Author : Ashan Karunananda
The Sri Lankan Elephant has been a symbolic figure in the past and present. In fact, historical information proves a relationship that has begun over 5,000 years ago. However, over the past years the human population has seen a rapid increase which has caused severe problems to this strong relationship. In 2019 alone, a total of 405 elephants and 121 humans have died as a result of human-elephant conflict, which leaves many questions to be answered.
Today, the Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is considered an endangered species by IUCN as its populations have decreased by more than 50% over the past years. The main reasons for this rapid decrease are habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, as well as the rapid incline of the human populations. The elephants are now more concentrated in the dry zone, including Wilpattu National Park, Yala National Park, Udawalawe National Park, and Minneriya National Park. It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest elephant density in Asia. However, over the past decade, human-elephant conflict has increased, resulting in death for humans and elephants.
There are several ways to address human-elephant conflict. These include:
The establishment of protected areas which provide feeding, breeding, and residing habitats to the elephants could play a key role in addressing human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. These areas will physically separate humans and elephants. Furthermore, leaving corridors that connect fragmented habitats will provide more areas for these mammals to graze. The presence of corridors supports the elephants in their seasonal migration and also helps them to find food during the dry season.
Among the priority actions taken to address human-elephant conflict is the construction of electric fences in areas where human-elephant conflict is severe. However, it is important that these fences are set up following scientific studies to identify suitable areas which take into consideration factors such as the number of elephants present in the region and the area in which the elephants will be concentrated after building the fence. Additionally, this needs to take into consideration the wellbeing of the elephants, the sufficiency of food resources, sufficiency of land resources, and the potential conflicts within the elephant herd in the area. Furthermore, it is essential that there is regular monitoring as well as maintenance to ensure that the fences are not damaged and remain in good quality.
Farmers have long used acoustic deterrents such as shouting and fire crackers to chase away elephants entering their fields. The use of acoustic devices could replace these methods and utilize sounds that don’t harm the elephants or other animals. This is important because, farmers usually stay up whole night while guarding their cultivation which effects their day to day activities. The importance of the implementation of automated deterrent devices is a vital requirement.
The use of lighting such as bonfires, torches, and flash lights can help to chase away the elephants. This process can be made more efficient by using solar flashlights which is sustainable. These lights can be distributed among farmers and fixed in strategic locations to cover the whole agricultural land. As per the Annual Report 2019 of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, the implementation of light repel systems has shown positive results in preventing the elephants from entering cultivated lands. However, farmers must follow up on the maintenance to ensure the efficiency of the process.
Elephants are fond of crops such as paddy. By growing less attractive crops together with these crops, farmers can reduce the impacts of elephants on their cultivation. More importantly, crops that serve as repellents as well as those that provide financial benefits to farmers could be considered as options to be cultivated. These include crops such as ginger, onion, cinnamon, garlic, and citrus plants.
The most problematic elephants that damage houses, feed on crops, and even kill humans can be tranquilized and transported to another location. However, studies have shown that translocated elephants return to their original territory after some time. Therefore, this is not a long-term solution for human-elephant conflict.
It is important to financially protect farmers from the damages caused by elephants to their cultivation and property. Compensation and insurance schemes can build the resilience of farmers and foster a more positive attitude toward the elephants. A financial safety net reduces pressure on farmers and prevents them from resorting to violence such as guns, poison, or explosives to chase away elephants.
Individuals and reputed organizations must take these initial steps to protect these terrestrial giants for future generation. This can be done by conducting awareness programs to the locals affected by this problem. They can be briefed on why there has been a rise in human-elephant conflict and proper methods to address it can be explained to it. Especially, farmers can be briefed on the use of new technology which can be used to prevent this problem. More importantly, these programs could include how humane ways to address human elephant conflict could be used, through increased awareness among communities. The aim is for the animals and humans to live in harmony, and not to use aggressive methods to chase off animals which were potentially living on this land long before it was settled by humans.
In conclusion, human-elephant conflict is increasing rapidly with the highest number of human and elephant deaths reported during the last year. Furthermore, with the available statistical evidence this problem will be increasing in future, if prompt actions are not taken. Protected areas, corridors, electric fencing, acoustic and light devices, natural methods, compensation and risk transfer, and awareness creation can all play a part in mitigating conflict and allow for a peaceful coexistence between humans and elephants.
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