Sri Lanka is said to have a wild elephant population of about 6,500 although exact numbers are not really available, in spite of some form of census that was carried out some years back. This approximately accounts for about 10% of the world Asian elephant populations, the rest being primarily in India, Thailand, Nepal and Borneo. Sri Lanka may have over 18 National parks, but the reality is that some 65% of these wild elephants are found outside these protected areas.
Due to the high degree of intelligence of wild elephants, coupled with the expanding human population and unplanned development, finding solutions to the human-elephant conflict is a very complex task. Piece meal solutions will not do. Many Sri Lankan elephant researchers have developed good practical solutions to mitigate the issue. What is needed is a holistic, well planned out, all-encompassing strategy, taking into consideration all the available findings by private researchers, to be implemented on a nation-wide scale, in a consistent and cohesive manner, without ad-hoc political interventions.
So what is wild elephant Translocation?
So in reality it is the ‘movement’ of a wild elephant from one area to another. This is normally undertaken by the Wildlife authorities to move wild elephants, after being tranquilized, who may be causing crop damage and harm to humans in one particular area, to another which is possibly safer. However in reality this is not the case and almost often it ends up with ‘changing the pillow to get rid of a headache’.
"The root cause is not the elephant, but unplanned development and land encroachment. So there is no case whatsoever in concluding that a marauding elephant is primarily at fault"
What are the repercussions?
It is an attempt to get rid of the problem created by a wild elephant which may be crop raiding and causing danger to humans. But as indicated earlier, it really does not solve the problem, and does even aggravate it at times.
Elephants have been found to have their own home ranges. Male elephants are solitary by nature, and constitute almost the entirety of the so called ‘problem elephants’. They have a larger range than females and herds. These home ranges are very familiar to them, and are ‘mapped out in their brains’. So if they are forcibly re located, they always try to find their way back to their original home grounds.
There are spectacular recorded evidence by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Sri Lanka’s foremost wild elephant researcher and expert, of elephants who have been translocated, even some hundreds of km away from their home range, eventually finding their way back to their original home areas. (Ref Centre for Conservation and Research). The sad part is that in the translocated elephant’s ‘journey’ in finding it’s way back to familiar territory, it often has to pass through unfamiliar villages and built up areas. There are altercations with humans, some with disastrous consequences of bullet wounds and other injuries, further angering the elephant. Several die during this attempt to relocate back to their home range. Hence it is more than evident from hard scientific research and facts, that translocation does not solve the root cause, and may in fact aggravate the issue, or at the most, ‘translocate’ the problem to another area.
"Due to their strong home ranging behavior, elephants will not adapt and move away. They continue to stake their claim to ‘their lands’ and thus begins the conflict with man"
Then why do translocations? Are they ethical?
Haphazard and unplanned development has reduced and fragmented the land available for good elephant habitat. Hence basically we have encroached into lands that the wild elephants used for centuries. Due to their strong home ranging behaviour, elephants will not adapt and move away. They continue to stake their claim to ‘their lands’ and thus begin the conflict with man.
To a great extent wild elephants will give humans a wide berth. But there are some males (always solitary) who get used to crop raiding and finding easy and tastier sources of food in plantations. Herds do not resort to such raids because most often they have juveniles in the herd. So it is not surprising to find that few of the adult males get used to this behaviour, and no doubt become a nuisance and in some cases a danger as well. And it is a fact that something has to be done to protect the humans.
However, the root cause is not the elephant, but unplanned development and land encroachment. So on an ethical basis there is no case whatsoever in concluding that a marauding elephant is primarily at fault.
The ethical issue is further aggravated when the DWC (supposedly at the instructions of the Minister) recently wanted to translocate two of the remaining elephants in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, because they were a threat to some people. Sinharaja is a world heritage site, and these few elephants have a right to live there. It is their home. It is the people, venturing into the forest or residing in the border areas illegally, who are at fault. This is why this issue caused such a chorus of protests, with even the UNESCO writing to the government saying that this was not at all acceptable.
Hence translocating an elephant does not work, both on scientifically proven grounds, or on ethical basis. However in extreme cases, when all other efforts prove unsuccessful, after careful assessment, a rare translocation may be required.
If not translocation, then what?
There are some initiatives that could be implemented in the short term. Some researchers have currently conducted case studies on enclosing entire villages in the night by an electric fence, which is proving to be quite effective. (Elephants raid mostly in the night time, and during day the village will have one or more access points to move out, which need to be closed, and the electric circuit reestablished in the night). Hence in problem areas such electrified enclosures could be installed. Of course the ideal situation would be to remove the village settlements away if they have been put up illegally. This of course has major political implications and will therefore not happen.