Human deaths by elephants due to irresponsibility

26 October 2018 02:06 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


“Elephants don’t kill humans; but humans who get themselves killed by elephants” – Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya 


“In most instances it’s not the elephants that kill humans it’s the humans that get themselves killed by the elephants due to their stupidity and negligence” said Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya former Director General of the Department of Wildlife delivering the monthly lecture of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) ‘Focus on Human-Elephant Conflict Management’ at the BMICH last Thursday (18).“70% of the human deaths by elephants are due to human irresponsibility” he added.   

He also said that the human deaths caused by elephants were a mere fraction when compared to the number of deaths due to motor accidents. Humans should take more responsibility for their lives. In most instances it is people who have been under the influence of alcohol that have got themselves killed by challenging the elephants rather than avoiding them. Dr. Pilapitiya said that there were instances when people had been so negligent that they have crashed into elephants and got themselves killed. “If we are more responsible and do not act stupidly we can reduce the number of human deaths significantly ”he said.   


"The HEC conflict started increasing with the large scale irrigation and agricultural development drive which commenced in the 1950’s"

In his opening remarks Dr. Pilapitiya said that in 1950’s Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew had been known to have told that he hoped someday Singapore would be like Ceylon but from the mid 1970’s onwards every successive government in our country had hoped that  Sri Lanka would march ahead of Singapore. “But we are far from it today. One of the main reasons is that we continue to keep making mistakes and keep on repeating them without learning from them. When it comes to the management of the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) once again I think we are in a similar situation” he added.   

Referring to research material and statistics obtained from Dr. Pruthuviraj Fernando and the Centre of Conservation and Research  (CCR), Dr. Pilapitiya said that in Sri Lanka there are known to be about 6000 elephants in the wild. Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants as well as a very high population density of humans inasmuch as it has a declining natural resource base. “Unless we plan our development better conflict is inevitable” he warned.“HEC cannot be eliminated fully. As long as there are humans and as long as there are elephants there is going to be conflict. The only thing we could do is manage and minimize the conflict”   
The HEC conflict started increasing with the large scale irrigation and agricultural development drive which commenced in the 1950’s. In the year 2000, 150 elephants died in contrast to only 63 humans deaths caused by elephants. But in 2017, 256 elephants died while 87 humans had lost their lives to elephant attacks.   


  • Wild Life Department was under severe pressure to carry out orders

  • In the year 2000, 150 elephants died in contrast to only 63 humans deaths caused by elephants

  • In 2017, 256 elephants died while 87 humans had lost their lives to elephant attacks

The committee for the preservation of wildlife appointed in  1959 came up with a plan to manage the HEC in the island by driving all the elephants from developing areas to Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) protected areas through identified corridors and fencing them in.   
There were three approaches to manage the HEC namely   
1. Translocation of problem elephants to Department of Wildlife protected areas   
2. Large scale elephant drives from areas identified for development to DWC protected areas   
3. Confining elephants to DWC protected areas with the use of physical, biological and psychological barriers.   
If this strategy was successful the HEC would have been minimal today. A survey conducted by the CCR shows that 44% of the land area of the island is being shared by humans and elephants. He said that research had shown that capture and translocation was not successful nor could biological fences confine elephants within protected areas.   

Dr. Pilapitiya said that most national parks were at their maximum carrying capacity and by driving more elephants into such DWC protected areas would result in the death of many elephants and calves due to starvation. He mentioned of one elephant drive that costs the government Rs. 62 million to drive 225 elephants and calves into a wildlife protected area. He said that the end result was that the problem was not solved as it was only the she- elephants and calves that were driven while the single males and male groups had remained to forage on crops and many of these elephants that were driven died due to starvation.“No one was held accountable for the fiasco and the waste of public funds. It was the development sector that should be held accountable as the wild life department was under severe pressure to carry out orders”   


  • 44% of the country’s land area is being shared by humans and elephants

  • Road accidents claim more victims than HEC

The National Elephant Conservation Policy (NECP) which is in effect today was drawn up by a multi stake holder committee and approved by the cabinet in 2006. Some of the goals of the policy are to ensure the long term survival of the elephant in the wild of Sri Lanka, to mitigate the HEC and to promote scientific research as the basis of conservation and management in the wild. Some key points are that managing as many viable populations of elephants possible that the land will support and the land holders will accept both within and outside the system of protected areas. The policy also specifically states that when elephants lose their range they die.   
Dr. Pilapitiya said that a new plan for resolving HEC was approved by the cabinet of ministers on August 7, 2018 which is more in line with the 1959 plan and contradicts certain aspects of the 2006 policy. “To the best of my knowledge Policies should be driving plans and plans should not be driving policies” he stressed.   

He also said that there are many positives in the recent cabinet paper such as constructing 2651 km of electric fences within identified areas which shows that there was still room to construct the fences on ecological boundaries rather than the administrative boundaries. “It is imperative that inasmuch the new fences are constructed on the ecological boundaries and all existing fences should be relocated to ecological boundaries” Dr. Pilapitiya emphasized. Among his concerns was arming those who are to be entrusted with maintaining the fences with sophisticated weapons that are capable of killing an elephant in its tracks. “Accidents do happen!” he quipped.   


"The HEC conflict started increasing with the large scale irrigation and agricultural development drive which commenced in the 1950’s"

Dr. Pilapitya said that development plans should be made accepting the elephants presence and by working around them rather than driving them away. “A win-win situation could be achieved by relocating the development project rather than create conflict” He also said that it was scientific findings and past experience that should govern the decision making. “All options should be looked at. Community based village fences and seasonal agricultural fences would be a viable alternative if it is not possible to construct fences on the ecological boundaries he said.   
“These were some things that I intended to do when I was the Director General of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation but I resigned as I was unable to perform my duties due to political pressure” Dr. Pilapitiya admitted. “As conservationist we can lobby and convince decision makers to take the correct decisions rather than repeat the mistakes we made in the past”     

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