Legally Protected, Proliferating and Losing Habitat, Elephants Step Up Deadly Struggle With Sri Lankan Villagers


Chathuri Dissanayake, Global Press Institute

Date Published

On the morning of Jan. 22, 2015, Shalika Karunaratne watched helplessly as an enraged elephant chased her father, picked him up and dashed him to the ground like a toy.

Villagers ran for cover.

Nobody came to my fathers aid until the elephant was out of sight, she says. They were all scared.

Elephants frequently visit Karunaratnes village during harvest time March, April and August in search of food. In the months before the attack on her father, elephants had destroyed mango trees in the familys garden.

On the morning of the attack, Karunaratne, 19, alerted her father to two wild elephants going past their house in Moragoda, a small village in Anuradhapura district in Sri Lankas North Central province.One of the elephants crossed the road and entered a protected area. The second, alone and separated from the herd, was wandering around the village when he came upon Karunaratnes father working in the family vegetable garden.

After the attack, villagers took Karunaratnes father to a nearby hospital; he died a few hours later. He was the second Moragoda resident to be killed by an elephant.

Elephants enter villages because, having lost much of their wilderness habitat, they compete with human communities for land and food. When harassed, they usually move along, but sometimes they react with fear and go on the offensive.

The human-elephant conflict is complicated by the fact that Sri Lankan law prohibits the killing of elephants for any reason, including self-defense.

To ensure species conservation, Sri Lanka restricts interaction with protected species in certain biologically diverse areas. The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1938 establishes six categories of protected area and spells out conservation and protection guidelines for each.

Elephant incursions have increased over the past five years, Karunaratne says. The massive animals eat crops, trample fields, smash into houses and sometimes attack people they perceive as a threat. A week before the attack on Karunaratnes father, an elephant chased Karunaratnes aunt as she walked home at dusk.

Karunaratnes father was the family breadwinner. Now Karunaratne and her mother have no regular income, she says.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation, the primary government agency responsible for managing and protecting wildlife, pays compensation of 100,000 rupees ($745) for a death caused by a wild elephant and up to 50,000 rupees ($372) for a nonlethal injury.

Karunaratnes family received 15,000 rupees ($111) a few days after her fathers death, and the department promised to pay the balance this month.

Karunaratnes mother, Y.M. Podimanike, lives in fear of elephant attacks. The men of a household commonly take charge of scaring elephants away, often by lighting firecrackers. Without a man to guard the family garden, Podimanike fears she and her daughter are now more vulnerable to attack.

The long-running conflict between humans and wild elephants in rural Sri Lanka is intensifying, with the number of reported attacks surging in the past five years, researchers and conservation officials say. The problem is worsening because the elephant population is growing while human settlement and agriculture reduce the animals habitat.

In villages that border protected elephant habitat, farm families live in fear of attacks. To keep elephants from roaming outside protected areas, the Department of Wildlife Conservation is expanding the nations network of electric fences. However, independent researchers, activists and leaders advocate for less costly and more community-oriented methods to reduce the incidence of conflict.

Sri Lanka is home to well over 10 percent of the global population of Asian elephants, the Elephas maximus.

A nationwide elephant census carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Department in 2011 found 5,879 wild elephants in areas near nature parks and sanctuaries. The largest wild elephant populations are in the countrys North Western and North Central provinces, the census found.

In Sri Lanka, elephant herds range in size from 12 to 20 elephants.

Culturally, the elephant plays a significant role in Sri Lanka, says Deepani Jayantha, wildlife biologist and country representative of Elemotion Foundation, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of Asian elephants and the people connected to them.

The elephant is woven into Sri Lankas main religious traditions Buddhist and Hindu. Many Buddhist temples use captive elephants in pageants and festivals.

Owning captive elephants has long been a sign of prestige among noble families, and elephants are prominently featured in ancient works of art.

The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance makes elephants a protected species. Killing a wild elephant under any circumstance is a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 500,000 rupees ($3,750) and a prison sentence of up to five years.

While the number of human and elephant deaths has gradually increased since the 1990s, the number of reported elephant attacks on village farms and houses has risen sharply over the past five years, says H.D. Ratnayake, director general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The number of attacks causing property damage rose from just shy of 700 in 2008 to nearly 2,000 in 2010 and nearly 3,200 in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the department.

Farmers bear the brunt of the property damage.

After living his whole life in his ancestral home in Karuwalagaswewa, a remote village in the North Western province, Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Gunasekara, 60, moved to a different part of the village in 2013 to escape the rising danger of elephant attacks.

But Gunasekara has had no respite. His new home has been attacked three times since he moved. The most recent attack was in February, when elephants destroyed a wall of his new house.

We were all in the house when suddenly an elephant came and banged on the outer wall, he says. My sons family and my wife and I all ran out of the back door to the nearby woods and waited till the elephant left.

Gunasekaras son, daughter-in-law and grandson have been living with him and his wife since January, when rampaging elephants destroyed their home in the same village.

Gunasekara has lost count of the number of attacks his family has faced. Elephants are attracted to grain fields, garden crops and even produce stored in homes, he says.

In the February attack, elephants apparently were drawn to the peanuts that the family had harvested and stored indoors pending their sale.

But property damage, as bad as it is, is not the worst element of the conflict.

Between 2005 and 2010, an average of 71 people died annually as a result of elephant attacks, according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation. In 2014, elephants killed 67 people, Ratnayake says.

The conflict is deadly to the elephants as well. From 2005 to 2010, people killed 1,154 elephants an average of nearly 200 a year.

In 2014, 231 elephants died in Sri Lanka; people killed about half of them, Ratnayake says.

At the crux of the human-elephant conflict is a land issue, he says.

Forests make up less than 20 percent of Sri Lankas land area, limiting the amount of land available for elephants, Ratnayake says. Each herds range is becoming smaller and more fragmented.

Villages bordering and among forest reserves are constantly under threat of elephant attacks, especially during dry and drought times, as food becomes scarce in the reserves, he says.

Around 70 percent of wild elephants range in small, isolated forest areas scattered among human settlements, Ratnayake says.

But while the herds ranging areas are shrinking, the elephant population is growing.

A census conducted in 1993 showed the country was home to at least 1,967 elephants. That census excluded the Northern province, where a military conflict then raged; by 2011, when a census was conducted nationwide, the tally had tripled.

Sarath Kotagama, a professor of environmental science at the University of Colombo and a former director general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, attributes the growth in the elephant population to favorable breeding conditions.

Scientific data shows secondary forests and grasslands to contribute to the highest rate of elephant population growth, he says. As land with conditions conducive to the growth of elephant population increase, so does the population.

Habitats around vast croplands and man-made reservoirs favor elephant breeding by providing nutrition and increasing the number of encounters between male and female elephants, Jayantha agrees.

The intensification of agricultural farming in the countrys dry zone has contributed to the conflict, Kotagama says.

Elephants raid practically all food crops, he says. Since rice is the most widely cultivated crop in the dry zone, elephants commonly attack rice fields.

Apart from small garden plots that provide sustenance, almost all crops are grown for income, Kotagama says. Destruction of sale crops can send families into debt.

Most Sri Lankan farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing forestland for planting by setting it afire. After cultivating a crop for a season, a farmer will leave that field fallow and burn another plot for cultivation.

The departure from seasonal farming, when farmers grew crops only from September to March and from May to August, has exacerbated the human-elephant conflict, Jayantha says. Elephants now have less fallow cropland on which to roam unharmed, and villagers must guard their fields year-round.

This makes protecting farms more difficult, she says.

The end of the armed conflict in northern Sri Lanka contributed to the rise in human-elephant conflicts, Ratnayake says. When fighting ended in May 2009, families that had abandoned villages in the Northern province returned.

These areas were dominated by elephants, and when humans reclaimed the land, this created conflict, he says.

The human-elephant conflicts started to intensify in these areas beginning around 2011. Now that most abandoned villages have been reinhabited, the situation is stabilizing, Ratnayake says.

Villagers who live in areas where elephants roam must protect their loved ones as well as their crops.

Elephant attacks in Karuwalagaswewa have caused widespread fear in the village, says Pemasiri Harischandra, a community leader and organizer.

We cannot go out at night, even to attend any function of relatives, he says. We can no longer go even to the temple in the evening. We live in constant fear of death.

Villagers in some farming areas try to chase off elephants using firecrackers, including small, locally bought firecrackers and a larger type distributed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, but that method is not always effective, Harischandra says. Villagers in the North Western province rarely use this method, which they say has no effect on some elephants and enrages others.

Many families in villages vulnerable to attack have stopped cultivating family vegetable plots because they draw elephants close to the homes, he says.

Many elephant-caused injuries and deaths are avoidable, Ratnayake says. People court danger when they are reckless, drunk or out after dark.

Harischandra disagrees. Few of the attacks in his village are on people traveling main roads, he says.

Many of the people are attacked near their houses, when they try to chase elephants that are attacking their garden plots, he says.

When harvest time approaches, Sarath Hemachandra guards his rice fields all night, every night.

Hemachandra, 35, farms two rice fields totaling four acres in Karuwalagaswewa.

Elephants can strike at any time, he says. Now that the dry season is setting in and food for elephants becomes scarce in the forest reserves, and the paddy is ripening, they will come into the village and attack our crop. If we dont take care of it now, we will lose everything we worked for this season.

In March 2014, a herd of wild elephants destroyed an entire acre of his rice fields in one night, Hemachandra says.

To repay the loans he had taken out to plant his rice, he mortgaged the trampled plot. When he is not working in the fields, he now makes clay bricks and hires out as a laborer to pay off the village moneylender.

Each morning, after guarding his fields all night, Hemachandra rests for about an hour and then begins making bricks. By evening, he is back in his fields for another night of vigilance.

Everyone in the village faces a similar fate, Hemachandra says.

We live in fear of the havoc the elephant herds would cause in the village, he says.

In October 2013, Hemachandra invested 25,000 rupees ($186) to plant 260 banana trees on his homestead. He harvested one crop that brought in 12,000 rupees ($89). Before he could harvest a second, a herd of elephants destroyed the entire field one night in June 2014.

Since then he grows only rice, and he does not grow short-term crops in between the rice seasons. Similarly, many other farms in Puttalam district, where Karuwalagaswewa is located, are not farmed to their full capacity because of the attacks, Harischandra says.

A rice farmer himself, Harischandra says his community will need little welfare assistance from the government if the elephant issue is sorted out and the farmers are able to farm freely. Almost all farmers in Karuwalagaswewa borrow money from the local farmers cooperative and get fertilizer and rice seed subsidies from the government.

In the past, an elephant attack did not have such grave economic consequences, Kotagama says. Until a few decades ago, farmers grew sale crops and sustenance crops in equal measure, but now all farmers focus on salable crops.

If elephants attack a coconut plantation which a farmer has cultivated and tended for 10 years, then a farmers entire life investment is gone, he says. So the losses in one night are extreme.

The Department of Wildlife Conservations primary strategy for reducing elephant-human conflict is to restrict elephants to protected areas using electrified fences.

The department plans to erect up to 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) of electric fencing nationwide, Ratnayake says. The department spent 300 million rupees ($2.2 million) in 2014 to erect 500 kilometers (310 miles) of fencing and maintain fences.

It plans to erect another 400 kilometers (248 miles) of fencing in 2015.

Jayantha accepts the fencing strategy but stresses the importance of community engagement.

The location of the fence matters, and constant maintenance is very important to the effectiveness of the fence, she says.

The fences deliver a low-voltage shock and do not harm the animals, Jayantha says.

But Kotagama and other elephant conservationists advocate for more community-driven solutions. Some recommend fencing off some small villages instead of fencing off the adjoining protected areas.

The North Western province has small isolated villages situated among larger forest areas, so it is easier to fence the village than the forest, Kotagama says.

He also advocates relocating villages away from elephant ranges and using temporary electric fences that can be moved from field to field as crops are rotated.

Such localized solutions will be more effective than electric fencing, Kotagama says.

The fencing is a long-term solution, he says. Animals take years to get used to it. Maintenance is costly as well.

Ratnayake defends the electrical fencing strategy. The departments park rangers, who advocate for the fencing, know best, he says.

The department will conduct elephant drives, chasing elephants into forest reserves, and carry out awareness programs in vulnerable communities, Ratnayake says.

A sustainable resolution will require political will, Jayantha says.

If this the issue is to be sorted out, unpopular decisions like removing people from reserve areas and demarcating the reserve areas will have to be made, she says.

Harischandra too wants to see Sri Lankans address the problem together.

This has to be treated as a national issue, he says. This conflict affects the economy of the country.