When man intrudes into places where elephants once roamed

Sri Lanka’s Human-Elephant Conflict and the many solutions on the board


By P .K. Balachandran

COLOMBO – The Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is a modern phenomenon owning its existence to man’s increasing developmental needs and the expansion of the human population due to improved health and living conditions. Pushed by need, man has been forcibly intruding into places where elephants once roamed and foraged freely.

Earlier, elephants were not killed but captured and traded for use as draught animals, as mounts for commanders during wars, and as attractions in temple and royal festivals.  Indian records show that domestication of elephants dates back to 4,500 BCE. Hannibal, the great Carthaginian General, had crossed the Alps with elephants in 218 BCE.

However, ivory hunting in Africa and expansion of populations in Asia, ended the domestication of elephants and increased their elimination. The HEC had led to mounting deaths on both sides of the divide.

In August 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told officials of the Department of Wildlife that 122 human lives were lost and 407 elephants were killed in 2019 due to the intrusion of elephants into villages. He pointed out that it was the responsibility of the Department to feed wild animals, which lived in 1.2 million hectares under the Department’s control. He gave officials two years’ time to end the HEC, pointing out that the problem persisted despite talking about it incessantly for 40 years.

Elephant conservationists could not agree more. Their grievance is that their blueprint, submitted to the government in December 2020, is gathering dust in a shelf. They feel a solution is possible because it has been found that elephants in Sri Lanka do not migrate long distances but live in ranges of around 20,000 hectares, which may be both inside and outside the protected areas.

Sri Lanka is now listed as the country with the highest casualties from the HEC in the world according to Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya former Director General of the Department of Wildlife. However, despite the constant killings, Sri Lanka still has around 6,000 elephants. Given that the area of the island is 65,610 sq km, it has the highest density of elephants. But about 70% of Sri Lanka’s elephants live outside the officially Protected Area (PA), and thus are a source of conflict with humans.

According to a report in a State-owned local daily, 272 elephants died on an average, every year between 2011 and 2020, with the toll hitting 400 in 2020.The average human death rate due to the HEC was 71 between 2005 and 2010 and 54 between 1992 and 2001. The human death rate increased by about 14% from the previous decade and by about 50% in comparison to the past two decades. The number of human deaths in this connection spiked to 112 in 2020, a sharp increase.

In India, more humans and less elephants die in HEC. According to reports, the annual human death number 400 as against 100 elephant deaths.

Writing in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, Matt W.Hayward of the University of Newcastle, Australia, says elephants consume up to 150 kg of forage and 190 litres of water daily. Meeting these basic needs requires a large foraging area to provide a variety of grasses, shrubs, tree leaves, roots, and fruits.

A typical family of elephants (5–20) has a home range size of 100–1,000 sq. km. Haywad says left to themselves, elephants enrich the environment by dispersing seeds over a wide area. There is therefore a requirement to maintain a healthy population of elephants.

Establishing ecological corridors is one way of approaching the HEC.  But development pressures and infrastructure expansion in or surrounding elephant ranges are commonly executed without concern for their ecological impact, resulting in opposition to plans for, and needs of, corridor construction, Hayward points out.

Physical exclusion methods such as electric fences and trenches are commonly used to deter elephants from entering farmland and human settlements. But the cost of construction of these hurdles and their long-term maintenance is heavy. Interestingly, studies in Africa show that once elephants learn that their tusks do not conduct electricity, they use it to break enclosing electric fences! Physical barriers also negatively affect movement necessary for the elephants’ survival.

Making noises to frighten the elephant is another technique which is adopted. But some studies show that elephants quickly learn to tolerate these sounds and return to raid crops. Maintaining sound systems also present logistical challenges in remote areas, although the method is 65 to 100% effective. Recent studies in Africa show promising results for bio-acoustic methods such as using beehive fences to deter elephants. Bee keeping is an income generator too.

Agriculture-based deterrents have also proved useful. Chilli-grease covered fences have proved to be useful to an extent. But this technique is expensive. Another agriculture-based deterrent involves  interspersing commonly raided crops with crops that are less attractive or palatable to elephants. In addition to serving as repellents, these alternative crops, including chamomile, coriander, mint, ginger, onion, garlic, lemongrass, and orange, can economically benefit farmers by compensating them for reduced cultivation of main crops, Hayward says.

In  the Hambantota district, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has been encouraging the growing of an indigenous orange variety to keep the elephant away. The project uses a variety of grafted local orange (Citrus sinensis) known as Bibile Sweet that had been developed in Sri Lanka to suit local climatic conditions. This variety grows well in marginalized land and does not need frequent irrigation, bears fruit within 1.5 to 3 years, and each tree can provide from 300 to 600 fruits per season. Each tree has a fruiting cycle of two seasons per year. Bibile Sweet is a high-quality fruit known for its fresh sweetness, value-added products, and has good market demand. By planting these trees alongside their crops, particularly in the border areas adjacent to elephant habitats, crop raiding by elephants can be reduced, while also supplementing farmers’ income. However, the repellent crops could be trampled by the elephants during the growing stage, Hayward warns.

Saving elephants by helping people is the underlying and overlying philosophy as well the goal and objective of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society’s efforts to develop holistic and sustainable measures to mitigate the Human–Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka.

Early warning systems including placement of detectors are also used. But these require internet connectivity or network coverage to transfer alerts to farmers, which limits the practicality of infrasonic receivers in remote areas. Scientists can also put a radio collar on an elephant and trace its movements to warn farmers.

Removal or relocation of elephants is another method used to keep their movements in check. But the elephants have a way of coming back to their home – their original habitat. The website Mongabay has an article which says that elephant Homey, GPS collard in 2006, walked back home first from Yala National Park’s Block II, and then from Udawalawe. It tried to come back from Maduru Oya but was shot dead on the way. Clearly, re-location has its limits.


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