Sri Lanka grapples with elephant-human conflict

By Tharuka Dissanaike
Published: Thursday 15 March 2007

Sri Lanka grapples with elephant-human conflict

Yala, January 25, 2007: Sri Lanka's only known crossed-tusk elephant in the wild, known locally as Dalaputtuwa dies of paralysis caused by gunshot wounds in the periphery of a highly protected national park. The tusker, a rare sight in Sri Lankan jungles, was shot by 35-year old Punchi Banda Samarathunge as he stood guard over his war zone-bordering village on the outskirts of the National Park with a T-56 rifle. The bullet hit the front leg of the elephant, who limped back to the jungle in pain and fear. It took another painful week before his death, by which time, the majestic male was totally paralysed neck down.

Punchi Banda and his shotgun were taken into police custody, as the final hours of Dalaputtuwa became a matter of national mourning. The elephant enjoys protected status and shooting one entails imprisonment and heavy fines. But in the remote jungle-bordering village sympathies lie clearly with Punchi Banda.For one, these villagers depend on 'home guards'--a paramilitary force of ill-trained but armed men who are expected to protect villagers from possible terrorist attacks. Punchi Banda was a home guard and was out on a patrol when he happened to come upon Dalaputtuwa.

Villages that border national parks all over Sri Lanka have to deal with the menace of elephant depredation on a daily basis. They do not share the romanticised and heroic image of elephants--as the middle/upper classes are wont to. For them, as it was for British planters two centuries ago, the elephant is a crop raider, destroyer of house and property and, at times, even a murderer. In these distant villages the drama of human-elephant interaction is played and replayed daily. The cost of this interaction has taken a heavy toll on both sides.

Every year, around 150 elephants and between 50-70 human die because of this conflict. Data from Sri Lanka's wildlife conservation department point to an increasing trend. In 2005, the number of human deaths was as high as 70; elephant deaths in 2004 was 171. Over 15 years, 1,850 elephants have been reported killed; 1,192 of them, male elephants. This is huge in a country where official estimates put the number of wild animals at about 4,000.
Aftermath of the kill Sri Lanka's recently approved National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants sets out to find viable solutions to this 'conflict' and ensure the long-term survival of the species. The policy, drawn up by a group of ecologists and field conservationists, points out that the strategies adopted by the department of wild Life conservation (dwlc) for managing the conflict is actually detrimental to the long-term survival of the species.

To date, the department's efforts have gone into containing the elephant in designated protected areas (pas), national parks or sanctuaries. This is achieved by driving elephants that roam the periphery into the pa and confining them with electric fencing, deep ditches or moats.

But ecologists say that pas do not have the space, the required mix of habitat and fodder species, and sufficient water to contain large herds of this mammoth species.

"We believe that as many as 70 of the wild elephant population roam outside pas. That is because they prefer the habitat of scrub jungle, open grasslands and wet floodplains better than dense forest," Prithiviraj Fernando, renowned elephant ecologist, told Down To Earth. "If we continue to push all these animals in to national parks, we may well end up losing the parks as well as elephants in the long run."
Down to Earth In excess In many national parks, where the number of elephants exceeds the park's carryng capacity, the entire forest is decimated by elephants. In times of food stress, they turn to species they would normally not eat, uprooting entire trees and flattening forests in a matter of days or weeks. This devastated area becomes inhospitable to other species as well.

Another form of elephant management employed by the dwlc is 'translocation'. Male animals are generally aggressive loners. A majority of crop raids and human deaths are pinned on lone males, hence the larger number of male elephants killed in the human-animal conflict.

The department habitually removes a troublesome male from one location (through tranquilisation/capture) and takes it to a 'far away' national park.

"Often this results in simply translocating the problem. The elephant breaks out, because males are notorious fence-breachers, and starts raiding crops and attacking people in the new location," says Sarath Kotagama, one-time director of dwlc and the country's best known wildlife ecologist.

If Sri Lanka is to maintain its present elephant density and numbers, it may be necessary for some coexistence. If not, ecologists believe, the country will not be able to sustain even a part of the current population, especially if they were to be confined to unsuited protected areas. The policy therefore recommends land-sharing mechanisms like managed elephant reserves (mers) and elephant conservation areas (ecas) where people accept and learn to live with elephants.

For ages, Sri Lankan farmers shared their habitat with elephants. Even 50 years ago, elephants roamed in much larger areas--places that are today developed urban centres, and highly populated. As development happens and more irrigated lands are opened up for agriculture, "people become less and less willing to share space with elephants," Fernando acknowledges.

Edged out
Down to Earth This progression of irrigated agriculture is shown as the cause for increased numbers of elephants outside of protected areas.

An edge species that has cleverly adapted to human habitation, elephants can be seen living off garbage dumps in semi-urban areas; raiding paddy fields, home gardens, vegetable patches and plantations of coconut or banana; and stealing rice, salt and coconut from homesteads (often wrecking houses in the process). In cultivated areas with high human density, elephants are content to skulk in small isolated forest patches during the day and venture out at night seeking an easy dinner.

"We believe that due to this habitat shift, the number of elephants is actually increasing--not decreasing, as earlier believed," says Kotagama. "This is the real reason for the escalated conflict between the two species."

Another reason that dampens prospects of cohabitation is the lack of adequate compensation for elephant depredation. A human death is compensated with as little as sl Rs 75,000 (us $700); crop damage is rarely compensated. Red tape is rife in the process, leaving poor farmers at their wit's end. Many of them turn to dangerous means of keeping elephants out, rather than suffering loss. This includes poison, traps, guns and live electric wires in the periphery. "We believe that if people receive adequate compensation for their loss, without the red tape, they can be persuaded to share their habitation with elephants," says economic researcher Ranjith Bandara.

His research on the cost benefit of elephant conservation showed that city-based nature lovers who are most interested in saving the species are willing to bear the cost of compensating farmers for their loss. Bandara has worked out a formula whereby each urban middle/upper class person contributes a small fee (us$1 a year) this would be more than adequate to compensate for the damage caused by marauding elephants.

In April, a local insurance company was ready to launch the country's first such insurance scheme (see box: Insuring damage).

But insurance alone may not be sufficient to convince ordinary farmers to live with elephants. The department's strategy of driving herds and males that roam outside into pas and enclosing them is more palatable for the normal villager, like Manjula Somaweera whose homestead in Polonnaruwa (in the north-central dry plains) was attacked last year. "Most nights we do not sleep. Every twig that breaks makes me run outside to check if they are close by. Because we have no electricity, we keep a kerosene lamp burning throughout the night. This is additional cost that we can ill afford on the little money we earn through vegetable and rice cultivation.

"The authorities have to protect us. Those days that we could light a fire cracker and chase them off are gone. Now elephants are too bold. They are not scared. We, on the other hand, have to live with perpetual fear."

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