Trash-foraging elephants in Sri Lanka have recently made headlines worldwide, catching the attention of Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio. However, this issue has long been a concern for local conservationists. The root of the problem lies in short-sighted and politically motivated planning, which is negatively impacting both elephants and people.
Sri Lanka’s Elephants Facing a Dire Situation
Elephants hold a sacred place in Sri Lankan culture and are integrated into various cultural and religious events. Sadly, many of these magnificent animals now find themselves foraging alongside stray dogs and crows at open garbage dumps. These dumps are often located near crucial conservation sites and protected areas that serve as habitats for diverse wildlife.
The Extent of the Problem
According to Chandana Sooriyabandara, the director-general of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), a survey has identified 54 garbage dumps visited by elephants. While the DWC is not responsible for establishing these dumps, they are compelled to address the issue as elephants frequent them. However, this task is challenging, considering that 70% of Sri Lankan elephants roam outside protected areas.
Understanding the Cause of Elephant Deaths
Reports suggest that elephants are dying due to consuming plastic trash at these dump sites. However, the real culprit is not the plastic itself but rather food poisoning caused by consuming spoiled food waste trapped in polythene bags. Bacteria thrive in this oxygen-deprived environment, producing toxic substances that lead to the deaths of these garbage-eating elephants.
Reckless Waste Disposal Practices
Municipal waste in Sri Lanka is typically dumped at open garbage sites by local government authorities. Unfortunately, to avoid proximity to human settlements, these sites are often placed in unhygienic and odorous areas, unintentionally encroaching on wildlife habitats, including areas frequented by elephants. Experts argue that proper waste management in urban and semi-urban areas, where large quantities of garbage are generated, could eliminate the need for elephants to scavenge at these dumps.
Shortcomings in Decision-Making
Sumith Pilapitiya, former director-general of the DWC, recalls how the department frequently voiced objections to new garbage dump sites being established near conservation areas. Regrettably, their objections were often disregarded. Pilapitiya highlights the example of Dambulla, where a forest reserve in Digampathana was chosen as the dump site instead of a vacant area on the Dambulla-Matale road. As a result, around 30 elephants now regularly forage among the trash in Digampathana.
The Dilemma of Garbage or Crops
According to elephant biologist Prithiviraj Fernando from the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCRSL), elephants rarely die while feeding at garbage dumps. They exhibit selective feeding behavior and actually appear healthier compared to their counterparts in nearby parks. To address the issue, Fernando suggests sorting the garbage so that elephants can access organic waste separately.
Research conducted by Fernando and his team indicates that almost all the elephants visiting garbage dumps are bull elephants, often bearing gunshot wounds from conflicts with farmers due to crop raiding. Finding a solution that keeps elephants out of dump sites without driving them towards farmland is a complex challenge. Closing the dumps would only lead to an increase in human-elephant conflicts and more deaths.
Managing Waste to Reduce Conflict
Fernando emphasizes that garbage dumps actually reduce direct human-elephant conflicts. However, better management of these sites is crucial. Simply shutting them down, as seen in the case of the Kataragama dump site, leads to a significant increase in conflicts and crop raiding. Striking a balance between the needs of elephants and humans requires thoughtful and sustainable waste management practices.
Efficient waste management plays a vital role in preserving Sri Lanka’s wildlife, particularly its elephants. By implementing sustainable practices and ensuring garbage is disposed of in appropriate areas, we can safeguard both the natural environment and human settlements. Responsible decision-making will protect these majestic creatures and foster peaceful coexistence between elephants and communities.
[Citation: Liyanage, D. J., Fernando, P., Dayawansa, P. N., Janaka, H. K., & Pastorini, J. (2021). The elephant at the dump: How does garbage consumption impact Asian elephants? Mammalian Biology, 101(6), 1089-1097. doi:10.1007/s42991-021-00114-5]
Banner image: Elephants feeding in a garbage dump alongside stray dogs, cattle, and egrets, courtesy of the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCRSL).