. As it is, we may have increased HEC if we close the existing dumps, so let’s not expand the problem by opening more and more dumps in elephant habitats,” he observed.
“Most of the elephants that feed at garbage dumps are adult males. Some of them also go and raid villages part of the time but they spend a large part of the time at the garbage dump and get a large part of their nutritional requirements from the dump. If an elephant is at the dump it is not at the village and the more time and food it consumes at the dump the less likely that it will raid!” was the view of Dr. Fernando on the HEC and elephants being attracted to garbage pits. “We are currently doing a survey. However the Wildlife Department did a survey a few years ago and they found 54 dumps where elephants feed. If there are 10 elephants feeding at each dump that is 500 elephants! So garbage dumps could actually be reducing HEC. If we are worried that polythene and non-biodegradables could cause harm, we could separate those out and dump only the vegetable matter and let the elephants feed on it...”
Sri Lankan wild elephants being attracted to garbage pits and consuming food waste are indeed not a pleasant thing to witness. Moreover as Dr. Pilapitiya stressed out there maybe long term implications as they are consuming unnatural food. Therefore, adopting a sustainable waste management system will be a solution for many issues such as this.