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Story Publication logo October 22, 2019

Inside Sri Lanka's Deadly Struggle to Live Peacefully With Elephants

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A rare Asian elephant tusker at Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve in southern India. Image by Rachel Nuwer. India, 2019.
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Tigers and elephants are beloved in the West, but these creatures pose a threat to the livelihoods...

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Asian elephants numbers are much more endangered than their African cousins and number as few as 40,000, predominately due to habitat loss and conflict with people. Image by Rachel Nuwer. India, 2019.
Asian elephants numbers are much more endangered than their African cousins and number as few as 40,000, predominately due to habitat loss and conflict with people. Image by Rachel Nuwer. India, 2019.

Like many young bull elephants, Brigadier had a strategy. Spending his days in a small patch of forest in northwest Sri Lanka, he would emerge under cover of darkness to feast on crops. One evening, he bundled into an army brigadier's property, earning him his name and sealing his fate.

Government officials captured Brigadier and trucked him to Maduru Oya National Park. But he immediately took off, probably intending to find his way home, got lost, and wound up 120 kilometres north at Sampur beach. Incredibly, a navy boat discovered him swimming 5 kilometres offshore and towed him to safety.

After his big adventure, Brigadier settled down again, returning to his nocturnal crop-raiding routine. Six months later, he was found dead at the bottom of a well.

Apart from the swimming bit, stories like this are common in Sri Lanka, where habitat loss is forcing elephants into an increasingly bloody conflict with humans. When I visited the country to report on efforts to stem the bloodshed, I found that the government's favoured solution of moving problem elephants into fenced-off national parks isn't working. Some experts believe it will even backfire, pushing the species to the brink in the country.

The only way to secure the future of Sri Lanka's elephants, they argue, is to find ways to peacefully coexist with them. That is no mean feat. And yet, as I saw for myself in several villages, there is a simple solution. The question is, will it be implemented across the island? And will people accept that the elephants must live among us or not at all?

Asian elephants are under pressure. Their numbers have declined by an estimated 50 percent in the last 75 years, leaving just 40,000 to 50,000 in the wild. Although they aren't poached anywhere near as much as their African cousins, their forest homes are being rapidly fragmented. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Sri Lanka. It accounts for just 2 percent of their total habitat, yet is home to over 5000 Asian elephants – more than 10 percent of the remaining global population.

That so many elephants remain here is a testament to the species' cultural importance in the country. The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist and elephants feature prominently in a number of stories about the Buddha's previous reincarnations. Hinduism, Sri Lanka's second-largest religion, also enjoys a close association with the animals in the form of the god Ganesh. "Elephants hold a very special place in our hearts," says Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research in Tissamaharama.

Yet as the island grows increasingly crowded and their habitat disappears, the lives of elephants and humans are overlapping more and more. This puts Sri Lanka's many farmers at constant odds with the animals, often with deadly consequences.

Hungry elephants raid crops, trampling fields and sometimes people. In response, farmers attack the animals with flaming torches, firecrackers, home-made guns and even explosives embedded in fruit, known as hakka patas or "jaw exploders". Last year, more than 300 elephants were killed in altercations with humans and around 70 people lost their lives to elephants. "Sri Lanka has the highest level of human-elephant conflict in the world," says Fernando. "Wherever there are people and elephants, there's conflict."

For more than 70 years, Sri Lanka has attempted to solve the problem by moving elephants to national parks. According to the government's approach, the world's second-largest land animal belongs in protected areas surrounded by electric fencing, while people belong everywhere else. In many cases, as with Brigadier, problem animals are specifically targeted for translocation. Officials also attempt to clear whole herds using a colonial-era tactic called an elephant drive. Day after day, sometimes for a year or more, hundreds of people venture into elephant territory, setting off guns and thousands of "elephant thunders" (a type of huge firecracker) to corral the animals into fenced areas.

Whichever method officials use to try to confine elephants to parks, it doesn't work. In 2012, Fernando and his colleagues published a study showing that of 16 translocated bull elephants that the researchers had monitored over several years, two were killed within the park they were released in and none of the others stayed put. Some broke out and returned home while others established a new territory where they began raiding crops again.

Elephant drives produce similar results. Many males evade the round-up or break out soon after arriving at a park. The only ones that stick around are the females and calves, which tend to be more risk averse. They soon experience first-hand that Sri Lanka's parks often lack the resources necessary to support hundreds of additional residents, each of which eats up to 140 kilograms of vegetation per day. The newcomers quickly become "emaciated, walking skeletons, and many starve to death", says Fernando. "We've seen this over and over again wherever elephants have been driven to parks and fenced in."

I saw it for myself at Udawalawe National Park. Tourists raised their cameras as a mother and calf stepped out of the thick brush, but the elephants were a disturbing sight, with jutting ribs, protruding shoulder blades and rope-like backbones. They plucked placidly at the short grass beneath their feet, but it clearly isn't enough to sustain them. Like many elephants confined to overcrowded national parks, they were on the verge of starvation.

That females and calves tend to suffer this fate is especially concerning, says Shermin de Silva, director of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project and founder of Trunks & Leaves, a non-profit organisation focusing on elephant research and outreach. Elephants have extremely slow reproduction rates, usually producing just one calf every six years. Earlier this year, based on mathematical modelling of elephant population demographics from Udawalawe, de Silva reported that for Asian elephants to maintain their numbers, females must reproduce at near-optimal rates and most calves must survive. Nutritional stress, in other words, can quickly push elephant populations in Sri Lanka and beyond into tailspins. "For elephants, the biggest threat is the calf that's never born," says de Silva.

The stark implications of this finding were reinforced earlier this year, when Fernando and his colleagues published the first nationwide elephant survey. It showed that elephants occur across 60 percent of the country – virtually everywhere that isn't highly urbanised – and that 70 percent of them live side-by-side with humans. This not only means that Sri Lanka's attempt to confine elephants to parks has "completely failed", says Fernando, but also that non-protected areas will have to play a critical role in the species' survival. If Sri Lanka wants to save its elephants, it has to find a way for people to live peacefully alongside them.

I saw just how difficult this is when I came across a bloated bull elephant lying in a ditch by the side of a dirt road in north-west Sri Lanka, flies buzzing around two bullet wounds. A local man guessed it had been shot by a farmer in a nearby field and ran away before collapsing here. The animal was still alive when it was discovered and a small crowd had gathered and erected a makeshift tent to give it some shade. Someone brought coconuts and bananas to try to feed it. Someone else brought water. Another person called the vet. When the elephant died, a monk performed a ceremony to help ease it into the next life.

I left the scene feeling nauseous. But just a few minutes drive away, past neon green rice paddies and homes shaded by coconut and banana trees, I visited a place that is showing by example that there is an alternative.

In 2013, the village of Galewewa pioneered a programme designed by Fernando and his colleagues to use electric fences to encircle crops and homes rather than elephants. The locals took some convincing. "People just assumed it wouldn't be successful because they'd seen the government fences," says Sampath Ekanayaka, manager of the Centre for Conservation and Research's community programmes in the region. "To them, this was just another fence."

In many ways, it is. But there are reasons to think the scheme would work. Elephants that encounter fences in national parks have "all the time in the world" to figure out how to get past the obstacles, says Fernando. Those that encounter a fence surrounding a village or crop field are unlikely to invest the time and energy required to break in because there will usually be people around, and elephants are afraid of them.

Do Fence Me In

Eventually, after several years of deliberation, the village elders agreed to try the method. Fernando's organisation paid for 90 percent of the installation costs but villagers paid the rest, as well as shouldering the burden of maintaining the fences throughout the growing season. After harvesting, they take down the fences, allowing elephants to forage on the crop remains.

The results have been encouraging. After six years with the fences, no people or elephants have been killed, nocturnal raids are practically non-existent and crop yields and earnings have significantly increased. Galewewa's success has prompted around 25 more villages to join the programme, and Sri Lanka's wildlife department has now established another 30 village fences.

"I would 100 percent recommend this system to others in Sri Lanka," says J.M.Muthubanda, president of the Fence Maintenance Society in Manakkuliya Gama, a village near Galewewa. "If we didn't have this fence, many people would have been killed and we would have had to abandon the land. This was the best decision we ever made."

Fencing can only ever be one part of the solution. Just as important is persuading people to change the way they think about living alongside elephants – and to adapt their behaviour. People need to take responsibility for protecting themselves and the elephants they share the land with, says Fernando.

Take drinking, for example. Around 70 percent of men who are killed by elephants are intoxicated when the incident happens. Simply staying inside after a night of drinking would greatly reduce those deaths, says Sumith Pilapitiya, an independent elephant researcher and former director general of wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. "If you're out drunk on a bike at night and you ride into an elephant, what do you expect the elephant to do at that point?" says Pilapitiya. "As human beings, we should be taking much more responsibility for our lives."

Trains are another problem. Around 15 elephants are killed each year on the tracks. Sri Lanka has few underpasses or overpasses but there is a straightforward fix. Train drivers could simply slow down in the areas where elephants tend to get hit.

What I saw in Galewewa shows that people can peacefully coexist with elephants, so long as they have the right attitude and some semblance of support. Notionally at least, the Sri Lankan government is on board. As early as 2007, it created a national elephant conservation plan that largely reflected the findings of Fernando, Pilapitiya and other elephant researchers, including provisions for implementing seasonal agricultural fencing and educational programmes. But the plan was implemented ad hoc and has failed to live up to its potential as a result, says Pilapitiya, who resigned from his job heading Sri Lanka's wildlife department in 2015  because of "systemic political interference". G.C.Sooriyabandara, the current director-general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, didn't respond to repeated interview requests.

Still, there are signs of progress. In a first for Sri Lanka, the country's Southern Development Board, following advice from Pilapitiya and Fernando, agreed to use radio tracking collars to study the movements of several herds of elephants so it could select a site for a major industrial project that would minimise impact on the animals. "It's the right thing to do, as far as I'm concerned," says a high-level official at the board, who asked not to be named because he didn't have permission to speak to the media.

As more and more villages sign up for his fencing programme, Fernando and his colleagues believe the country as a whole will eventually follow. "This is not something that can be done in a day or a year or even 10 years," says Fernando. "It might take 25 years. But we're hopeful that common sense will prevail."

It is already too late for Brigadier. But if Fernando is right, Asian elephants can look forward to a brighter future, and not only in Sri Lanka. The country's human population density isn't far behind that of India and Bangladesh, but it has almost 10 times the number of elephants. This makes it a test case for human-elephant coexistence, says de Silva. "If we can get it to work in Sri Lanka, we can get it to work anywhere."

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