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Human-Elephant Conflict

Elephants have been an important part of Sri Lankan religion for thousands of years. Elephants hold a central position in the country’s two main religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Sri Lankan culture. In Buddhism, elephants are perceived as beings that embody the dignified qualities of the Buddha himself. While pregnant with the Buddha, his mother dreamt of a majestic white elephant gracefully entering her womb, solidifying the elephant as a strong religious symbol in Buddhist culture. Elephants are also sacred to Hindus, as it is the living embodiment of Ganesh, an elephant-headed deity mounted atop a small mouse. Once revered for its cultural and religious significance, the elephant is increasingly becoming a symbol of conflict in this fast changing, post-war nation.

A privately owned teak plantation outside the village of Karuwalagaswewa uses electric fence to ward off elephants from destroying the crops: Chathuri Dissanayake GPJ Sri Lanka 2015

The major reason for the Human-Elephant Conflict is agricultural expansion. Every year habitat is lost through conversion of settlements and permanent cultivation. Developmental activities continue to occur at an ever increasing pace, particularly with the drive for post war development. This demand for economic expansion mobilises populations into elephant habitat, resulting in violent conflict between humans and elephants.

Since the 1950’s, the conflict between human and elephant has killed a shocking number of 1375 people and 4225 elephants.

-Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, 2014

Nuwara Eliya District, Sri Lanka: Sorin Furcoi/ Al Jazeera 2016

During British colonial rule, vast amounts of mountainous forests were cleared to make way for tea plantations, a process that contributed to wild elephant populations being pushed into an ever decreasing territory.

A house destroyed by a wild elephant attack in Dambana village in Mahiyanganaya: Navaratna Bandara, Mahaweli Systems Group Corr 2018

In more recent years, elephants are forced to raid local villages in search for food and water, leaving destruction and devastation in their path. Proposed solutions have proved impractical as they are highly mobile animals, traveling up to 50 miles daily. In order to survive elephants require a minimum 25L of water per day, plus an additional 25kg of food. A range of measures are used to discourage elephants crossing into urban villages and agricultural crops, such as electric fencing, citrus and Palmyra trees, and primitive warning lanterns, which have a deterrent effect from human populated areas. However, such solutions require that the animal remain isolated to one habitat, rather than following its natural tendency to migrate.

The photos above depict the contrast between unharmed crops and the impact of elephant inflicted damage. It is estimated that about 30-35 percent of paddy output is impacted by wild animals in many districts.

Crop damages inflicted by wild animals is one of the biggest challenges faced in the drive for food self-sufficiency.

-Senadhira, 2017

In Kuda Galenbidunuwewa, locals heard of our visit to the elephant affected farm and inquired into the group, in hopes to find government personnel providing compensation for crop damage. Pictured above, the disappointment and frustration is captured here, entailing the enormous amount of effort and exhaustion involved. The farmer explained her situation and showed us damages inflicted by a herd of elephants only the previous night. The process of obtaining compensation is long and often unsuccessful. Several farmers complained that agricultural officers no longer seem to care, as attacks have become so frequent, there seems no means to an end.

The crop and farming techniques are past down from previous generations. Dayapala, pictured above, admitted that his work was not a profitable business, and yet he and many other farmers are stuck in an employment trap, as farming is their only area of expertise. Investments in more sustainable rice production could harness better profits and reduce the clearing of elephant inhabited lands, however this is yet to become priority for government policymakers.

…if we made better use of the land, there would be less conflict…

The work is grueling, with farmers labouring in the blazing heat for hours, their bodies aching from the physical labor. One could imagine the heartbreak upon waking to find crops destroyed during the night. Despite the immense amount of destruction caused by elephants, Dayapala surprisingly explained that he felt no resentment towards the animals and had a very measured and reasoned attitude towards the conflict.

The farmer reflected that the land originally belonged to elephants and that it was inefficient and outdated farming practices that have resulted in unfortunate interaction and conflict. Whilst Dayapala has remained compassionate to the giant gentle creatures, this sentiment is not widely shared among the rural farming community.

Lily Jamali & Yasmeen Qureshi Made for Minds 2012

Farmers and villages often take lethal measures in attempts to protect their families and livelihood. Most elephant deaths are caused by gunshot injuries from farmers defending their crops. A new form of defense is “‘hakka-patas’- a small pressure mine concealed in fruits or vegetables, which shatters the jaw on being bitten down upon” (Fernando 2011).

Barely visible from ground level, farmers have introduced makeshift watchtowers which are constructed within tall trees or standalone structures above the crops, protected from the elements by mere tarps and branches. The method involves plantation workers, farmers or villagers performing patrol shifts during the night to mitigate and prevent crop damage from herds of elephants. Farmers keep watch for elephants, with aims to guide them away from crops. Repetitive exposure of torches are used in the night to dissuade herds from entering farmland, driving them back into the forest before they create further damage or even reach the fields.

The first elephant oriented electric fence was erected in 1998 with thousands more established in the years to follow. Electric fences provide a painful shock to elephants during their crossings into human inhabited zones and are usually successful in preventing crop destruction. However, farmers in Sri Lanka are some of the lowest income earners, and often do not have the financial means to protect their land with such advanced and costly mechanisms.

With a lack of financial support and government investment, many agricultural farmers are left to their own devices when it comes to finding solutions. This fence, comprised of rope and sticks, was placed to resemble an electric fence to deceive elephants. The effect is usually temporary, with the elephants returning within a few weeks.

Still in use today as a major source for curbing elephant attacks, this makeshift device was once used twenty years before as a natural pesticide for the attraction and death of crop eating insects. Kerosene lamps are placed at active routes and along the perimeter of the plantation. The light produced from the simple mechanism works as a deterrent.

Palmyra and citrus plants are an approach to create a more non-violent environment where coexistence is made possible. Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society is responsible for the implementation of holistic approaches to address the Human Elephant Conflict, in rural and urban regions of Sri Lanka. The initiative of citrus plant cultivation hinges on using elephants’ natural aversion for the plants, whilst also enabling farmers with a secondary income source. This way, they are not left empty handed when wandering elephants lay waste to their crops.

Digampathana Village, Sri Lanka: Abyadi 2018

An increasing number of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka has been due to consumption of toxic waste from landfill dumping sights, particularly near national parks and elephant sanctuaries. Wildlife officials have made attempts at criminalising landfill waste near elephant inhabited land, however dumps are not fenced off. This means elephants are free to gorge on rotten food laced with polyethylene and other chemicals, and have become increasingly more dependent on landfill for their major food source. Further contributing to an increase in elephant deaths.

Whitley Fund for Nature, Sri Lanka 2009

Led by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka formulated a National Policy for elephant management in 2006. This included consultation of experts in the field in efforts to begin addressing the needs of those affected. This initiative was a start, however the framework renders fruitless as proposed changes are scarcely implemented or seen to be actioned. Stronger government support and investment into agricultural development would improve farming productivity and is essential to creating more efficient use of land.

Updates to the National Policy could address the situation on holistic scientific grounds with the involvement of farmers and those directly affected at the ground level. No single proposed solution has proven successful in eliminating the crisis, however research and advocacy for vulnerable members of the conflict provides hope into understanding and better addressing the situation. The root cause of the conflict must be considered, as compensation is not a permanent fix to the problem. This issue begs the question as to what policymakers can do in order to help solve the human-elephant conflict.