Humane Society International together with SLYCAN Trust organised a lecture on “Addressing the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka” followed by a panel discussion on October 14th, 2019. Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, an expert in the conservation field with for over 25 years, narrated the present situation in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is home to the largest animal to walk on earth—the elephant. At present, about 7000-8000 wild elephants roam in close to 70% of land in Sri Lanka compared with countries such as India where elephants only occupy 3%. While this itself is a blessing, tragedy lurks underneath the tropical paradise. Around 150 elephants and fifty people die each year due to human-elephant conflicts (HEC). The main reasons for the altercations between human and elephant are the drastic increase in the human population, encroachment for agriculture and settlements as well as unplanned development efforts.
HEC is neither simple nor straightforward. It is not a problem with easy solutions.
Trials and errors to manage human-elephant conflicts
As a way to manage HEC, the Wildlife Conservation Department has tried several methods namely elephant translocation, setting up an elephant holding ground in Horouwpathana, mass elephant drives as well as setting up electric fences.
Dr Fernando noted close to 25 cases of lone male elephants such as “Chandi” and “Brigadier” who were translocated to more favourable locations because of their “troublesome” nature. Unfortunately, the elephants in almost all 25 cases have returned to their home range sometimes crossing over 200 km making translocation of elephants detrimental to both humans and elephants.
“It’s like Jurassic Park. They don’t like to call it a ‘prison but that’s what it is,” said Dr Fernando speaking about the elephant holding ground out of which elephants would always break out, even though it was a fortress.
Elephant drives are another tactic to relocate masses of elephants into the existing parks, sometimes 100-200 elephants at a time but again, the problem is not solved because 95% of they consist of innocent females and their juveniles which means that the problem causing elephants are left behind. Using ali wedi or huge firecrackers to scare the elephants away is also futile because while it may scare away the females (who don’t cause harm in the first place) it will only aggravate and annoy the male elephants who as a result, do more damage.
The panel consisted of Rohan Wijensinha - Chairperson of the Federation of Environmental Organisations, Dr. Ajith Gunewardena - Assistant Director of the Central Environment Authority, Hemantha Withanage - Executive Director at the Center for Environment Justice, Anura Sathurusinghe - Director of Ecosystems and Conservation Programme at SLYCAN Trust and Dr. Pruthuviraj Fernando Chairman from the Center for Conservation and Research, and moderated by Vositha Wijenakaye of Humane Society International of Sri Lanka.
What are the solutions to enable human-elephant co-existence?
“The income generated from Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks during the season adds about 1.75 billion rupees to the local economy. That’s how valuable elephants (and other wildlife) are to us,” said Rohan Wijensinha who emphasised on the need for planned development in these areas so that it can enable human-elephant co-existence. “Policies are not enough. Sri Lanka needs movements that go beyond policies,” added Mr Wijensinha encouraging the youngsters present at the event to build a movement of change.
Anura Sathurusinghe spoke about deforestation and how it impacts HEC. “At the moment, large-scale infrastructure developments such as roads and reservoirs contribute to deforestation more than encroachments,” said Mr Sathurusinghe. He explained that on average, 7500 to 8000 hectares of land undergo deforestation in Sri Lanka, which is a low rate compared with other countries but still a cause for concern, and emphasised the need to identify a value for the ecosystems similar to India’s tiger reserves so that all stakeholders involved, from policymakers to the inhabitants are aware of the need to conserve.
Hemantha Withanage spoke about hakka patas as a big threat to elephants. Attached to pumpkin or pineapple, this device detonates once an animal bites on it, badly wounding and ultimately killing it. He also spoke of unplanned development projects such as roads and housing schemes that are built on the elephant corridors that adversely affect the elephants who have been using these corridors to migrate for generations. “This is a man-made, politically fueled, conflict,” said Mr Withanage who called out for science-backed elephant management policies that will help both man and animal.
Speaking on elephant corridor mapping and habitat management through remote and satellite-based technology Dr Ajith Gunewardena said “We’ve initiated a project to map out the ecosystem services in Kamberawa in the Knuckles range where we use high-res satellite data to identify habitat quality, pollination, sediment delivery ratio, land degradation, environmental sensitivity and so on,” He also spoke about using technology and methods such as on strategic environmental assistance to identify which areas need to be conserved, which areas are good for human settlements and development projects.
Speaking at the event, Vositha Wijenayake highlighted, “Humane Society International, and SLYCAN Trust will continue the work on addressing human elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. Addressing HEC is a timely need, and our activities will focus on capacity building, research, stakeholder engagement and policy advocacy. We look forward to the engagement of other stakeholders in the process”