Featured image courtesy Anton Croos

Recently the famous tusker, “Dala Puttuwa” of Galgamuwa was killed by poachers, renewing the public discussion around the ongoing human -elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.

Investigators found that Dala Puttuwa was killed to sell its tusks and for coveted ‘elephant pearls’ as they are known. Adding to the controversy, a Buddhist monk has been connected with this killing, revealing the widespread nature of this phenomenon. The human elephant conflict dates back centuries, as historical records by Robert Knox reveal. According to data gathered by the Elephant Conservation Unit of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), around 2,844 elephants were killed by farmers and 1,138 people were killed by elephants between the years from 1991 to 2010, while a total of 3,103 homes in Sri Lanka were destroyed by elephants (from 2004 to 2007).

Sri Lanka is home to 10 to 20 percent of the Asian elephant population; more than any other state in this region. A land area of nearly five square kilometres per elephant is needed to ensure that the natural balance that exists between the elephant and its dry zone habitat is not disturbed. According to this data, the current population of 3,500 elephants requires around 17,500 square kilometres or 27 per cent of total land mass while the protected areas in Sri Lanka cover only 12.5 per cent of the land (or 8,200 square kilometres). This indicates that nature parks and reserves are unable to ensure the sustainable conservation of these beings. Long-term solutions are sorely needed and political will is the deciding factor.

The lack of sufficient land to sustain elephants is the foremost reason for the human elephant conflict. Drought, flooding and climate change have worsened the situation in Sri Lanka while Sri Lanka has been ranked as the riskiest country for climate change in 2018 (?) according to the global climate risk index.

The Hambantota Managed Elephant Reserve(MER)

Due to this situation, the concept of managed elephant reserves has been put forward as a possible solution. A proposal was prepared by the ‘Gaja Mithuro’ organisation with a help of villagers, prominent elephant conservationists and officers from the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The plan, which arose out of a two – year project (conducted between 2009 to 2011) was completed in 2012 and suggested the establishment of a Managed Elephant Reserve. The proposal was sent to the head office of the DWC. However, DWC officers have failed to implement the proposed MER to date.

It is a fact that around 300 – 400 elephants inhabit the greater Hambantota area. This is nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s elephant population. So, the DWC should ensure the safety of these elephants. The proposed conservation plan connects the Udawalawa , Lunugamvehera and Bundala wildlife reserves, after studying the animal’s migration patterns through longitudinal research and even satellite technology.

This plan suggests the demarcation of these vast tracts of land as protected areas, reclaiming land from the inhabitants and resettling the residents outside this area. This would help avoid human-elephant conflict.

Instead of implementing the proposed managed elephant reserve, the Rajapakse regime initiated vanity projects in the Hambantota area such as the Mattala airport and the Sooriyawewa International Stadium, both of which are located in the proposed MER. This has deprived elephants of their habitat, forcing them to roam about in search of basic needs such as food and water. These elephants then have to face various violent deterrents put in place by the villagers to protect their paddy, ranging from gunshots to poisonous pumpkins.

According to data, 25 people in the Hambantota district have been killed between 2010 to 2017 due to wild elephant attacks. 347 properties were damaged by elephants. Conversely, 58 elephants have been shot or targeted by other violent means. So, there is a need to establish the proposed managed elephant reserve as soon as possible.

Instead of doing this, the current government is also permitting people to clear more land falling within the proposed MER, utilizing it for human needs instead. Construction of the Matara highway, for instance, has progressed through the MER. Many factories, including solar power generation plants have been constructed within MER, with the result that the human-elephant conflict is worsening day by day, as the land allocated for elephants shrinks.

Steps to Reduce the Human Elephant Conflict

 The urgent step that the government should take is to establish the proposed MER in Hambantota district, which will pave the way to reduce human elephant conflict in Southern province.

Some of the main activities conducted for conflict mitigation and elephant conservation in Sri Lanka are translocation by capture-transport, elephant drives, the distribution of elephant thunder crackers, the construction of electric fences and law enforcement. Elephant drives and thunder crackers cannot be considered successful deterrents. In fact, it has been consistently true that these giant beings only become more aggressive as a result of these methods. Electric fences are useful, but only as a psychological barrier. Once the elephant breaks the fence, it learns and adapts to break it continuously. The need to select the right locations to install fences is critical, a task at which the DWC has continuously failed at.

Elephants are protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance – the harming or killing of an elephant carries a penalty of a fine of between Rs. 150,000 to 500,000 or imprisonment of 2-5 years, and in some cases, both a fine and imprisonment. In Sri Lanka around 250 elephants have been killed a year, but unfortunately prosecutions are relatively low.

Strategies to protecting elephants both within the conservation areas and as many outside these areas that the land can support and landholders will accept, and not restricting elephants to the protected area network alone may be a good approach.  As a short term effort, organizing and mobilizing farmers in affected villages and raising awareness on elephant behavior patterns is necessary. From convincing people about the importance of this gentle giant listed in the IUCN Red Data book could reduce the human elephant conflict. The eco-friendly bus service which was introduced to Wasgamuwa could be considered as a great example of simple ways to resolve the human-elephant conflict. The erection of Dandu Weta (log fences) along the areas where elephants cross may also be helpful. Villagers in some frequently raided areas have said that elephant invasion could be prevented with the Dandu Weta or the Wooden Fence. The fence is erected using large logs and is not deeply embedded in the ground. Generally elephants do not touch or move over swinging or unsteady fences. A few years ago, there was a discussion over the construction of palmyrah fences, but with time, these discussions died.

As a long term approach, habitat enrichment could also be implemented. This could be done by planting fodder trees in the forest areas frequented by elephants. For example, cultivating Beru (a water grass elephants love to eat) in tanks (reservoirs) and other trees (such as Velang) that form the main part of the elephant’s diet. In fact, about 100 species of plants are eaten by elephants. The best and most sustainable mitigation approach is through precise conservation policy planning for different geographical locations. This needs years of research, awareness and lobbying and more understanding of the prevailing situation in each area.

Above all, political will is needed to implement any policy, otherwise the large sums of money spent researching this issue will have been in vain.

Editor’s Note: Also read “The world’s first EleFriendly bus: A success story” and “Man vs Elephant“.