- The death toll, both human and elephant, from Sri Lanka’s long-running human-elephant conflict problem hit a record high in 2022, with 145 people and 433 elephants killed.
- With the trend worsening in recent years, the government has recently set up a committee to implement a 2020 draft national action plan to tackle the problem from various angles.
- Community fences surrounding villages and cultivated plots are considered the most viable solution over the current default of fences enclosing protected areas, which are only administrative boundaries that the elephants don’t recognize.
- But these and other proposed solutions won’t be rolled out widely; Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis means only pilot projects in two of the worst-affected districts will go ahead for now.
COLOMBO — Each day, as the sun set over the horizon, Thettuwage Tennakoon and his wife would carefully climb up into their treehouse in the middle of their rice field. This elevated position was ideal for keeping watch over the crop — and for staying safe from the elephants they were guarding the crop against.
But in the middle of one night late last December, a lone elephant entered Tennakoon’s rice field and attacked the treehouse, bringing it down. The elephant then attacked the couple, and despite doctors’ attempts to save their lives, the pair died of their injuries on Christmas Eve. They left behind two children who will receive 2 million rupees ($5,500) in compensation from the government — a sum unlikely to make up for the loss of their parents, or ward off the continuing threat of marauding elephants.
The family’s home district of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka’s North Central province is the main hotspot of human-elephant conflict in the country. In 2022, 37 people were killed there in HEC incidents, accounting for a quarter of all human deaths recorded in Sri Lanka due to encounters with elephants.
Such deaths have a devastating impact on bereaved families and cause a wide range of socioeconomic effects in this largely agricultural region.
“Farming is the main livelihood of the majority of Anuradhapura inhabitants who barely manage to eke out a living,” said Janaka Jayasundara, the divisional secretary of the Anuradhapura district. “When a breadwinner is killed by an elephant, the household goes into further economic peril.”
Rising death tolls
The conflicts are no less deadly for the elephants. In Anuradhapura, 90 wild elephants were killed in 2022, according to the Department of Wildlife Department data (DWC) — the highest number of any district in the country. That figure marks a rising trend as human settlements continue to expand into elephant habitat, Jayasundara told Mongabay.
Human-elephant conflict is also severe in Polonnaruwa district, also in North Central province region. In 2022, HEC claimed 19 human and 73 elephant lives there. The region is part of Sri Lanka’s dry zone, where water is scarce and poverty rates are significantly high. HEC is the biggest issue that local people face, according to Dharmasiri Weerathunga, the Polonnaruwa district secretary.
Shrinking habitat, growing conflict
A 2019 study found that people live in nearly 70% of the elephant range in Sri Lanka. Almost 40% of land outside the country’s protected areas is shared between humans and elephants.
With a growing population of humans, and a shrinking habitat for elephants, the HEC problem has continued to deteriorate over the years, making the year 2022 the worst one yet, with a toll of 433 elephant and 145 human lives. More than a third of elephant killings involved shooting, explosive-laden bait, and electrocution, accounting respectively for 58, 55, and 47 of the known elephant deaths reported in 2022.
Electrocution, delivered in the form of electric fences, has grown in prominence as a key cause of elephant deaths in recent years.
“The drive for more agricultural lands resulted in encroachment in past few years [and] could contribute to people utilizing live electricity to protect their crops, resulting in this higher number by electrocutions,” said Chandana Sooriyabandara, director-general of the DWC. He said DWC field officers try their best under difficult circumstances to manage the situation on the ground.
New push to address HEC
To address the problem of HEC, then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa formed a high-level committee consisting of experts from different fields who came up with a National Action Plan. This committee was headed by elephant biologist Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCSRSL), and submitted its report to the president in December 2020. But the report was shelved at the time.
The current Sri Lankan president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has recently directed authorities to enact the action plan, in line with the elephant conservation policy adopted in 2006.
“Sri Lanka never had a consolidated action plan to address HEC,” Sumith Pilapitiya, the head of the implementing committee, told Mongabay. “We believe we can come up with a scientific, yet practical action plan to address the HEC.”
Setting up electric fences has been a solution Sri Lanka has practiced for several decades, but it hasn’t helped mitigate the issue. For example, in 2019 and 2020, some 4,756 kilometers (2,955 miles) of fencing was erected, but it didn’t help reduce instances of human-elephant conflict, experts say.
“The problem is that these fences are mostly erected surrounding an administrative boundary, such as a designated protected area by the DWC trying to contain elephants inside,” Fernando said. “But elephants do not care about such boundaries.”
Fernando, who has carried out in-depth research on elephant movements by fitting them with radio collars, experimented with setting up community electric fences enclosing villages, and agriculture fences around rice fields, to study the response of the elephant populations. With the experiment yielding positive results, the National Action Plan for 2020 includes this as a key solution to the continuing problem of HEC.
Pilapitiya, an independent elephant biologist and a former director-general of the DWC, said the issue can’t be handled by the department alone, as unplanned development by other government agencies tends to exacerbate matters. The DWC can’t maintain every electric fence in the country, he said, so the action plan proposes that local communities maintain them with the support of the other relevant agencies.
Calls for joint efforts
With this approach in mind, the expert committee consists of representatives from the implementing agencies such as the departments of forest conservation, agrarian services, irrigation, and public administration. Several divisional secretaries where HEC is at its worst are also members of the committee, and can now monitor the community village fences.
But Sri Lanka, mired in the worst economic crisis in its history, is currently strapped for cash, with not enough government funds to implement these models islandwide. Anuradhapura and Kurunegala districts have been selected for the first round of pilot schemes.
There’s also a concerted effort to reduce the amount of compensation paid to families affected by elephant attacks, especially for the death of a family member. The standard compensation amount is about 1 million rupees ($2,750), with different rates for damage to property such as homes and crops.
“In my division alone, the government had to pay 37 million rupees [$102,000] in 2022 as compensation to victim families,” said Jayasundara, the Anuradhapura divisional secretary. “So it’s possible to divert funds toward prevention, which will result in a win-win situation.”
Fernando, P., De Silva, M. K., Jayasinghe, L. K., Janaka, H. K., & Pastorini, J. (2019). First country-wide survey of the endangered Asian elephant: Towards better conservation and management in Sri Lanka. Oryx, 55(1), 46-55. doi:10.1017/s0030605318001254
Banner image of an elephant being treated for gunshot injuries, courtesy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).