Resolving the human–elephant conflict | Daily News

Resolving the human–elephant conflict

The Human–Elephant Conflict (HEC) is widespread in Sri Lanka. It is now reported from over half the country and almost the entire Dry Zone. It has shown a dramatic escalation in the past decade. It is currently reported from 19 districts and 131 Divisional Secretariat divisions.

The previous approach to elephant management and human–elephant conflict mitigation was formulated in the 1950s and prescribed limiting elephants to designated protected areas. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) took great efforts to realize this objective. It is obvious that intensifying efforts at confining jumbos to protected jurisdictions is unlikely to succeed and will cause conflict escalation.

There are a number of plans being proposed for providing immediate relief to the affected people such as the construction of community-based electrified fences like village and paddy field fences to prevent elephants entering and causing irreparable damages to human settlements and cultivations. The Asian elephant population has been facing severe decline and fragmentation. However as disclosed in studies the Sri Lankan elephant population is still contiguous, except for two small groups that were isolated in the Wet Zone and in the Adam’s Peak and Sinharaja reserved forests.

According to the Wildlife Conservation officers, elephants have lost around 16 percent of their range in the past six decades. Experts indicate that the range loss accompanied a declining population counters the popular belief that the elephant population in Sri Lanka has been on the increase. Elephants are absent from 40 percent of Sri Lanka, mostly the urban and densely populated areas. However 70 percent of elephant habitat is in semi-developed locations of heterogeneous habitat consisting of natural cover interspersed with agriculture and human dwellings. It is now being theorized that trying to limit elephants to wildlife conservation protected landscapes leads to an increase in the human–elephant conflict and deaths of a large number of humans and elephants.

It is observed that the conflict occurs entirely outside the protected areas and is prevalent over almost the entire Dry Zone. Activities undertaken for conflict mitigation such as elephant translocation, electric fencing and distribution of firecrackers to affected farmer families have proven unsuccessful. The highest annual death toll of elephants and humans was reported in 2019 – 121 human deaths and 405 elephant deaths.

A house damaged by wild elephants 

The significant approach towards HEC reconciliation over the past seven decades had been formalized in 1959 by the committee on reservation of wildlife commissioned by the Government. This particular plan was for elephants to be driven along temporary corridors into permanent corridors and national reservations. Thereafter the main exercise regarding HEC mitigation since 1950 was the attempt to confine jumbos to protected areas.

The most popular method of confining elephants to protected areas is holding elephant drives and erecting electric protective fences. As an additional precautionary measure some problematic individual male elephants have been translocated to protected areas or to elephant holding grounds. However after observing that elephants driven to protected areas are reluctant to stay there and instead backtrack to original dwellings, the construction of electric fences on the boundary of protected areas from 1990 commenced. Now there are about 4,600 km of electric fencing as a HEC mitigation measure. Such fences have elephant habitats on either side of the fence and therefore elephants live on both sides. A Presidential Committee on HEC was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July 2020.

The Committee is learnt to have conducted a review of all human–elephant conflict mitigation methodologies before submitting proposals and recommendations and new laws and regulations.

The Committee proposes activities providing results in the short, medium and long terms. Effective conflict mitigation requires their concurrent and long-term implementation. Short-term action will immediately reduce crop and property losses. The countrywide reduction in HEC will be proportionate to the geographic scale of implementation and a significant reduction is expected over a two or three year period if implemented widely. Medium-term actions are expected to help further reduce the conflict over a five-year period and long-term actions will sustain these achievements.

A number of activities are proposed for providing immediate relief to the victims of HEC. Constructing community-based electric fences has been recommended. Electric fences with elephants on either side are to be relocated to the boundary of areas used by elephants. It is recommended further that activities which may increase the conflict such as elephant drives be minimized or discontinued. Although fire crackers escalate the conflict, the distribution is to be continued till other recommended initiatives reduce the conflict.

The DWC spends over Rs 100 million annually to purchase crackers which are distributed free of charge. Although the firecrackers provide immediate relief they create a bigger problem for the future. The widespread and indiscriminate use of firecrackers has seen elephants become used to them. When the elephant becomes unresponsive or reacts with aggression to crackers the other immediate alternative option is to use weapons. Elephants that have been shot at will become even more aggressive making the conflict more complicated.

Also the Presidential Committee noted that the loss of range and habitat due to conversion to a human use area is directly detrimental to the elephants. Habitat loss that takes place due to planned development can be however mitigated to some extent by various remedial steps. What can’t be mitigated has to be taken into due consideration. However, habitat loss due to unplanned development such as encroachment should be prevented. Encroachment of state lands, mainly the protected areas coming under the DWC and the Forest Department as well as reservoir beds, road and irrigational reservations occurs regularly and has to be prevented.

Chena cultivation is widespread and has been a traditional form of rural agriculture system but is generally considered as being environmentally destructive. However as far as HEC is concerned, chena cultivation mainly in the Dry Zone is no longer acceptable as it is unsustainable and leads to the loss of forest cover shared by the elephants. The major issue is that chenas tend to be converted to permanent cultivation locations and settlements. Such conversion is a major reason for the creation of HEC.

The capture and translocation of elephants, a distribution survey, elephant census, GPS collaring of elephants, trenches and improving electric fence designing are also required. The use of trenches as a barrier for elephants is based on the premise that elephants do not jump across such barriers as they weigh too much for the impact to borne by their legs. However the trench methodology said to have been tested in Pelwatte, the Lunugamvehera National Park and Kothnoruwa in the Northwest had proved ineffective. Nevrtheless, modifications of trenches could be tried and tested as a conflict prevention strategy.

The approximate cost of material for electric fencing around a paddy field is around Rs. 250,000 per kilometre. On average a fence protecting a paddy field track of nearly 100 to 200 acres will be around five kilometres in length, hence the material cost will be approximate Rs 1.25 million. Additional costs of implementation including transport are estimated at Rs . 250,000 making the total cost Rs 1.5 million. The expenditure for protecting 200 paddy fields is around Rs. 300 million. With regard to a village electric fence the cost to be incurred per kilometre is Rs. 550,000. On average, a fence protecting a hamlet of 100 families will be about 10 km in length and costs around Rs. 5.5 million.

The holding grounds concept has been a failure. The captured elephants are confined to a specific area surrounded by a very strong physical fence parallel to an electrified fence. The first such holding ground established in Lunugamvehera in 2009 has now been abandoned. The Horowpathana holding ground was constructed in 2013 measuring 10 square kilometres. The problem was that elephants kept in the holding ground either died or escaped to return to their previous sites. In this context the elephant holding ground methodology is not in the practice at present.

At the recently held Anuradhapura district coordinating committee meeting it was revealed that the HEC in the district was observed growing fast an a result of the lukewarm attitude of the DWC, the scarcity of firecrackers and the dysfunction of the existing electric fences. Also it was pointed out that while electric fences were the most effective tool for preventing raiding by elephants, its use as a DWC boundary marker has been a failure.

It is learnt that a Presidential Task Force is to be appointed with local, regional and national level supervisory bodies affiliated to it. It is learnt that there is information on the past presence of elephants in area where elephants are now absent and the inverse, where elephants were previously absent but are now present. Experts emphasize that only viable option for elephant conservation and HEC mitigation is a human–elephant co-existence model with management of elephants in and out of protected areas.

In 2020, the number of elephant deaths reported is 319, while 112 humans perished. According to DWC sources, the main reasons for elephant deaths are hakapatas and gunshot injuries. In 2020, 48 elephants died from swallowing hakkapatas and 19 from gunshot injuries.

An elephant at the Horowpathana elephant holding ground