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Sri Lanka seeks peace with pachyderms as human-elephant conflicts escalate

  • Sri Lankan authorities have declared the establishment of a managed elephant reserve (MER) in the southern district of Hambantota in an effort to tackle the worsening problem of human-elephant conflicts (HEC).
  • The MER was initially proposed in 2009, but not implemented since then, allowing human encroachment onto land that was supposed to have been preserved as elephant habitat.
  • With the MER in force, human activity inside elephant habitat will be minimized, in a bid to reduce the rate of human-elephant conflicts.
  • However, a leading conservationist warns the MER will only stop the conflicts from getting worse, but won’t reduce them, for which further containment measures will be needed.

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — The first time Mahinda Samarawickrama, a farmer in Hambantota district, southern Sri Lanka, was attacked by an elephant, he’d gone down to the village reservoir at dawn to bathe. The animal emerged suddenly from the darkness, grabbing him by the hip and flinging him into a thicket of trees. The next thing he remembers, he was being treated at the local hospital with several broken bones and bruises.

Two months later, Samarawickrama, still under treatment for his fractures, was in bed at night when the brick wall of his room collapsed. A herd of elephants was literally bringing down the house to get at the paddy stored inside. Samarawickrama fled and alerted the other villagers, who came to his aid to chase the elephants away.

Experiences like Samarawickrama’s are common across rural Sri Lanka, which has the highest density of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) of any country in the species’ range — and a correspondingly high incidence of human-elephant conflict (HEC). As the country’s population grows and expands into elephant habitat, these incidents have become more frequent and deadly, for both humans and elephants.

Farmers staging Satyagraha, a sit-down protest, to demanding the immediate implementation of the MER to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Image courtesy of Rahul Samantha Hettiarachchi.

In Samarawickrama’s home district of Hambantota, the site of an ambitious irrigation project, authorities have finally taken a key step toward stopping the problem from getting worse. On April 9, the government declared the establishment of a managed elephant reserve (MER) — a zoning policy first proposed more than a decade ago to keep humans and elephants out of each other’s paths.

The declaration followed protests held since January this year, led by Samarawickrama and other villagers. It started with a sit-down protest, known as Satyagraha, to demand the immediate declaration of the MER. Over the next few weeks and months, 86 farmers’ organizations from across Hambantota joined the campaign, organizing protest marches to Colombo, the commercial capital, and staging hunger strikes.

Hambantota district in southern Sri Lanka has undergone rapid development that has cleared most of its shrub forests — once typical elephant habitat. Image courtesy of CCRSL.

Unsuccessful elephant drive

For the farmers, the declaration of the MER is seen as crucial in preventing human-elephant conflicts where other measures have failed. When the 12,000-hectare (30,000-acre) irrigation project was introduced, it overlapped with known elephant habitat. The solution proposed by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) of Sri Lanka was one that had been used many times before, often with little success: an elephant drive, essentially herding the animals off into the nearest national parks and hoping they remained there.

They managed to push 225 elephants into Lunugamvehera National Park, but other elephants were scattered more widely, leading to an increase in human-elephant conflicts. Inside the now overcrowded park, meanwhile, elephants were starving to death because of the intensified competition for food.

Recognizing that the elephant drive had backfired, the authorities took corrective action. In 2009, the UDA designated a managed elephant reserve in its zoning plans, based on radio-collar surveys of elephants by prominent conservationist Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research Sri Lanka (CCRSL).

An elephant in the MER area walks on a road cutting through its habitat. Image courtesy of CCRSL.

Under that plan, the MER would comprise the areas habitually used by the herds and males. Elephants from surrounding areas would be driven into the MER instead of into the closest national parks; only the known crop-raiding elephants would be completely removed from the area.

In the 12 years since it was proposed, the MER was never implemented, until the declaration this past April. In that time, large swaths of land that were supposed to have been preserved as elephant habitat have been encroached on and cleared.

This map shows the original boundary of the managed elephant reserve in southern Sri Lanka, with different colored dots indicating radio-tracking data generated by different individual elephants. Image courtesy of CCRSL.

Not a silver bullet

Now that it’s being put in place, the MER will be governed by a committee with representatives from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the Forest Department, and the Mahaweli Authority, which oversees development programs in the watershed of the Mahaweli River. The committee will be headed by the Hambantota district secretary, according to Manjula Amararathna, the DWC’s director of protected area management.

Permanent farming will not be allowed on state lands situated within the MER, but short- term slash-and-burn cultivation may be allowed with the necessary approvals. Fresh guidelines are being drafted for the MER while the DWC is poised to remove all illegal encroachments, Amararathna said.

A female elephant known as Sapumali is one of seven GPS radio-collared elephants in the greater Hambantota area tracked over the course of 2006 to 2017 to help researchers identify their core home range. Image courtesy of CCRSL.

However, the size of the MER has been revised down from the initial 35,600 hectares (88,000 acres) to 23,747 hectares (58,700 acres).

Fernando told Mongabay that the MER can’t serve as elephant habitat in its current state, due to large-scale illegal encroachments by a handful of people whose farms are blocking elephant movement within the MER. Once these encroachers are removed and the MER is properly implemented, particularly by regulating and using slash-and-burn cultivation as a habitat enrichment tool for elephants, it can be successful, Fernando said.

But he added that even having the MER in place and managing it will not reduce the current level of human-elephant conflict; at best, it will just stop the situation from getting worse.

To effectively reduce the rate of conflict in the region, Fernando said, it’s important to prevent resident male elephants from going in and out of the MER, and to keep any outside males at bay with a perimeter fence.

Banner image of a house in Hambantota district, southern Sri Lanka, damaged by an elephant herd, in a recent incident of human-elephant conflict. Image courtesy of CCRSL.

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