Who is solving the Human-Elephant Conflict?

It’s time to discuss the elephant in the room: Part 2

Friday, 31 July 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Pix by Namal Kamalgoda

To date the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) largely falls under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). In the past, the Department has had the following four main strategies to control 

and mitigate HEC:

  • Translocation of problematic elephants (often sensationalised by the media as ‘rogue elephants’)
  • Elephant drives (thankfully, the DWC has determined to no longer undertake long-distance elephant drives as they have proven to be ineffective and harmful to the elephants)
  • Electric fences along the boundaries of protected areas and wildlife zones
  • Handing out ‘ali wedi’ (thunder flashes) to villagers, to scare elephants off their crop-land

There is one main problem with all these strategies – none of them focus on the conservation of the elephants. All are in place to protect the welfare of the humans while sadly that of the elephant has been largely ignored. While both elephants and humans are victims of HEC, all strategies are to help humans whilst there are no strategies put in place to help the elephants.

Furthermore, these strategies make matters even worse for the elephants. They suffer harassment, psychological fear, loss of habitat/resources or access to habitat and feeding grounds, and loss of their natural roaming range. This can only lead to one outcome – their ultimate extinction.


How should we solve the HEC?

In terms of HEC, the DWC has consistently failed with its existing policies. This is not solely their fault. They are victims too, as under the present systems of Government, they have to abide by the whims of whoever has been appointed as their current political master – the Minister for Wildlife. Often with no empathy or understanding of the subject, these representatives of the people do just that – represent people only, and not wildlife. Of the 35 plus ministries and 50 plus departments of the Government, only the Ministry of Wildlife Resources, and its corresponding Department of Wildlife and Conservation, has been appointed with the sole mandate of looking after the welfare of wildlife. 

If they, too, concentrate on people, then what hope is there for our precious wild creatures? They are truly left without a voice. As explained in part one of this series, elephants share about 44% of Sri Lanka’s land with humans – 2.8 million hectares – where approximately 10-15 million people live. Conflict, however, does not happen in every area. Those living in ‘purana gamas’ (traditional villages) have learned, over the centuries, to live in harmony with their pachyderm neighbours. 

This way of life, however, is coming under increasing stress, too, due to poorly planned development projects, when the traditional movements of elephants have been blocked and they are forced to seek alternative paths, in search of food and water, through villages and cultivations. The conflict is also high when new settlers are moved into areas inhabited by elephants, with no previous experience of living with them, or other wildlife. Sri Lanka needs development, however it should be well-planned development that takes into account the environment and wildlife already living in these areas, while having mitigation plans as an integral part of the project development plans. The Environmental Impact (EIA) process is vital to this, and is currently flawed (more of this in a future article).


Kill or co-exist?

  • So there are really three very clear options available for resolving Sri Lanka’s HEC:
  • Get rid of the elephants in HEC areas
  • Move the people out of HEC areas
  • Find ways to co-exist

Option one is possible and involves the culling of a couple of thousands of wild elephants. Driving them to new areas will ultimately achieve the same as they would soon run out of food and starve to death. In addition, with just over 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka, such a drastic reduction in number and the creation of isolated pockets of animals, will inevitably result in their genetic deterioration and ultimate extinction – not just of elephants, but of all large mammals.

Option two will never be entertained by today’s political powers, though it was successfully achieved in the past in the creation of the Uda Walawe National Park.

This leaves co-existence as the only logical, ethical, sustainable, and long-term solution to this problem.


What do the experts say?

There are many strategies which we can implement to enable the peaceful co-existence of elephants. Science and research have shown that they work. 

  • Community fencing: Wildlife do not understand or have any appreciation for administrative boundaries. Therefore, rather than trying to fence elephants into areas we have deemed as their homes (out of which they break out anyway), doesn’t it make more sense to provide the protection of electric fencing to villages, so that they can keep elephants out, while allowing elephants to move freely from forest to forest patch? 
  • Seasonal agricultural fencing: Similar to the fences protecting villages, electric fencing can also be used seasonally to protect the boundaries of the paddy lands.
  • Creation of Elephant Conservation Areas (ECAs): If we are to control and not exacerbate the increasing HEC, we must decide to no longer encroach into their land which has already shrunk considerably over the last 100 years. Furthermore, future development and settlements on ‘elephant corridors’ must be made illegal.
  • Better storage for paddy and grains: If we were to provide a safe means or community paddy/grain storage, away from homes and with better security, this would help stop some of the incidents of ‘attacks’ on village homes.
  • Alternate sources of income: Creating alternate sources of income for the people who are in the HEC areas, ideally in the areas of sustainable wildlife tourism would be a very effective long-term solution for HEC. We should try to convert elephants from being an economic liability to local villagers, to being an economic asset, with initiatives like elephant viewing.

Why we should really care about our elephants?

Apart from the emotions of joy and feelings of wonderment brought on by elephants, do they in fact contribute in any other way to Sri Lanka’s people and its land? The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’, for the following reasons:

  • They bring in a large amount of foreign exchange to Sri Lanka (to be addressed in part three of this article series).
  • They are a ‘key-stone species’. As the largest terrestrial animal living in Sri Lanka, the elephants play an important role in balancing natural ecosystems. 
  • During droughts, elephants use their tusks and trunks to dig for water, which helps provide water for other animals that share Sri Lanka’s dry zone and its harsh habitats.
  • When elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation. These gaps allow new plants to grow and create pathways for other smaller animals to use. They are also one of the major ways in which trees disperse their seeds; some species rely entirely upon elephants for seed dispersal.
  • Across grasslands, elephants feeding on tree sprouts and shrubs help to keep the area open and able to support the plains game that inhabit these ecosystems.
  • Wherever they live, elephants leave dung that is full of seeds from the many plants they eat. When this dung is deposited, the seeds are sown and grow into new grasses, bushes and trees, boosting the health of the savannah ecosystem.

What we must appreciate is the privilege of sharing the same land as these mighty creatures who do so much for our land as well as our economy. Sadly, due to the complete lack of will to address the human elephant conflict on a scientific basis, the Sri Lankan elephant population is declining at a rapid rate – made worse each year by decreasing habitat and feeding grounds.

Conserving these gentle giants is of utmost importance and the time is long overdue for us, the more ‘intelligent’ species, to find better and more sustainable solutions for Sri Lanka’s Human-Elephant Conflict. 

(FEO is a non‐political, non-partisan organisation that provides a platform for connecting interest groups with a patriotic interest in safeguarding Sri Lanka’s natural heritage through conservation and advocacy. Visit www.feosrilanka.org for more information.)


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