The human-elephant conflict is a much talked about problem with a solution nowhere in sight. Following is an interview with P.G.D.J. Pebotuwa, the Coordinator of the Sub-Component 2 (b) - Human Elephant Co-Existence, of Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project which is funded by the World Bank and executed by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment.
Pebotuwa said that part of the problem related to the Human-Elephant Conflict is due to humans not knowing how much space these animals need to exist. Excerpts:
There is a notion among the public that there are elephants in abundance in our country. What is the current elephant population in Sri Lanka?
As per the last survey conducted in 2011, the elephant population in the country was 5,879. The number of elephants changing during the last century cannot be precisely concluded since the elephant population data is not available in a consistence manner. It is assumed that before the British colonial period, most part of the land was under primary forests that were predominantly occupied by tall trees with spars undergrowth that do not support high densities of elephants, but there may have been more elephants than what we have at present due to higher percentage of forest cover. At the turn of 20th century, it was believed that about 10,000 elephants lived in Sri Lanka. Therefore, one cannot simply say that the current elephant population in Sri Lanka is overabundant, because the habitat available in Sri Lanka is not adequate for the current elephant population.
Elephant is a keystone species in Sri Lanka. What is the role of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in managing these animals?
Keystone species play a unique role in the ecosystem. Without such species, the ecosystem would cease to exist. The conservation of elephants in Sri Lanka is solely on the shoulders of DWC. The DWC is established not just for mitigating Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), but also to protect wildlife. Currently, the main focus of DWC is the mitigation of (HEC) which has resulted negatively on the long term survival of this magnificent mammal in Sri Lanka.
Could you elaborate what HEC is, the reasons for it, type of damages caused by it and the magnitude of this issue?
The agony that arises to elephants and humans who are competing for the same limited resources in a given sphere of land is referred to as HEC. The elephants only need basically three things - Food, Cover and Water. As Sri Lanka is an island the elephants have no access to cross over to another land mass under any circumstances; this is one reason for their shrinking habitats. Farmers try to protect their yields, while elephants try to find food invading crop lands. This gives rise to a conflict leading to crop and property damages, injuries and deaths to both parties. In Sri Lanka, the annual elephant death toll is 200 – 250; while human deaths due to elephant attacks are 60-90. The number of property damages caused by elephants in a year is around 1200. According to DWC, HEC is reported from 123 Divisional Secretariat Divisions in 18 Administrative Districts of Sri Lanka. This indicates the magnitude and distribution of the issue.
What are the conventional strategies used in Sri Lanka to mitigate HEC? How successful are these?
Elephant Drives and Electric Fencing are the most common. In addition, the DWC distributes a type of firework called ‘Thunder Flares’ to chase the elephants. This keeps them away for a short period, but repeatedly driving them off makes them develop some tolerance against Thunder Flares. Capturing and Translocating problem elephants are done by the DWC. The DWC is making an effort to increase the carrying capacity of wildlife in Protected Areas (PAs) with the view of keeping the elephants within the PAs. Elephants predominantly live in the Dry Zone (except a few living in Sinharaja and Peak Wilderness). There has to be an alternative solution rather than driving or translocation.
It is a generally held conviction that elephants are super smart animals. Can the electric fences keep the crop raiding elephants away from fields and villages?
They are also very smart in overcoming barriers such as electric fences, but human beings are smarter than elephants and so far we have been able to manage them with electric fences. However, this is practicable only if we maintain the fences properly.
Can HEC be mitigated only with the involvement of Government institutions?
HEC is a complex issue, thus it cannot be mitigated without the contribution from the communities living in those areas. There are several scopes of HEC mitigation as conservation perspective, disaster management perspective and economic perspective. The lands of HEC areas are under the jurisdiction of different parties - some are public and some are private.
There are DWC demarcated Protected Areas to conserve wildlife, but why is that most of the elephants live outside these areas – what is the status of these areas?
Forests in Sri Lanka are managed and conserved by two Government Institutions. The National World Heritage Sites is one and the forest reserves and conservation of forests are managed by the Department of Forest Conservation. The wildlife protected Areas such as National Parks, Strict Nature Reserves, Nature Reserves, Elephant Corridors, Sanctuaries and Managed Elephant Reserves are under the jurisdiction of DWC. However, elephants freely move from wildlife protected areas to forest reserves and vice versa, as these include their home ranges. As their diet consists of 50-55% of grasses and several other crops, elephants inevitably live outside the protected areas.
Conservation efforts must recognise that humans are suffering too and must be placed higher up on the political agenda. What is your opinion on this?
Human lives are also disrupted by leopards, monkeys, snakes, bears, wild-boars and many other animals and reptiles. Humans suffer due to microbes too. Therefore, it is important to analyze the issue case by case to select an appropriate management strategy with better understanding of some fundamentals. Since suffering is caused as a result of man-made actions, identifying the root causes for HEC is necessary to advocate ‘Harmony” or “Coexistence’ between humans and elephants.
In the Sri Lankan context, we usually hear everyone talking about the impacts elephants have on humans. Isn’t it important to talk vice-versa?
Elephants are voiceless, their plight caused by human behaviour are not highlighted or addressed as it should be by the media. Development projects restrict elephants to smaller areas which ultimately lead the elephants to invade villages. In a conflict situation, both have impacts from the other.
What kind of compensation package is available for the victims of elephant attacks? Does it cover crop damages?
The Compensation Scheme operated by DWC has been revised recently. The DWC pays Rs: 500,000/= for a human death caused by an elephant, leopard, bear, crocodile or wild buffalo; up to Rs: 75,000/= for injuries; and up to 100,000/= for property damages. Unfortunately, crop damages are not covered by the current scheme.
What are ESCAMP’s plans for crop raiding around protected areas, and Elephant movements outside of protected areas?
ESCAMP is working along with the Department of Forest Conservation and the Department of Wildlife Conservation to protect wildlife and habitat enrichment within the forest reserves and wildlife reserves.
The project also plans to build the second Elephant Holding Ground at Lunugamvehera National Park to retain captured problem elephants for rehabilitation; and later the rehabilitated elephants would be released back to their usual habitats.
Human Elephant Co-existence (HECOEX). How would you explain a situation where humans and elephants live together by sharing the same land area? Isn’t it necessary to give a voice to the communities living alongside elephants?
HECOEX is somewhat different from ‘symbiosis’ where two organisms live together with some mutual benefits without harming each other. Here, in a given landscape, humans and elephants will share the resources and have some mutual benefits with high level of tolerance by the human counterpart for any possible damages from elephants, but provided with Village Fences and Paddy field fences assuring their protection.
How does ESCAMP plan to make HECOEX profitable to the communities living alongside elephants?
HEC poses a major challenge for conserving elephants outside Protected Areas. Both humans and elephants have their own issues. ESCAMP targets towards mitigation efforts and highlights the need for habitat enrichment in protected areas. Capacities of the communities who are coexisting with elephants will be developed by converting the elephants to an ‘Economic Asset’.
Elephants play a role as a symbol for the need for conservation of wildlife and nature. Does this new strategy assure sustainability in the long run?
Elephants are a part of world heritage that have a long history of association with mankind, and they have been always subjected to ever growing human pressure. As a result, wherever they exist they are often in conflict with the communities. Unlike the conventional HEC migratory measures, here we have placed much weight and trust on the communities which will be the key for assuring the sustainability of this strategy in the long run.
How would you explain the role of Media in contributing to efforts in handling Human-Elephant Conflict?
Media is a facilitating variable that could change the minds of citizens, which in turn produces a change in importance and attitudes of people. Both printed and electronic media have a role to play to reach this milestone. The ultimate target is to assure the communities mingling with elephants are benefited by practicing the concept of HECOEX, and this will be a lasting solution for HEC.