- Several different methods attempted over the past 70 years to mitigate human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka have proved ineffective, experts say.
- With more than 300 elephants and 70 people killed in 2018 alone, and a third of the island effectively elephant country, Sri Lanka is mired in an escalating crisis trying to balance its developmental and conservation needs.
- Conservationists have called for designing development programs that account for elephant impact assessments, and abandoning translocations and other control methods in favor of electric fencing that has proven more effective.
COLOMBO — When Chandi, an aggressive male elephant prone to breaking into village homes and destroying crops, was finally captured, he was collared and transferred to a holding ground in Horowpathana, in north-central Sri Lanka.
A few months later, he was back in his home range in Galgamuwa in the northwest, where he resumed his old routine. In making his way back home, Chandi had walked more than 200 kilometers (120 miles).
One-third of Sri Lanka is technically “elephant country,” home to some 6,000 Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus), a subspecies of the Asian elephant. The herds are found predominantly in the island’s north-central, northwest, east and the deep south regions.
Such a high concentration of elephants across this 65,610-square-kilometer (25,330-square-mile) island also means Sri Lanka experiences human-elephant conflicts more intensely than any other country.
Human and elephant deaths
In 2018 alone, human-elephant encounters led to the deaths of 319 elephants and 70 people. Sixty-four of the elephants were killed by eating explosive-laden bait, making this the leading cause of elephant deaths on the island for the first time, surpassing gunshot injuries.
These explosive devices are typically targeted at game animals such as wild boars and sambar deer. But their habitats overlap with those of elephants, with the hotspots being the island’s rice-growing heartland in the north-central, northwestern and eastern regions.
Prithiviraj Fernando, chair of the Centre for Conservation and Research-Sri Lanka (CCRSL) and a leading authority on Asian elephants, said the country has since independence in 1948 had to juggle its needs for development with the need to conserve elephant populations. Seventy years on, it’s an even more precarious balancing act, with shrinking habitats and unplanned developments feeding an escalating human-elephant conflict.
Both sides have suffered. An increasing number of elephants are killed with each passing year, and the human death toll and economic losses from crop damage have also risen.
“We are yet to strike a balance between the competing interests of managing conflict and species conservation,” Fernando said, delivering a lecture on human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka at an event organized by the Colombo-based environmental organization SLYCAN Trust and Humane Society International.
Translocations and ‘elephant prisons’
Following independence, Sri Lanka dived into irrigation-led development, drawing lessons from its rich agrarian history. But this focus on farming required restricting the elephants to protected areas — a practice that continues today. But elephants, like other wildlife, don’t recognize human-defined boundaries, and solutions such as translocations, elephant drives and electric fences have had little or no success.
Fernando, who carried out Sri Lanka’s first ever countrywide study of elephants this year, said these attempts fail to factor in the social structure and behavior of elephants.
“Post-puberty, majority of adult males leave the herd and roam free,” he said. These lone elephants, known locally as thani aliya, are the ones that tend to encroach into human settlements, raiding crops and occasionally even houses. About 20 such single male elephants were caught, fitted with GPS collars and moved away from human settlements, with their locations transmitted daily to conservation officials.
But the evidence shows that almost all of them eventually left the parks they were translocated to. Some were killed along the way, while others left a trail of destruction on the journey back to where they were caught, said Fernando, who sees the translocation of troublesome adult males from their home range as a failure. He said it often leaves long-term negative impacts on entire herds.
Another solution, introduced by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), is to set up elephant “holding grounds” – or an “open elephant prison,” in Fernando’s view.
In eight years, Sri Lanka has carried out three translocations of elephants to these holding grounds. Some, like Marumus, known for being aggressive, died of starvation at the holding ground. Communities living nearby were also unhappy; they complained that an “elephant prison” in their midst only increased the likelihood of human-elephant conflict in the area.
In response to the complaints that it was “dumping aggressive elephants” on these communities, the government turned to another solution: the free distribution of elephant crackers, or ali wedi, devices that go off like harmless explosives and that are meant to spook elephants away from human settlements. But once the elephants figured out the crackers posed no actual threat beyond a loud bang, they grew accustomed to them.
Historically, to make way for development, authorities have driven entire herds of elephants out of their habitats. There’s precedent for these elephant drives. The ancient Sinhalese developed an extensive network of more than 2,500 rainwater catchment reservoirs, or tanks, throughout the island to serve their irrigation needs. To make room for many of these tanks, elephant populations have through history had to be moved around.
But elephant drives don’t work, Fernando said. “Elephant drives often end up driving away females and the young, not the troublemaking single males,” he said. And elephants are notoriously smart creatures: “Many will leave the area during a drive only to return soon after.”
The fundamental problem with the solutions that have been tried out is that the science is wrong, Fernando said. “All elephants cannot be treated alike. If the problem lies with a few single male elephants, it calls for a different solution,” he said.
He cited as a case in point an elephant drive in Thanamalwila, in Uva province. After weeks of herding the elephants, on the very last day, the herd of 107 mostly females and their calves refused to cross a road. For three days, they stood their ground, refusing water or food — effectively staging a pachyderm protest. There were only five adult males in the group, a clear indication that the drive had left the “troublemakers” behind.
Fernando said elephants that remained in their home range despite a drive demonstrated behavioral changes. “About 400 didn’t leave, and in response to this human intervention, they reacted by becoming aggressive,” he said.
“If you throw a direct challenge to the largest [land] animal on Earth, be sure that it will rise to that challenge.”
Seeking effective solutions
Off all the options tried and tested, Fernando said electric fences were the only way to effectively prevent elephants from raiding crops — to a degree. Determining which areas to fence off and who is in charge of managing the fences raises a bureaucratic obstacle.
Some forests fall under the purview of the Department of Forests, while others go under the Department of Wildlife Conservation. And just as with protected-area boundaries, the elephants don’t care which department controls a patch of forest. They also learn quickly how best to overcome the fences once they find out that the zap is only meant to shock.
“Fencing is often done to prevent elephants [encroaching] than to protect villagers and their crops,” Fernando said. “Fences should be fixed close to human settlement. Instead, there is an incorrect use of a useful method.”
Elephants show a strong attachment to their home range, where they are aware of the environment, their food sources are abundant, and they are generally safe. That familiarity with a location is important for most mammals.
The solutions being tried factor in only human needs and overlook conservation concerns, Fernando said.
“Seventy years of seeking one-sided solutions have created more problems. And the data shows the futility. After 70 years of attempting to ‘contain’ elephants to designated areas, 70 percent of the elephants live actually outside the protected areas,” he said.
There is also increasing encroachment the other way, with villages expanding into elephant ranges for settlement, agriculture or as part of unplanned development projects.
“There are over 10 million people and over 4,500 elephants living in these areas,” Fernando said. “It’s not feasible to push 70 percent of the elephant population, currently living outside the national parks, inside. Instead, the existing farmer societies, numbering over 500, should be supported to put up fences and maintain them.
“If communities lead, this conflict can be converted into co-existence, in time,” he added.
Fernando said conservation efforts don’t often call for attitudinal change. In his 35 years of extensive field experience across Asia, Fernando said he had seen villagers often demonstrate compassion for elephants through rescues, providing food, and treating wounds.
Framing the current conflict as a conservation problem is wrong, when it’s driven by development, said Hemantha Withanage, executive director of the environmental NGO the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), which conducts awareness programs to educate local communities in northwest and north-central Sri Lanka about the often deadly impact of explosive-laced bait.
“These explosive devices were originally manufactured locally but now come from all the way from Colombo, as conflicts with foraging animals increase,” he told Mongabay. “Often, development projects are launched in elephant territory, cutting across elephant corridors and home ranges, increasing conflicts.”
Withanage suggested mapping elephant corridors and including specific elephant impact assessments, beyond the regular environment impact assessments (EIA), as a prerequisite for approving development projects.
But finding an effective solution isn’t so easy, said Chandana Sooriyabandara, the director-general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He cited a shortage of staff, resources and funding as the primary obstacles, along with the complexities of having to work across multiple government agencies.
Withanage said the sheer intensity of the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka nevertheless called for similarly comprehensive solutions.
“Unlike many other countries, nearly half the country experiences this conflict,” he said. “It is not limited to a single geographic range, but is widespread. The solution should be effective enough to address the problem and pave the way for co-existence.”
Banner image of a gathering of elephants in rural Sri Lanka, courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.