Human-Elephant Conflict (Sri Lanka)


Ifham Nizam, Sunday Leader

Date Published

The Human-elephant conflict is a major conservation, socio-economic and political issue across Asian elephant range in Asia and Africa.

It is also one of the major threats to the survival of Asian elephants, which are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Between 35,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. Across elephant range hundreds of problem elephants are translocated each year.

The human-elephant conflict is the second most frequently reported disaster in Sri Lanka, responsible for the deaths of around 160 elephants and 50 humans annually.

In eight out of the nine provinces in the country, this conflict between man and beast has killed a staggering number of 1375 people and 4225 elephants since the 1950’s.

In response to this national crisis, Janathakshan recently launched the first Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation Campaign.

The core of this campaign is the Palmyra Solution: A Sustainable, Practical and Innovative answer, derived by Janathakshan which is based on years of research, practice and indigenous knowledge of affected communities.

The tried and tested solution proposes the planting of four rows of Palmyra trees (Borassus Flabellife), in zig-zag pattern as a bio fence along the conflict-affected areas together with the currently used, short-term electrified fence.

The effective period of an electrified fencing is 10 to 12 years by which time the Palmyra trees would have grown sufficiently to provide an effective, sustainable, viable and elephant-friendly shield, blocking the animals’ entrance into human territory and providing these magnificent creatures with fruit they relish.

According to Ranasinghe Perera, Director Janathakshan/Head DRR, NRM and Climate Change Programme, Practical Action, based on the frequency of attacks, currently they have project sites at Verugal, Udawalawa and Nikaweratiya. Assisted by the Palmyra Development Board (PDB), established a plant nursery in Weeravila where 20,000 Palmyra seeds are nurtured for future bio-fencing requirements.

Local communities have embraced this solution and have played a key role in its implementation. Even though the trees take seven to eight years to reach adequate growth, once adequately grown, the solution would be permanent, The Sunday Leader learns.

Palmyra is flood-resistant, drought-resistant, wind-resistant, and a fire-tolerant species lasting over 100 years and providing a number of economic and environmental benefits. One kilometre of Palmyra fencing will add 2,500 trees to the vegetation cover of the country, and produce a minimum of 270 metric tons of nutritious feed for wild elephants. In addition, Palmyra is an income source for poor villagers, a means for rural employment, a medicinal source and a carbon fixing medium.

Hence, the new fencing technology is a climate friendly, environment friendly, cost effective and a long-lasting technology to mitigate the impact of the human-elephant conflict.

Janathakshan (GTE) Limited meaning ‘people’s technology’ was established in 2011 to continue the legacy of Practical Action in Sri Lanka. Inheriting a wealth of knowledge, experience and information from Practical Action’s 25 years of work in the country, Janathakshan envisages the same vision and values and promotes sustainable and green development solutions in Sri Lanka and beyond.

However, The Sunday Leader reliably understands nothing concrete had taken place  due  to political interference in the past.

However, the new government completing one year is in consultation with biodiversity experts and naturalists will shortly take steps to minimise human-elephant deaths and elephant deaths especially due to train accidents.

Wednesday’s accident kills four

The latest being four elephants killed due to train accident.  A passenger train hit and killed an elephant and three calves.

According to the Wildlife Department the herd was walking across a newly upgraded railway line that runs through a jungle area when the accident occurred at Cheddikulam in Vavuniya.

It is understood that the government would strongly go by the policies recommended by country’s foremost experts.

Wildlife Department officials told The Sunday Leader with the assistance of the Railway and Wildlife Departments in the Anuradhapura District, where the number of elephant deaths is much higher than elsewhere in the country.

Elephant deaths

The Department of Wildlife says that more than 250 elephants die in Sri Lanka each year. The Department says that a majority of these deaths are, however due to gunshot injuries.

According to officials a large number of elephant calves are killed by the hunting method known as “Hakka Pattas”.

The Department of wildlife estimates that there are currently some 6,800 elephants in the country. The department added that the wild elephant population has also seen an increase.

There are many reports on the human-elephant conflict which results in the loss of life of both.

Recent studies indicate on an analysis of the Department show how elephants were killed, showed that it was mostly due to the mistakes of humans.

“Most of these elephants are killed by trains that function during odd hours. Being a very intelligent animal, elephants are used to the timing of trains etc. But whenever special trains operate, there are elephant deaths,” an official said.

He said that it was not a herculean task to clear the thick jungle close to the railway track. “I was instructed by Wildlife Department officials to cut down or clear the jungle areas as it would attract more elephants with lush green grass. So we have to be careful in our planning,” he added.

Plans are underway, to minimise these accidents. In this regard, a workshop would be organised next month for all railway employees, including drivers and guards, who would undergo a programme on how to minimise elephant-train accidents, the Wildlife Department says.

A large number of elephants were killed due to train accidents in the Anuradhapura district.

Recent Elephant survey report

The first countrywide survey of elephants had not been fully utilised despite a number of plans. The Digital and Computer Science Department of the Peradeniya University sorted the data on the elephant survey, according to Wildlife  officials.

The  three day survey covered all parks and reserves where elephants freely roam.

According to officials, all data has been computerised, and it includes the number of elephants in each herd, their sizes, assumed ages, their sex and other physical features. “If records of a herd were duplicated the programme automatically nullifes the duplication,” he added.

The data was sorted out under the supervision of the Director General and the Dean of the Science Faculty of the Peradeniya University, Prof. Parakrama Karunarathna. Nearly 40 university students also assisted in this process to minimise numerical mistakes with scientific methods being given priority.

The Wildlife Department informs that this survey had helped to find solutions to the human-elephant conflict and proper conservation and management of elephants.

One cannot imagine the island nation of Sri Lanka without her elephants. Elephants are so much a part of the island’s history, culture, religions, mythology and even linked to politics. Thus, elephant conservation and management is always under the scrutiny of the public.

A recent study has indicated Sri Lanka not only has a very healthy population of elephants but also the male –female ratio is one of the best in the world.

Sri Lanka with its 65,610 square kilometres and a growing population with some 21.3 million is one of the most densely-populated countries in the world with about 325 people per square kilometre.

Currently, the human population is growing at an annual rate of 0.934 per cent, at which rate, the population would double in 75 years.