Surging Human-Elephant Conflicts in Sri Lanka

Asian elephants are listed as ‘endangered’, and human-elephant conflict (HEC) poses a serious challenge to their conservation in Sri Lanka as well as the rest of the range. The density of elephants in Sri Lanka is the highest among range countries with around 10–20% of the global Asian elephant population occupying less than 2% of the global range. Of the 13 Asian elephant range countries, the human population density in Sri Lanka is third-highest, behind Bangladesh and India. The high density of elephants and people in Sri Lanka have contributed to a high level of HEC in the country, which has become major conservation, socio-economic and political issue.

The lack of sufficient land area for the existence of elephants is the foremost reason for human-elephant conflicts. Droughts, floods and other climate change-related incidents have been intensifying the conflicts in Sri Lanka, While Sri Lanka has been ranked as the riskiest country for climate changes in 2018, according to global climate risk index.

Centuries ago, elephants were widely distributed, from the sea level to the highest mountain ranges. Portuguese complained of elephants approaching their fortress in Colombo in the evenings. From the early 19th century, British rulers sold the upcountry forest lands for commercial plantations of coffee, and afterwards tea.

The Sri Lankan elephant population is now largely restricted, to lowlands in the dry zone, east and southeast. Elephants are present in wildlife reserves and a small remnant population exists in the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. Apart from Wilpattu and Ruhuna National Parks, all other protected regions are less than 1,000 km2 in extent. Many areas are less than 50km2, and not large enough to encompass the entire home ranges of elephants that use them.

 With the reduction of their habitats, the elephant population have broken up and some herds have got pocketed in small patches of jungle. With their movement restricted, food and water sources depleted, elephants wander into newly cultivated areas, which were their former habitat, in search of food and find a ready source of food and even stored paddy is not spared.

With their large size and equally large appetites, elephants can easily destroy the entire cultivation of a farmer in a single night. Therefore, the farmers look upon the elephant as a dangerous pest and would rarely regret its disappearance from their area. Thus, the conflict between man and elephant has become the most serious conservation problem facing the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The ecological and social costs of clearing forests to resettle villagers have proved to be very high. Since 1950, a minimum of 4,200 elephants has perished in the wild as a direct result of the conflict between man and elephant in Sri Lanka. During the last 12 years, a total of 1,464 elephants were killed, along with 672 humans.

Many deaths due to HEC are caused by the irresponsible behaviour of people too. Such as approaching wild elephants while inebriated, harassing elephants and unnecessarily chasing them. Most human deaths due to HEC are preventable if appropriate precautions are taken. Mass media plays a major role in drawing attention to HEC and shaping public reaction to it. Therefore, media should report incidents of HEC responsibly with elucidation and reportage of actual reasons and circumstances causing incidents, rather than sensationalizing them.

While human injuries caused by elephants were similar in scale to deaths, incidents of property damage were more than an order of magnitude greater. Since many cases of property damage are presumably not reported, the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. Most property damage by elephants and some human deaths are related to the raiding of grain stored in houses. Alternatives probably due to the interaction of many factors, including attitudes of people towards killing of elephants, access to and use of methods that result in elephant deaths, penalties for killing elephants and their implementation, and behaviour of elephants.

Attempts at limiting elephants to protected areas by driving them into DWC protected areas and fencing them in has been the main approach to HEC mitigation in Sri Lanka over the past 70 years or so. However, this approach has completely failed and currently, over 70% of elephant range is outside protected areas.

By Jumana Jabeer.

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