Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka News

Hakka patas (a cynical Sinhala term which translates as jaw breaker) are small improvised explosive devices, also known as a Homemade Explosive Device (HED), which consist of gun powder, stones, lead and iron shaped into a ball. They are made among the rural agrarian villages in the Northern and North Eastern part of Sri Lanka for the purpose of keeping wild animals, including elephants, away from the crops.

These explosives are also used by villagers to kill small animals such as wild boars and by illegal poachers to hunt around forests, tank bunds and even in sanctuaries. But the constant victims of these explosives are most often small elephant calves and sometimes adult elephants, cattle and domesticated animals such as dogs.

Hakka patas are strategically inserted into a cucumber, pumpkin or melon, which are delicacies for wild animals, and explode in their mouths once they are swallowed. The consequence is a destroyed mouth cavity and painful slow death that can take up to two weeks as the animal becomes emaciated from its inability to chew and swallow food.

The comparatively lesser number of adult elephant victims is owing to them being intelligent enough to often identify the masked fruit as a deadly meal but the same cannot be said about elephant calves. It is inhumane how calves who do not know any better consume the explosives and suffer without food before succumbing to a painful death.

The first reported case was in October 2018 when a two year old baby elephant fell victim to a hakka patas laid down by poachers as it came to drink from the Mahaillupallama Tank in Anuradhapura. A decade later, it had become the number one killer of this endangered species. Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) records show that hakka patas have been in regular use since 2010 with at least three adult elephants and seven baby elephants have been killed in the Anuradhapura, Mannar, Vavuniya and Puttalam districts in 2010. In 2012 alone, 35 wild elephants, most of them baby elephants, died due to mouth injuries caused by the explosions of hakka patas.

In 2017, at least seven elephant calves were killed by hakka patas traps in the Anuradhapura district in the village of Horowpathana. The Horowpathana Wildlife Conservation unit has reported that the calves were between the age of five to ten years. In August of the same year, the harrowing find of an elephant calf wounded by a hakka patas in the Hambantota Port premises was reported. The mouth of the elephant was seriously injured while it also bore a gunshot wound on its head. It had lost part of its trunk due to a previous injury and was in extreme pain. Two young elephants released from the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe have also fallen victim to hakka patas. The first animal died but the second, a female named Neela, was located and attended to by veterinary surgeons before her wounds became infected.

In 2019, it was reported by conservationists that 361 elephants died in Sri Lanka, which is the highest figure of elephant deaths to be reported since independence. Out of a total of 323 elephant deaths in 2020, 54 were caused by hakka patas, the main cause of elephant killings in Sri Lanka.

Elephants are not the only ones affected by these explosives. In 2016, Tasindu Kaveesha, a nine year old boy from Hambegamuwa, died after accidentally biting off a suspected hakka patas while playing in the garden with a friend. A 15 year old girl child received severe injuries on her right foot when she stepped on the ground while walking along a jungle in Rathnapura with her parents, resulting in a below knee amputation. This unregulated explosive in rural agrarian areas has become the bane not only of wild animals but also of humans.

The Explosives Act No. 21 of 1956 provides that a license is required to manufacture explosives as well as a permit to authorize a permittee to acquire, possess, transport and use explosives subject to the provisions of this Act and regulations made under (Section 37 of the Act includes gunpowder under the definition of explosives).

Therefore, the requirements to be abided by in acquiring, possessing and using gun powder, which is the main ingredient of hakka patas, are explicitly mentioned in this Act. These requirements by implication render all actions not conforming to this law illegal. But although the use of hakka patas by poachers is illegal, there are serious gaps in its enforcement.

In an attempt to address the threat to wildlife, the DWC has urged the public to complain or send information about those who are setting hakka patas traps for wild elephants. Due to the lack of stringent legal regulations and proper implementation mechanisms, the problem persists and large number of elephants and other unintended victims are still maimed by these crude explosives. Many villagers with information regarding poachers have given up hope of the DWC taking effective steps to conduct raids even after being informed. Informants have been threatened and coerced by poachers.

One of the main lacunas in the law is the lack of effective control mechanisms. For example, under the  Act, an offender is liable only to a fine not exceeding Rs. 2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both. In a recently reported incident where poachers were arrested for use or possession of hakka patas, the offenders were released for as little as Rs. 5,000 bail. Such amounts need to be adjusted to current inflation rates to penalize poachers and be a deterrent for future offences.

Although it was reported in March, 2021 that the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Wildlife and Department of Forest Conservation were in consultation to introduce a cabinet paper on the improvised explosive device, there has been no progress thereafter.

Pragmatic enforcement of the law against hakka patas will be challenging due to the fact that the explosive and its component ingredients are widely and easily available. Hakka patas are sold openly for just Rs. 400. Poachers are able to manufacture them by mixing stones with gunpowder taken from Chinese crackers and firecrackers that are readily available on the market.

The use of these explosives will have to be curbed through constant monitoring by police and wildlife officials in the remote agrarian areas and by frequent raids, which raise practical concerns of access.

Although the access to gun powder is regulated by the Explosives Act, in reality insufficient enforcement enables the production and dispersal of these homemade explosives. However, farmers’ concerns about crop raiding wild animals cannot be overlooked. The interests of farmers in self-protection and the protection of wild animals against inhumane methods of control are difficult to balance. It is necessary to use alternative means rather than crude explosives to address the legitimate issues of farmers.

There are no easy answers to this perennial problem and all stakeholders, including the farming community, law enforcement, legislators and educators, must cooperate and formulate a feasible strategy that protects both animals and farmers.