The conflict between humans and elephants in Sri Lanka is not only a wildlife problem but also a major socio-economic and political issue. Crop losses and property damage from elephant raiding has become a major socio-economic issue in a larger part of the dry zone and in the south.
In spite of continued and extensive efforts over the past few decades, by all concerned, especially the Department of Wildlife Conservation, human-elephant conflicts have increased in severity and become more widespread.
The human-elephant conflict situation has emerged as a result of many factors such as reduction of forest cover, planned and unplanned land based development activities, and the demand for land from a steadily increasing human and elephant population during the past few decades.
Another factor is that currently in Sri Lanka, over 70% of wild elephants live outside the Protected Areas set up by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Annually, 50-60 people and over 225 elephants are killed as a result of this conflict. The deaths of elephants are due to willful killing by humans whereas some humans are killed due to their carelessness and bravado.
In the context of human-elephant conflicts we must remember that the changing economic situation on the death of the bread winner means that the other spouse or an older child has to find means to generate income for the affected family. Going to school becomes a problem to the children of the families.
The Department has not fully focused its attention to the planned removal of elephants from developed areas where their presence leads to continuous negative interactions with people. This has been one of the main causes for the escalation of human – elephant conflicts. The department has resorted mainly to ‘fighting fires’ in that they react to a problem when it surfaces through the media or major objections from the effected villagers.
Two of the methods adopted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation to mitigate HEC has been to (1) remove elephants from outside the Protected Areas by driving the elephants to other locations and (2) to tranquilize, capture and transport individual ‘trouble causing’ male elephants to Protected Areas.
Monitoring of herds restricted to Protected Areas carried out by researches has shown that most young die of starvation and that reproduction and recruitment decreases, making these so called ‘successful’ drives extremely detrimental to elephant conservation. Elephants are restricted to Protected Areas where in most instances the food available becomes inadequate for both the old residents and the newcomers.
Elephant Drives have never been successful in eliminating elephants totally from an area in that most adult males and some herds remain. These elephants that remain lose any fear that they may have had for humans and become even more aggressive and dangerous. They retaliate to any attempts to drive them away when raiding crops and show an increased propensity to move into human habitations. This naturally leads to increased conflicts.
Adult males trans-located by capture and transport do not remain in the PAs where they are released. Some return to the capture site, some wander over great distances in a confused state, some create worse conflict in surrounding areas and some settle in Forest Department areas
outside the Wildlife Departments Protected Areas. One such translocated elephant was found swimming in the sea off Trincomalee and had to be dragged ashore by divers from the Navy.
It has been proved time and again that elephant drives and translocations are not effective in the attempt to mitigate HEC but the Department of Wildlife Conservation persist in carrying out this as a strategy.
A new approach in mitigating HEC and conserving elephants is absolutely necessary. A ‘National Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants’ was formulated by the government in 2006, with the assistance of an expert committee and adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers. A document titled ‘Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation and preventing its Escalation’ was submitted to HE the President in 2010. This too was prepared by an expert committee. However, no action has been taken to adopt the decisions and recommendations contained in these two documents.
The main thrust of the new strategies that have been suggested in the second report is;
1. Removal of all elephants from developed areas. Where ‘developed areas’ are identified as permanent human settlements and crop lands at a relevant scale for management. This will in effect limit elephants to Elephant Conservation Areas (ECA).
2. Effective prevention of elephants entering developed areas by the installment and effective maintenance of electric fences along the boundary between ECAs and developed areas.
3. Recognition of chena areas as Managed Elephant Ranges (MER) with effective regulation of chena cultivation and provision of communities in MERs with economic benefits linked to elephant conservation including reasonable compensation of losses due to elephants. This has to be carried through pragmatic compensation insurance schemes.
4. Minimizing elephant depredation in Managed Elephant Reserves by the removal of ‘Problem elephants’.
5. Improving basic needs (Water sources and managed secondary forests) for the wild elephants inside the PAs will help to keep them inside.
Advantages to Sri Lanka in effective elephant management
* Implementing a system of Elephant Conservation Areas (ECAs) and Managed Elephant Reserves (MERs) will allow Sri Lanka to continue to maintain the current population of Asian elephants. This population represents over 10% of the global population of Asian elephants at a density that is very much higher than in other Countries.
* Currently Sri Lanka provides the best opportunities of viewing wild Asian elephants in the world. This is an as yet untapped market and can provide a significant and sustainable source of income to the Country.
* It is only in Sri Lanka that one can view the largest land mammal (elephants at Minneriya) and the largest marine mammal (Whales at Trincomalee) within two hours.
* Sri Lanka can gain much economic benefit by promoting tourism based on elephant viewing and their coexistence with humans. Currently only a small number of tourists visit Sri Lanka for its wildlife, but Sri Lanka has the potential to be the premier wildlife tourist destination in Asia and elephants are an ideal ‘flagship species’ to achieve this.
* Successful mitigation of HEC will provide relief from a burning socio-economic and political issue that is also a significant obstacle to alleviating rural poverty.
* In addition, through developing a system of effective mitigation of HEC and conserving elephants, Sri Lanka can provide a unique example and leadership to the world, of how a potentially dangerous and large wild animal can be managed in the midst of humans, based on the virtues of respect for life and tolerance which are cornerstones of Sri Lankan culture and religion.