The Real Elephant in the Room


Rohana Aryaratne, Daily News

Date Published

“Nowadays we have to be in our homes by 7 p.m. as it is around this
time that elephants start roaming all over our village area.” These
words by a villager in Puunaagala sums up the pathetic situation
people living in remote villages have to face daily, due to the
marauding elephants who wreak havoc to houses, crops and especially to
human lives.

If the elephants too could speak out about the hazards they have to
undergo due to the encroachment of their natural habitats by the
humans, they too would utter the same kind of word used by the humans.
Who is to be blamed for this inevitable chaotic scenario?

Humans or elephants?

According to statistics almost 70 humans and about 200 elephants are
killed every year. This situation is common not only in Sri Lanka but
also in every Asian and African country where herds of elephants live
in their natural habitats and humans indulge in the encroachment
process in the farfetched name of development.

Development is a vital area in the future well-being of a nation and
mankind as a whole. In urban areas people have to find employment to
lead a comfortable life. But in the villages, especially places
bordering jungles, people have to cultivate to reduce the burdens of
their poverty-ridden lives and they have to battle with the land to
achieve this. Chena cultivation is one of the main modes of sustenance
they are left with. Chena cultivation has turned out to be a way of
life for them and hence encroachment into the forest areas is the only
option they possess.

In addition to poverty they are also burdened with the increase of
population. Almost 90 percent of these villagers have three or more
mouths to feed and they consider having more children as a godsend for
their well-being which is connected to the tilling of land etc. The
children when they become men should also be provided with land and
houses. Thus encroachment into forest areas is inevitable.

These actions bring them face to face with elephants who consider
humans as encroachers of their habitats. Hence wild elephants have
become a menace to the peasants of these remote villages bordering
forest areas. Against this background these villagers have to live in
fear of the marauding jumbos who sometimes dare to enter villages even
during daytime.

Chena cultivations

The expansion of human settlements by clearing forests has created the
conflict not only with jumbos but with other animals as well.
According to Professor Sarath Kotagama of Colombo University, the main
cause of the human-jumbo conflict can be identified as the loss of the
elephant range. Planned and mostly unplanned development resulting in
the encroachment into elephant habitat due to the great increase in
human population is one of the vital reasons for the loss of elephant
home range, adds Professor Kotagama.

Loss of their home range is of concern to the elephants as that land
area is very important for the sustenance of their lives. The size of
a home range depends on the rainfall and the size of the herd. If the
rainfall is less they tend to extend the home range. This is because
the rainfall to a great extent determines the availability of food.
This is one of the important facts revealed in the research carried
out by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and
Research and his team.

An adult elephant consumes 15kg of food and 150 litres of water in a
single day. If the food and water vital for their lives are not found
in the home range they tend to wander away into unknown areas seeking
these essential needs. This is the instance when they meet resistance
from humans. They enter villages and chena cultivations in search of
food. It has been estimated that the crop damage by these hungry
jumbos is over Rs 1,100 million per year.

Dr. Ranjith Bandara of the Colombo University has an interesting fact
regarding crop damage done by these roaming jumbos. According to the
Professor many elephants that enter the villages are predominantly
young bulls who come in search of good food as they need to compete
with other male elephants to catch the she elephants.

Human-elephant conflict

He further explains that the prohibition of chena cultivation and
fragmented forest lands have worsened the problem. The period between
two harvests of a chena was the period that elephants started feasting
on leftovers.

With the increase of population and the inevitable encroachment
process human settlements come up along the normal elephant paths and
most of the people living there too travel along the same pathways,
hence the human-elephant conflict.

Crop damage, loss of life and also fear of impending death have forced
people to react in a very inhuman manner sometimes resulting in the
death of this majestic animal. We have seen them using crackers etc.
to chase them away. One of the inhuman methods is the “Hukka Patas”,
where an explosive device is introduced into a food parcel and when
the elephant eats it the device explodes and its face is shattered and
a painful death results.

As mentioned earlier due to the human-elephant conflict over 70 humans
and 200 elephants lose their lives every year and due to the
prevailing tragic situation several steps have been taken by the
authorities to curb these incidents.

One of the steps is the construction of an electric fence to stop the
elephant from roaming into the villages. Electric fences were
effective at the beginning but later the animals got used to them and
found various ways to bypass or destroy them and walk into the

A boutique owner along the Buttala-Kataragama road related an
interesting story of how a leader of an elephant herd destroyed the
fence. It had uprooted a big tree and had carried it close to the
fence and threw the tree unto the fence. As a result the fence fell
down and broke into pieces and the particular leader led the herd into
the village. Somehow, the herd leader was intelligent enough to guess
that wood does not emit electricity.

According to environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena building electric
fences along the borders of the forests and the villages to keep off
the elephants would not be a proper solution for the prevailing issue.
He suggests that the wildlife authorities should declare the areas
which were separated for wildlife, flora and fauna as wildlife
protected areas and no illegal forest clearing or any damage should be
allowed, thus the safety of wildlife ensured.

Another suggestion by environmentalists is for the villagers to start
beehives in all the houses in the village to stop the jumbos.
Elephants are known to dislike the humming sound of the bees and had
avoided places where beehives are located. In addition beehives may
bring the villagers an additional income.

Director General of Wildlife Conservation H.D. Ratnayake says that a
project had been proposed where waterfalls, green parks and orphanages
for baby elephants are to be built within the forest areas.
Accordingly he says if the elephants can find most of their food and
water in the area allocated to them they might avoid roaming into

Conservation of elephants

Elephant conservation is granted highest priority by the Governments
and also by other authoritative organisations interested in
environmental protection. Hence conservation of a species too should
be given top place and the provision of all the resources -habitat,
security, food, water etc.-should be granted to maintain a stable
population of the species in the future.

In addition to the conservation of elephants priority also should be
given to curb the rising incidents of the conflict between humans and
jumbos. In order to succeed in both, authorities have also used
relocation of elephants into national parks and other enclosures. This
strategy cannot be stated as hundred percent successful as elephants
try to go back to the areas they had been familiar and homely to them.

It is reported that in an operation done to translocate these
elephants, two of them were killed within the national park where they
were released, and the rest of them left the park gradually. Some of
them moved back toward their captured site, others wandered over large
distances and a few settled close to the park where they were
released. But almost all of the translocated animals were involved in
human-jumbo conflicts after their release from their homelands,
killing five people, the report further said.

The report also added that five of the elephants so translocated too
died within eight months of their release. But the elephants who were
left behind in their original home range did not get involved in the
killing of any human being. Hence the report prepared after an
extensive study concludes that translocation neither solves the
conflict issue nor saves the elephants from decimation.

Intelligent animals

It is also said that many environmentalists are against this strategy
of relocation of elephants into national parks as these animals are
trapped in something similar to ghettos. We must not forget the fact
that since 1986 elephant or Elephas maximus has been listed as an
endangered species by IUCN as the population has declined by at least
50 percent over the last three generations, estimated to be a period
of 60-75 years. In addition the killing of elephants has been made
illegal and can be punished by law.

Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that
span many years. It can remember the people who ill-treated it and
react with a great deal of vengeance and many such incidents have been
reported in Sri Lanka. Many a mahout has been dashed on the floor and
crushed to death because of their ill-treatment to elephants. It is
also this deep memory that serves matriarchs, who invariably lead the
herd, during dry seasons when they need to, lead their herds sometimes
over ten miles, to watering holes that they remember from the past.
They are also capable of displaying signs of grief, joy, anger and

There should not be any doubt that this majestic species which has
played a major role in Sri Lankan history, culture as well as become a
major part of our heritage should be protected with utmost care.

The human beings living in remote and poverty-ridden villages and also
their crops and vegetation which are vital to their well-being should
be protected from the marauding elephants with equal care.

This is a million dollar challenge for which the authorities have to
find urgent answers in order to protect the elephant species as well
as the lives of the human beings.