Photo Courtesy of The Daily Mirror

The elephant is a symbol of pride, and of cultural and religious significance to Sri Lankans. They have been a feature of attraction, bringing large numbers of tourists to Sri Lanka’s National Parks such as Yala and Wilpattu. However, these parks are now subject to over-visitation and over-crowding (with an average of 250 vehicles entering Yala per day, and as much as 700 vehicles during the holiday season).

The Terrestrial Protected Areas (PAs) of Sri Lanka have been established with the aim of conserving the island’s rich bio-diversity, including elephants, as a prominent cultural symbol. These PAs are administrated by the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) of Sri Lanka, with the conservation and management of the elephant population falling under the purview of DWC. The area governed by these two institutions covers over 28% of Sri Lanka’s total land area.

No other animal has had such a close relationship with humans as the Asian elephant and still remained in the wild. However, the Sri Lankan elephant population, is facing serious threats and vulnerabilities mainly due to anthropogenic factors culminating in a bloody conflict between humans and elephants, each for their survival.

The Extent and Effects of the Human-Elephant Conflict

Human-induced habitat loss and habitat fragmentation prompted by increasing deforestation, high population density, urbanization, as well as high levels of poverty and the agro-based economy have contributed to the creation and intensification of the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC). This issue is further complicated by the deficiency of expertise among policy makers on eco-system services and issues in Protected Area (PA) Management. Even though the ‘National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants in Sri Lanka-2006’ presents the total number of elephants in the wild as 4000, this number is decreasing drastically by the day. According to the latest Annual Performance Report of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) released in 2016, elephant deaths were reported as 279 in that year, with 88 people dead due to elephant attacks. Compared to 2015, the number of elephant deaths had increased by 74 and the number of human deaths by 25.

Elephants tend to raid crops owing to the loss of habitat and resources, resulting in direct costs in the form of human and elephant mortalities and crop/property damage. The impact of HEC is mostly felt in highly agricultural and low-income areas of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts in the North Central Province and the Eastern Province have recorded the highest human mortalities due to elephant attacks in 2016, while highest property damages due to elephant attacks in the same year, were recorded in Eastern and North-Western Provinces and Polonnaruwa District, respectively.

However, the Epidemiology Unit of the Public Health Veterinary Services of the Ministry of Health records show that, even though elephants cause around an average of 52 human deaths per year, (considerably lesser than the 186,101 dengue fever cases and over 320 deaths reported in 2017) the deaths caused by elephants tend to garner more attention due to social and political factors such as the post-war resettlements of IDPs within the PA designated such as the Wilpattu National Park.

Recent Increase in Elephant-Human Confrontations

The Species Conservation Centre (SCC) of Sri Lanka records that the frequency of elephant attacks has substantially increased since 1998. It is more than a mere coincidence that it was around the same time that state-owned lands were granted to people for development under ‘Jayabhoomi’ deeds as per the State Land Development Ordinance. Such deeds were granted, for instance, in the North Central Province in areas around the Padaviya Tank Sanctuary, thus attracting more human settlements and increasing human-elephant interactions in the area.

Depicting the recent intensification of the HEC, the statistics of the DWC Performance Report of 2016 show the highest numbers of mortalities reported since 2008. Among the main causes for elephant deaths as identified by the DWC are gun shots, ‘Hakka Patas’ explosives, and electrocution. This is a clear representation of how elephants are maimed and die suffering in this unending conflict. Even though electric fences are the main elephant management tool used by the DWC as a psychological barrier against elephants since 1966, it is also one of the major causes of elephant mortalities raising questions surrounding its effectiveness.

According to SCC’s seasonal classifications, the highest number of elephant attacks are reported in April, May and October, owing to the high frequency of elephant migrations that occur during the North East and South West monsoons, increasing human-elephant confrontations. The factors discussed above have led to increased human-elephant interactions and have put these gentle giants in harm’s way.

 Main Causes of the Human-Elephant Conflict

  1. Land-Use and Geographic Changes

A study published by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University, recognizes that the most serious issues now facing elephants are habitat loss (through land-use change), habitat fragmentation, and persecution as crop raiders. Evidencing the extent of habitat loss in Sri Lanka, the National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts in Sri Lanka (2016-2025) presents that just over a century, Sri Lanka’s forest cover has reduced to a third of what it used to be. This is also substantiated by statistics of the Forest Department of Sri Lanka, showing that the forest cover which amounted to 44% in 1956 has come down to just 29% in 2010 and that encroachments, population growth and shifting/illegal cultivation are some of the main drivers of deforestation.

Habitat fragmentation, on the other hand, is the phenomenon of available forest cover areas being separated and disjointed, mainly due to the insufficient number of paths/corridors connecting them. According to the 2016 Annual Performance Report of the DWC, presently there is only one Elephant Corridor declared, which is the one connecting Kaudulla-Minneriya National Parks as gazetted in 2004 under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, No.2 of 1937. The SCC acknowledges that roadways such as the Mannar-Wilpattu road, built in a way that hinders the route through which elephants traditionally migrate can further contribute to habitat fragmentation, resulting in gene drain by isolating different herds and precluding gene diversity among elephants. Such developments can further threaten this fast decreasing species, identified as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN Red List as assessed on 30 June 2008.

  1. Human-Induced Changes in Elephant Behaviour and Socio-Ecology

As elephants are displaced into resource-poor habitats and out of their usual home ranges, due to human-settlements, they begin to depend on crop-raiding for survival. Consequently, they adapt to traditional elephant deterrent techniques like crop-guarding, fire, simple barriers, firecrackers and decoy food. Villagers then resort to increasingly inhumane acts. These actions have now culminated in villagers shooting elephants (52 cases in 2016), pouring battery/nitric acid on them or putting locally-made explosives like “Hakka Patas” into vegetables, to which elephant calves fall prey (47 cases in 2016), as well as other vicious ways to save their lives, crops and property.

Additionally, livestock and domesticated animals in areas encroached by humans can easily transmit diseases to elephants, known for their low immunity. Moreover, the increased breeding of cattle and buffaloes that graze on all ground-level grass in the vicinity can cause food shortages for elephants (who are only adapted to eating tall grass above ground level) as well as water shortages in drought periods that are common in the Eastern and Northern areas of the island, increasing the frequency of crop-raiding by elephants. Unplanned and ad hoc development activities, executed with disregard to elephant ranging habits have further complicated the situation.

In the absence of a comprehensive waste management policy in Sri Lanka, dumping garbage in wildlife sites has led to elephants consuming polythene in their quest for food, as well as contracting diseases through exposure to waste, such as incidents reported in Dambulla and Digampathana areas. Similarly, feeding elephants along roads, like the Buttala-Kataragama road and in Kitulkote, results in elephants becoming familiarized with the taste of food that are not naturally consumed by them, and to which their bodies aren’t adapted. As a consequence, elephants begin coming into villages seeking similar food, and sadly, risk the deterioration of their health by consuming such food overtime (E.g. fruits and sweet meats often offered by Pilgrims travelling to and from the Kataragama Devalaya).

  1. Unfortunate Accidents- Land Mines and Railway Collisions

Even a decade after the Sri Lankan Civil War, land mines continue to be a threat to these animals, especially in areas around Silavathura and Mannar. “Sama” is a female elephant and one such victim receiving residential care in the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage after losing her front right leg to a land mine. Neither the Flora and Fauna Ordinance of 1937 (FFPO), nor the Mine Ban Treaty (the enforcing legislation of which is still in the drafting process) stipulate actions that would go beyond civilian and human protection, in order to cover animals and punish perpetrators.

Additionally, the number of elephants killed in collisions with trains is continually on the rise. Most recently, on 7th October, 2018, two males and one pregnant female died after being run over by the night mail train headed to Colombo from Batticaloa while they were crossing into the Maduru Oya Sanctuary from the Thrikona Madu Sanctuary. Four elephants died in a similar incident on the 18th September 2018, in the Puvakpitiya area between the Palugaswewa and Gal Oya railway stations, also resulting in property damage as train compartments got derailed. The main reasons for such disasters is the technological-deficiency of trains to foresee elephants from a distance and reduce their speed in time.

  1. Climate Change-induced Resource Scarcity

Climate change impacts such as erratic and intense rainfall and prolonged droughts also contribute to the HEC by making elephant habitats resource-poor. When water and fodder are in short supply, elephants tend to expand their range in search of food and water and move out of their natural habitats to human habitats.

As a first step towards addressing the impact of climate change on the HEC, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of Sri Lanka for 2017-2019, formulated by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, in accordance with Decision 1/CP.21 of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC addressed this issue under Bio Diversity Sector NDCs. NDC 1 focuses on the restoration of PA network to enhance climate change resilience and withstanding resource depletion. NDC 2 focuses specifically on increasing habitat connectivity through corridors, landscape improvement and management. NDC 4 stresses on increasing the extent of PAs, introducing buffer zones and vulnerable zones.

The above NDCs promote Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 15, Life on Land. Targets under Goal 15 include: Taking urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halting the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protecting and preventing the extinction of threatened species (target 15.5) and integrating ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning and development processes (target 15.9). These targets should be achieved by Sri Lanka by conceiving an effective HEC management strategy.

Measures to Manage the Never-Ending Conflict

One of the main issues in HEC management is that even though areas like Yala, Wilpattu, Gal Oya and Maduru Oya, frequented by elephants are governed as DWC-administrated Wildlife Protected Areas (WLPAs), the majority of the elephants have home ranges outside these WLPAs, or in forest areas governed by the DFC. Thus, as the Environmental Scientist and Elephant Ethologist- Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya suggests, the Wildlife Department’s traditional management strategy of confining elephants only to WLPAs through barriers, translocation and elephant drives will hardly yield the best results, as these areas are surrounded by more mature forests and better habitats to elephants in their natural home-range. Keeping this in mind, listed below are some alternative progressive measures to replace the conventional approaches:

  • Consistent National Policy- Implementing the National Policy on Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants formulated by the DWC with the collaboration of Forest Department and continuing to review and update the policy every five years according to new statistics and scientific data.
  • Enhancing In-Situ Conservation- Establishing new Elephant Conservation Areas (ECAs) which are broader then than the present PAs, and include PAs administered under both DWC and Forest Department, as well as Managed Elephant Ranges (MERs) in order to protect isolated elephant herds. This shall enhance conservation of the 70% of elephant population currently living outside Wildlife PAs.
  • Innovative Solutions – Adopting the human elephant co-existence model (HECOEX) by encircling villages with permanent electric fences and surrounding agricultural land with temporary fences. Since the villagers shall be the direct beneficiaries of the fences, the maintenance of the fences will be ensured.
  • Planting Buffer crops- Planting crops that are unpalatable to elephants (e.g. chillies) in areas margined by the forest or wildlife areas to act as a barrier, with the added advantage of the potential surplus production by using it as a cash crop.
  • Earning while Conserving– Promoting community-based Eco-tourism and cottage industries from elephant dung etc. in the rural agrarian areas and converting the elephant into an economic asset to the community from the liability it is at present, which shall promote coexistence.
  • More Stringent Laws– Enhance the protection afforded to elephants under the FFPO section 20(1), which currently provides a Rs. 150 000-200 000 fine and a prison term of 2-5 years for killing elephants. In order to create deterrence, curb poaching, and the use of ‘Hakka Patas’, a higher fine and a longer prison term should be introduced and enforced actively.
  • Regulating Development Activities- Development activities planned on a landscape or ecosystem level, with the involvement of all stakeholders taking proper precautions to understand elephants and work around them.
  • Victim Compensation Schemes- Implement a victim compensation scheme and offer an allowance for the education of the children of affected families as well as an allowance for funeral and other immediate expenses.
  • Updated HEC-related data- Maintaining and updating a database on elephant related data and information, preferably through an e-database which can be regularly updated.
  • Formulating Conservation-related Policies– Implementing long-term National Energy, Waste-Management and Land-Use Policies in conjunction with the above measures, in order to reap maximum benefits.

The Way Forward to Coexistence

As the foregoing discussion elaborates, Sri Lankans have always shared a strong historical, cultural and religious connection with elephants, and no matter what hardships they undergo, they’d still be willing to manage the conflict, without wishing to eliminate the elephant population. But, while there is a long tradition of Sri Lankans coexisting with elephants, such coexistence and conservation efforts will be sustainable in the long term only if they’re tied to the welfare of the people who share a landscape with elephants and alleviate the brunt they bear. Therefore, authorities must explore scientific approaches to HEC management and emulate successful global best practices and implement them without delay, before the Sri Lankan elephant population gradually fades away into extinction.


  1. Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, No. 2 of 1937 (as amended).
  2. Annual Performance Report- Department of Wildlife Conservation, 2010, 2012, 2016.
  3. National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants in Sri Lanka-2006, Department of Wildlife Conservation.
  4. Pubudu Weerarathna, Species Conservation Centre, ‘Human-Animal Conflict in Sri Lanka’, 2018.
  5. Dharmaratne M P J, Magedaragamage PC, ‘Human-Elephant Conflict and Solutions to it in Sri Lanka’, Sciscitator. 2014/ Vol 01, Young Researchers’ Forum- PGIS.
  6. Hart L.A. & O’Connell C.E. 1998, ‘Human conflict with African and Asian elephants and associated conservation dilemmas’.
  7. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2018-1 <>
  8. Srilal Miththapala, ‘Yala: Is over-visitation the problem or overcrowding?’ Daily FT, 6th December 2017.
  9. Nelson, A. Bidwell, P. and Sillero-Zubiri, C. (2003). A review of humane elephant conflict management strategies. People and Wildlife Initiative. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford University.
  10. Sumith Pilapitiya, ‘Human Elephant Conflict Management- Will We Never Learn From Our Past Mistakes’, The Island, 13th October 2018.
  11. International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies, Sri Lanka / Dengue DREF Final Report (MDRLK007), 31 May 2018.
  12. Z Dean, ‘Human-Elephant coexistence is yet this side of the fence’, Daily Mirror, 22 September 2017.
  13. Anura Sathurusinghe-Conservator General of Forests, ‘Forests and poverty alleviation in Sri Lanka’, Tenth Executive Forest Policy Course, 15 – 25 May 2017.