By Nanda Pethiyagoda
The human-elephant conflict is escalating. This in spite of methods resorted to, to prevent humans and elephants coming into violent contact. Plans have been put forward but implementation is half hearted. Often the reason that emerges for lethargy in addressing this grave situation is lack of funds. This to me is utterly surprising when there seems to be plenty of government money (ours) splashed around on extravagant but useless ventures! The gravity of the situation is glossed over and thus more people and many more elephants have died and will continue to pay the heavy price for action not being taken. From 13 Asian countries that have elephants as part of their fauna, Sri Lanka unfortunately has the most severe problem which means loss of crops but more serious and pathetic is constantly occurring deaths of both humans and elephants.
I gathered a whole lot of information about the Sri Lankan elephant and the hazards he faces, much of it new to me, on the afternoon of November 25 when Dr Sumith Pilapitiya made a power presentation to members of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre and invitees, in their hall. This lecture titled: Understanding Elephants, was within their on-going lecture series. The subject was interesting; the speaker charismatic; and what he said very attention grabbing and informative. The most striking impression I got was that here was a man who loved wild life and elephants in particular; who was an expert in his chosen field and with humaneness in large measure. He was also an excellent speaker. The moment Dr Pilapitiya got up to speak, after Dr M A Mohamed Saleem, President, Mahatma Gandhi Centre introduced him, I was sure we were to spend a most useful hour or two.
Dr Sumith Liyanage is a Lead Environmental Specialist for the South Asia Environment and Natural Resources Unit of the World Bank. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University, his Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering and Ph.D in Environmental Sciences from Rutgers University, New Jersey. He served on the Faculty of Oklahoma State University and Rutgers University for two years. On his return to Sri Lanka in 1992 he joined the World Bank and worked on the Bank’s Energy, Infrastructure and Environmental operations. He leads Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation Projects in South Asian countries for the World Bank including a Regional Wildlife Project focusing on conservation of flagship species such as the tiger, elephant, snow leopard and one horned rhino in Bangledesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Moratuwa, University of Colombo, Post Graduate Institute of Science, University of Peradeniya and University of Ruhuna. He volunteers technical advice to Local Authorities on solid waste management and is the architect behind the solid waste composting project of the Weligama Urban Council. He has personal research interests in elephant conservation and addressing the human elephant conflict and has been working on elephant social behavior in Yala National Park and the surrounding areas.
Facts on elephants
Dr Pilapitiya touched on several interesting facts on elephants in general; their living in herds of around thirty with a matriarch in charge and males leaving the group at around age thirteen. This prevents inbreeding. In Sri Lanka the hierarchic herd structure is rather loose. They are not at all violent by nature; it is the stray male who attacks homes. Elephants have been made combative by the behavior of humans. It is proven that farmers and chena cultivators have shot elephants that were just passing through. Most are not crop destroyers.
Methods implemented to combat the conflict
The speaker prefaced this part of his talk by saying he was definitely sympathetic to farmers and cultivators and villagers but elephants were the party of the conflict that seemed to need greater help. Dealing with methods to contain and eradicate the human-elephant conflict, Dr Pilapitiya said the commonest are elephant drives, electric fencing and translocation of obstreperous creatures. As practiced so far, the results of all these have fallen far short of expectation and many more humans and elephants have died, sometimes directly due to methods adopted.
Elephants are driven from village neighbourhoods and plantations to wild life reserves. These protected areas are already overcrowded since a jungle or scrubland can suffice in food, space too, for only that number of elephants. Chenas and scrubland can accommodate three elephants per square metre. Estimates are that the country has 4,500 to 6,000 elephants in the wild; a third are in protected areas, the rest roaming free. Drives have not eradicated the conflict since many creatures escape and return to their usual habitat. Driving animals en masse can contribute to their being killed.
Another method: that of electric fencing is haphazard, not maintained and many areas of elephant habitat are not fenced. One is confronted with incidents of such neglect when TV news programmes show another elephant shot dead, or worse, injured mortally. The third method: translocation is by tranquilizing and actually bullying and torturing a grown male who may just be roaming free and not causing damage unless shot at. Success of this method has been minimal. Elephants feeding in a garbage dump in Hambantota were brutally transferred to another area. Within 48 hours the creatures were back in the garbage dump, having broken an electric fence. "Elephants exhibit high fidelity to their home ground." Fifteen translocated animals to a national park were monitored. Only one remained in the park. More....