Unnatural death of an Elephant every second day – future generations to identify an elephant from a carved wooden statue? (Sri Lanka)


Chanaka Bandarage, Lankaweb

Date Published

It is estimated that closer to 200 elephants are being killed by humans in Sri Lanka each year. About the same number of elephants die from natural causes. At present the elephant birth rate is lower than the mortality rate, thus, it will be of no surprise if future generations are asked to identify an elephant from a carved wooden statue.

A census conducted by the Sri Lankan government few years ago (about six) recorded that there were about 5,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka, but elephant conservationists who have grassroots level presence in Sri Lanka say that this is a vastly exaggerated number. It is stated that during the census the same elephant was sometimes recorded more than once, and that it did not happen accidently.

The advantage to the governments (central and provincial) by showing a higher elephant number is that it will then be subjected to less public critique about its treatment of the elephants. Though governments do not like to admit it, in Sri Lanka, the elephant is a threatened species. One reason for this is that they basically do not have solutions for the fast deteriorating elephant numbers (there are numerous other threatened wildlife species in the country including the bear, leopard, s?mbhar, crocodile and deer; to name just a few).

According to wildlife activists, the real number of elephants in the wild today is only a few thousands, definitely not in the 5000s that is boasted by the governments.

The elephant, especially the Sri Lanka elephant, is a unique species. They are exceptionally intelligent, generally friendly and kind to humans and playful when happy. It is believed that a mature elephant has an IQ of a five year old child. Similar to that of a human, an elephant is known to have a sharp memory. Elephants are extremely emotional; it is known that when a member of a clan dies, elephants engage in communal mourning for several days. A heartwarming thing is that when an elephant calf is born all young females in the clan start producing breast milk for the new offspring, out of love – a remarkable quality that even we humans cannot match!

In Sri Lanka elephants are getting killed indiscriminately on a regular basis. It is an exceptionally sad thing to view photos/videos of elephants that lie in pain for several days before they finally die. Being huge beasts, the sufferings that the elephants undergo as a result of the human-elephant conflict is enormous.

Elephants get shot dead by rural villagers, who fight for the same land that the elephants thrive. Some elephants are killed from ‘hakka patas’ (a ‘bomb’ like object). In Sri Lanka elephants also sustain death by human poisoning, or drowning in irrigation tanks (a phenomenon that has emerged recently). Every year elephants get killed by the Batticaloe – Colombo night train. Responsibility for these deaths squarely lay with the relevant governments – their inability to avoid such tragedies is a clear demonstration that the governments lack clear policy to safeguard this most precious, majestic animal.

Due to lack of habitation and scarcity of food, more and more elephants are compelled to leave jungles and venture into human habitation. There is no purpose in ‘blaming’ the elephants for this, though this is the position adopted by some. Newspaper photos/videos have appeared how elephants converge around human garbage piles, competing with stray cattle and dogs, to eat rubbish. For example, in Manampitiya wild elephants gather most days around a huge garbage dump to eat thrown away items from a nearby big hospital. That garbage includes used blood soaked bandages, used syringes and volumes of polythene. Many road users travelling in remote areas of the country get to see wild elephants roaming on busy national highways, most probably searching for food and water. This is also a new development, a sad eye opener that Sri Lanka’s elephants are in real trouble.

A veterinary surgeon friend of the writer stated to him that often in wild elephant post mortem examinations, they find polythene in the dead elephants’ intestines.

A new reason for the scarcity of food for the elephants is the ‘brave’ decision by milk producers (with the blessing of the politicians) to raise cattle inside national parks. These cattle eat the very same grass that the wild elephants eat. This scenario can be seen by a visitor in certain sections of the Uda Walawe and Yala national parks. Some of the grasses that the cattle in the wildlife parks eat are imperative for the survival of the baby elephants.

The recent phenomenon of stealing elephant calves (about 50 or more) from the wild (after killing the adult elephants that guard the offspring) has compounded the problem. This means there will be a void in healthy wild elephants to produce the future generations. The impact of this will be felt once the current fertile elephants are faded away. The fact that there had been political patronage for this illegal trade is a personification that the governments are not serious in preserving wild elephants. Making a quick income in whatever way they can, including stealing baby elephants from the wild, has become the norm of the day! Was this practice applied to other important wildlife species as well? Only the perpetrators would know.

One elephant conservationist stated this writer that there is hardly a single adult elephant in the wild that is not carrying a gunshot wound. This is something we as a nation should be ashamed of.

The human – elephant conflict took an adversely sharp turn with the advent of the accelerated Mahaveli scheme. Hundreds and thousands of virgin forests were cleared for new settlers (note Mahaveli B and H projects – Embilipiya/Uda Walave and Mahiyangana/Giranduru Kotte areas where virgin forests were cleared and thousands of new settlers were settled). The authorities in those projects did not allocate sufficient land for the elephants who lost large swathes of habitation. They built new reserves and tried to confine elephants to them. They were reckless in blocking ancient elephant corridors –routes that the elephants had used to cross from one area to another from time immemorial. It was ridiculous to expect the elephants to accustom to a brand new route made for them by the humans. The authorities should have considered that an elephant walks at least 50 – 60 miles a day, and they constantly venture into new areas for the purposes of finding water, salt, partners for mating, exercise and of course food.

The writer acknowledges that the governments have a duty to provide land for the increasing human population and also to do things to improve their living standards. But, these activities should not happen at the expense of the wild elephant. All development work has to be sustainable – so that all beings can live harmoniously in the small and beautiful Sri Lanka.

The authorities seem to believe that building electric fences will solve the human-elephant problem, and that this is the only solution available. This may be a good solution for the humans but not for the elephant. Electric fencing is another way of artificially restricting the elephants’ movements. Electric shocks have caused miscarriages in female elephants. Elephants have developed other ailments too, including psychological trauma. Electric fencing is a way for the humans to further encroach into elephant areas.

Elephants (and other wildlife) need sufficient land to roam around in their own habitats. When Sri Lanka gained independence (in 1948) it had about 50% of land under forest cover. How much land remains as forest cover today is a big question; some say it is less than 20% of the total land mass. In such a scenario, it is not surprising that elephant numbers have dwindled to such a low level today. When we gained independence there were in excess of 10,000 elephants in the country.

As emphasised before, due to expansion in human population, people do need new land. People clear forests to build houses and cut timber for their daily needs. It is the duty of the governments to do proper planning so that sufficient forest cover is preserved for the elephants and other wildlife. Replanting trees for timber in forests is a must. It is stated that when the new airport was built thousands of acres of virgin forests were cleared – they were the former roaming grounds of the wild elephants. We hear reports frequently how important wildlife such as elephants, peacocks, monkeys etc are getting killed on a daily basis by various ways in this area, as those animals now have less space to roam. Elephants have died of electrocution as well.

Construction of new super highways may have contributed to the dwindling of wildlife numbers including elephants. To the writer’s knowledge no study in this regard has yet been undertaken.

Clearly, the governments do not seem to have a solution to one of the major burning problems of Sri Lanka – stopping the human/elephant conflict; so that the lives of both humans and elephants can be saved (this article is only highlighting the adverse effects of the problem on elephants – the voiceless group).

The current problem simply cannot continue on. Elephants will continue to incur painful deaths until their numbers have dwindled irrecoverably. Until they become extinct (quite a possibility), they, in smaller numbers may be confined to the major elephant parks such as Yala, Wilpattu, Minneriya and Uda Walawe; and the remaining jungles of the North (In China’s Yuan rainforest the elephant numbers have dwindled to a mere 250, several decades ago there were thousands of elephants there). Is this exactly the desire of the governments; if not why do they not come up with a feasible policy to curb this most important problem?

Due to the introduction of the provincial government system (in 1987), work done by governments have often become duplicated. Governments are confused as to who is responsible for certain work. There is a conflict in the powers held by the central government and provincial governments. To satisfy cronies – to give them cabinet positions, important ministries had been split into pieces. For example, today the elephant protection activities (wildlife) are managed by a number of ministries such as Land, Mahaveli, Environment, Wildlife Conservation, Forestry, Irrigation, Human Resettlement, Livestock Development etc. It does not appear that there is a close co-ordination between the ministries so that the elephants and other wildlife could be well protected. There are greater restrictions/impediments on the officials who do their normal work, under very trying conditions. For example, a wildlife department official who seeks to rescue an injured elephant may need permission from the forestry department to enter the forest. By the time the administrative red tape is removed, the injured elephant could die. Another big problem is that the government departments (central or provincial) do not have adequate budgets for the welfare and wellbeing of the elephants (they are even struggling to provide services to the public).

There is a saying that the elephants do not vote, but humans. Thus, it is very convenient for the politicians to neglect the welfare of the elephants (and other wild animals). This is a foolish and selfish way of looking at the problem, quite a contrast with how developed nations would handle a similar problem. Sri Lanka earns millions of dollars each year from tourism. Tourists want to see elephants and other wildlife in the wild; not in zoos and orphanages. If we lose our wild elephant population (and other wildlife), that will be a huge blow to the country’s lucrative tourist industry. The loss of revenue to the country will be extraordinary (in millions of dollars).

There is an enormous goodwill in the veterinary community to save the lives of the injured elephants. Though rural villagers kill and maim elephants (sometimes they have no other alternative but to deal with elephants in such a drastic way – elephants kill about 100 people every year), they still want to protect and safeguard the elephants that destroy their homes, crops and even their lives. It is part of the Buddhist culture to be a friend and a carer for the elephant.

The general goodwill that prevails among the people for the elephant is a good thing. But, the focus should be on preventing the elephants from getting injured or killed by humans. The responsibility herein well and truly lies with governments and sadly they have massively failed in this regard. Proper measures of planning must take place at central and provincial government levels to safeguard the wild elephant. It is of paramount importance to put a stop to the clear or illicit felling of forests. It may be appropriate to monitor the daily movement of wild elephants (the highly endangered ones) using GPS technology –such as being done in some African countries like Kenya and South Africa. There are international wildlife organisations that provide assistance in this sort of work. It is time for the central government to seek assistance from overseas experts as how best to save the wild elephant, using the best available technology (satellite tracking (GPS), radio collaring (SIM chips) etc. Let’s hope that at least in the future there will be sufficient measures to protect the elephant numbers in Sri Lanka. Let’s hope that the country’s future generations will not be required identify an elephant relying on a carved, wooden elephant; but watching them in the wild.