Human-Elephant Conflict Escalates, Urgent Action Required to Save Species
COLOMBO — Sri Lanka is facing a grave concern as the death toll of elephants continues to rise. In the first quarter of this year alone, an average of one elephant has died each day, with nearly half of these deaths caused by human intervention. This alarming increase in human-elephant conflict has sparked urgent calls for immediate solutions to protect this iconic and endangered species.
Human Causes Responsible for Elephant Deaths
According to the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), a total of 151 Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) have died between January 1 and April 28. Shockingly, at least 67 of these deaths can be attributed to human activities, including shooting incidents (38) and electrocution from electric fences (23).
Tragically, six elephants died after ingesting improvised explosive devices known as “jaw bombs,” which are used by farmers as a deterrent to protect their crops.
Ravi Corea, the founder and president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), expressed his concerns, fearing that Sri Lanka may break the unwanted record of the highest number of elephant deaths in a single year. Last year, the country witnessed a staggering 433 elephant deaths and a record 145 human fatalities caused by these conflicts.
Human-Elephant Conflict: A Long-standing Issue
The perpetual problem of human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka has been exacerbated by ineffective measures taken by authorities since 1959. Ravi Corea, together with local villagers, highlights the flawed process of land allocation for development projects and farming as one of the leading causes of the issue.
During the allocation of land for various purposes, elephant habitats have been overtaken, leaving these majestic creatures with nowhere to go. Corea emphasizes the importance of identifying and protecting the remaining habitats, which have been encroached upon by towns, villages, paddy fields, cultivations, harbors, airports, and even cricket stadiums.
The government’s own data supports this, revealing that humans and elephants share 44% of Sri Lanka’s terrestrial area. Furthermore, 70% of existing elephant ranges overlap with areas inhabited by humans.
Ineffective Strategies and Consequences
Elephant drives, a method employed for the past 60 years to separate humans and elephants, have proven to be ineffective. These drives involve diverting elephants from human-inhabited areas to forested, protected regions using techniques such as shouting, lighting firecrackers, and shooting.
However, according to a report by the Centre for Conservation and Research, many elephants die of starvation in these protected areas due to insufficient resources. These regions are often smaller than a herd’s average home range of about 200 square kilometers (77 square miles).
For instance, a herd of 12 elephants dwindled to just five within three years of being driven into Lunugamvehera National Park in 2006, a protected area covering only 20 km2 (7.7 mi2), which is a mere tenth of the herd’s ideal range.
The Failures of Electric Fences
To address the issue of elephants returning to their original locations after being driven into protected areas, the Department of Wildlife Conservation started constructing electric fences along the boundaries of these regions in the early 1990s. However, these fences have proven to be costly and ineffective in preventing elephants from entering villages and farms while also resulting in human and elephant fatalities.
Despite the government’s investment of 490 million rupees ($2.8 million) to erect 4,756 kilometers (2,955 miles) of electric fencing in 2019 and 2020, these fences have failed to serve their purpose. Many of them are illegally connected to power lines, posing deadly threats to both humans and elephants.
According to Prithivi Raj Fernando, chair of the Centre for Conservation and Research, these electric fences have been erected in the wrong locations. He emphasizes the need to install fences at the border between elephant habitats and human-use areas and constantly monitor their effectiveness.
The Need for Urgent Action
Experts and wildlife conservationists propose several key measures to mitigate human-elephant conflict and protect the endangered species:
- Discontinue or minimize elephant drives.
- Track and relocate crop-raiding male elephants using GPS collars.
- Gather more data on elephant ranging patterns, habitats, and resource use.
Moreover, it is crucial to prevent political interference in implementing laws against illegal encroachments on state land.
Sumith Pilapitiya, an elephant ethologist leading the committee appointed to implement the national plan, highlights the need for substantial budgetary allocations to effectively execute the action plan. The current lack of funding has restricted the installation of electric fences to only the Kurunegala and Anuradhapura districts, where human-elephant conflicts are prevalent.
Failure to take immediate and effective action could lead to a significant decline in Sri Lanka’s elephant population. Experts warn that without proper management, over 70% of these magnificent creatures may be lost, resulting in increased suffering and loss of both human and elephant lives.
In conclusion, the situation demands urgent attention and accountability from state institutions. As the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society emphasizes, authorities must act swiftly to save this endangered species. DHPL Travels stands committed to supporting wildlife conservation efforts in Sri Lanka.
Image courtesy of Namal Kamalgoda
Image courtesy of Shashikala Rathwaththa
Image courtesy of R.M.J Bandara
Image courtesy of the National Action Plan for the Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict