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Human-Elephant coexistence is yet this side of the fence


22 September 2017 12:44 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Sri Lanka is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world with global and national importance. It exhibits a wide array of ecosystems with a diversity of species considered to be the richest per unit area in the Asian region. About 26% of 
Sri Lanka’s land area is under legal protection.  

It has been reported that around 70 humans and over 250 elephants are killed annually in Sri Lanka due to HEC

Ad hoc politically driven developments are happening with little or no regard to elephants and their ranging habits

Humans, have been making development decisions with little or no regard to its consequences on elephants living in the wild


Many communities living in the vicinity of natural forests are directly and indirectly dependent on the natural ecosystems. Despite conservation efforts, deforestation, forest degradation and biodiversity loss continue in Sri Lanka.  The average annual rate of deforestation has been identified as 7,145 ha/year during 1992-2010.  Among the Asian elephant range states Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants; and Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) is a noteworthy issue in the context of Sri Lanka’s development. It has been reported that around 70 humans and over 250elephants are killed annually due to HEC.  Therefore, Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and natural resources endowments are important assets for future sustainable development.  

One of the major challenges the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is facing presently is to reconcile environmental protection and economic development.  In view of this fact, the GoSL has recognized that only long-term sustainability of the environment and natural resources will provide the benefits to people and the country.  Accordingly, it is indispensable to undertake policy and institutional reforms,to the sustainable use and effective management of forests and wildlife resources. 

Sumith Pilapitiya

Complying to the above fact the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife have undertaken the Eco-System Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP), which will be operative from 2017 – 2021.  The project is funded by the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank.  The Forest Department, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the Sustainable Development Division of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife will implement the project activities under the guidance of a project management unit affiliated to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. This project would respond to the country’s development priorities, and the World Bank’s goals by improving natural resources management, and protecting and improving the natural resource base on which rural communities depend on.   The project development objective is to improve the management of ecosystems in selected locations in Sri Lanka for conservation and community benefits.  The project will support development among some of the poorest communities living in the adjacent Protected Areas (PAs) by attempting to convert HEC to human-elephant coexistence within high HEC areas, and identifying economic incentives for affected communities.

With regard to the Eco-System Conservation and Management Projects’ intervention on HEC, the  had an interview with Environmental Scientist and Elephant Ethologist Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya. Following are excerpts of the interview. 

Q  What is the main issue in the wildlife sector in Sri Lanka and how can it be addressed?

There are many issues plaguing the wildlife sector, but the biggest problem that the public and elephants face is the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC).  Sri Lanka has tried to address HEC for the past 50 years using the available technology.  But unfortunately one thing that we don’t do in Sri Lanka is once we do something we don’t study and see whether the intervention is effective. Based on conventional wisdom, the approach taken to mitigate HEC was to erect electric fences to restrain the elephants inside National Parks.  Virtually every single National Park is surrounded by Forest Department’s forest reserves which are also protected areas where people aren’t supposed to be in.  The fundamental mistake that was done earlier was to attempt to restrict elephants to Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) protected areas (PA) by erecting electric fences on the Administrative boundaries. As can be imagined, elephants aren’t aware of the administrative boundaries of Government departments and move based on ecological boundaries. When the elephants come to the fence and see food on both sides it tends to break the fence to access the fodder on the other side of the fence.  Also when the administrative boundary between Forest and Wildlife land is in the middle of the jungle, fence maintenance is virtually impossible as seen by the ineffectiveness of these fences.  Electric fences should be located at the right place; not on Administrative boundaries, but on Ecological boundaries.  

Q Human Elephant Conflict has consequences on three key things – humans, elephants and the environment. Out of these three which faces the severest consequence?

Unquestionably the elephants.  Not that I am not sympathetic towards the villagers and the farmers, but elephants seem to need more help than people. The conflict is largely because humans have encroached in to elephant habitat and not the other way around.  We, humans, have been making development decisions with little or no regard to its consequences on elephants living in the wild.  We try to manage the problem with elephants by undertaking elephant drives to drive elephants away from development areas, erect electric fencing as barriers to restrain elephants within DWC protected areas and translocate problem elephants. These measures have fallen far short of expectations. As a result around 70 people and around 250 elephants die every year in Sri Lanka due to HEC in Sri Lanka.  But the latest research work done by the Center for Conservation and Research (CCR) in collaboration with DWC reveals that elephant drives and translocations are detrimental to the future conservation of elephants. 
With expanding human populations, natural habitats that are not designated as protected areas are being converted to human habitats and elephants are losing ground due to encroachment of forest land at an increasing rate.  This is the main problem confronting elephant conservation.  In my opinion, it is not that there can be no development in landscapes with elephants, but that elephants and humans can coexist in such landscapes if development is planned properly. 

Q   Similar to elephants, humans too have substantial spatial requirements driven primarily by need for food and water. In that case how do we stop the HEC?

The human-elephant conflict wasn’t a serious problem 50-100 years ago as there was plenty of land for humans and elephants to share without coming into conflict. In the past communities living in elephant dominated landscapes knew how to co-exist with elephants. Even today, you would find very little evidence of HEC in “Purana Gamas” or ancient villages and among the Veddah community.  That is because these people coexisted with elephants for generations and they know how to work around elephants.  Humans and elephants came in to contact with the increasing human population in Sri Lanka and expansion of our development footprint; especially with the large scale irrigation development projects in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and its associated resettlement of people in these newly opened agricultural areas in the dry zone. 

Q What is the main reason for Human Elephant Conflict to aggravate in the recent past?

Sri Lanka has an expanding human population with a high population density, while we also have the highest density of elephants among the 13 Asian elephant range states.  We are also an island with a limited land area and a declining natural resource base. Obviously, this is a prescription for disaster unless proactive and informed development planning takes place in the country. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in Sri Lanka.  We make ad hoc planning decisions, fragment forests and natural habitats, pay little or no attention to the needs of wildlife in general and elephants in particular, resulting in unplanned development.

Q The underlying cause for HEC is an overlap of the two species. Do you believe managing the eco-system will reduce HEC in Sri Lanka?

The overlap between the two species is inevitable.  However, if we plan our development activities better, taking into account the presence and ranging patterns of elephants and making allowances for them, I strongly believe that the ecosystem can be shared by the two species with minimal conflict.  Sharing an ecosystem among species is not an alien concept to Sri Lankans.  Over 2300 years ago, long before Chief Seattle, the Native American Chief made his statement about humans living in harmony with nature and the land, Arahat Mahinda told King Dewanampiyatissa that “The land belongs to all the people and animals, and all mammals, birds and other creatures enjoy an equal right for living in this land; the king is only the ruler and not the owner of this land”. This basically says that  animals and birds have an equal right as humans to roam free in this land.  We Sri Lankans, particularly our present day rulers, like to reflect in past glory and I have seen documents prepared by the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife using Arahat Mahinda’s statement as a governing principle of the Ministry.  If so, shouldn’t we manage our ecosystems in a manner that humans and wildlife can coexist? Basically we should “walk the talk” of sustainable development in Sri Lanka.

Q Will HEC become worse with the resettlement of the internally displaced persons?

There is a good chance that resettlement of internally displaced persons may result in increased HEC in the North and East.  The 30-year war resulted in some communities abandoning their villages and agricultural land due to the fighting.  Once abandoned, these areas got gradually converted into shrub jungle.  Grasslands and shrub jungle are ideal elephant habitat and with these areas being converted to shrub jungle, elephants naturally moved in.  With the end of the war in 2009, communities started moving back to some of these abandoned villages and agricultural lands.  Given that elephants are in these areas and the resettlement of displaced persons is also done, the potential for HEC certainly exists.  The Government prepared a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the Northern Province after the war concluded.  This SEA was prepared with multi-stakeholder participation.  In the SEA, geographic areas for various development projects, housing schemes, agriculture, tourism and wildlife and forestry conservation have been identified. 

QSince physical barriers such as trenches or electric fences haven’t been very helpful in mitigating Human Elephant Conflict, what could present humans from encountering 
the elephants? 

Physical barriers are constructed to separate elephants from people.  Electric fences and trenches are two such barriers.  The success or failure of such barriers depends on two aspects:  (i) the location of the barrier; and (ii) long term maintenance to ensure that the barrier functions effectively.   As I mentioned earlier, in the past Sri Lanka has been constructing such physical barriers largely on administrative boundaries of DWC protected areas.  Elephants don’t understand administrative boundaries imposed by humans.  Their range depends on the ecology.  Therefore, when we erect physical barriers such as trenches and electric fences in the wrong locations such as administrative boundaries of DWC protected areas and the physical barrier fails, we can’t immediately assume that the physical barriers have been ineffective.  For the physical barrier to be effective it has to be located on the ecological boundary.  
The Center for Conservation and Research (CCR) has done a pilot project in the Southern and North Western Provinces where electric fences have been erected on the ecological boundaries—between the forest and the village.  Basically, the pilot program by CCR constructs permanent electric fences on the boundary of the villages—surrounding the village.  Since they are the direct beneficiaries of the fences, unlike when fences are in the middle of the forest between forest and wildlife lands, they maintain the fences very well. This is an excellent model of human-elephant coexistence.

Q Is there a connection between climate change and HEC?

Well, the first signs of climate change are more intense rainfall events and prolonged droughts.  Sri Lanka is already facing these changes as observed by the floods and droughts over the past couple of years.  High intensity rainfall events and prolonged droughts affect the availability of water and fodder for elephants.  When water and fodder are in short supply the elephants tend to expand their range in search of food and water.  They move out of their natural habitats to human habitats.  

Q In view of preventing HEC, has the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation ever proposed that farmers switch cropping patterns from high risk crops, which are raided by elephants, to crops elephants rarely eat?

Yes, they have proposed to the farmers living closer to forest or wildlife areas to switch from paddy farming to other crops that are less palatable to elephants. But it is difficult to convince farmers to change cropping patterns. Rice being the staple diet of Sri Lankans and paddy cultivation being easier on labor than most other cash crops make farmers in Sri Lanka prefer paddy cultivation compared to other crops. 

Q Since people living around wildlife habitats are more hostile towards elephant conservation what would be the message you would like to give them?

It is obvious that people sharing a landscape with elephants and on the front line of the human elephant conflict will be more hostile to elephants than people who aren’t affected by HEC.  However, Sri Lanka is unique in that surveys undertaken among HEC affected communities never want elephants eliminated from their midst.  Their request is that the conflict be minimised.  I believe that our  HEC affected communities are so tolerant of elephants because of our religious and cultural connection to elephants.  This attitude is very different from many countries where HEC affected communities call upon Governments to eliminate elephants. However, while a large majority of HEC affected communities in Sri Lanka are willing to coexist with elephants if crop and property damage can be minimized, we are beginning to see a dangerous trend where some people have started using explosives in fruits to deliberately harm the elephant.  These devices commonly known as “Hakka Patas” tend to blow the jaw out of an elephant biting into the fruit containing explosives.  

 If large amounts of paddy are stored at home, then there is a good chance that an elephant may attack and damage that house to get grain.  Whereas, if communities have a common grain storage facility in the center of the village where everybody stores their grain, the grain and their houses could be protected better.  

Q How could ecosystem management prevent elephants from raiding agricultural crops?

If development activities, be it large or small scale, are planned on a landscape or ecosystem level, where all stakeholders of the landscape are involved and proper precautions are taken to understand elephants and work around them, there can be a reduction in the killing of elephants as well as conflict free development. Ad hoc politically driven developments are happening with little or no regard to elephants and their ranging habits.  The more we continue disregarding elephants the more conflict there will be and both elephants and humans will be losers.”

Q Studies show that management strategies such as translocation and confinement of elephants haven’t been viable. Then what would be the next best option available to mitigate the HEC?

As studies undertaken have shown that translocations and elephant drives haven’t been successful, and are actually detrimental to the conservation future of elephants, the problem has to be managed in-situ.  Confinement of elephants to DWC protected areas hasn’t worked for over 50 years.  Therefore, elephants have to be managed in the landscape that they currently range. The concept of encircling villages with permanent electric fences and surrounding agricultural land with temporary fences have proven to be very effective based on the experiences of the pilot projects undertaken by CCR.  Recognising this, the National Policy on Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants includes permanent village fences and temporary agricultural fences as a viable option for managing HEC in situ.  I strongly believe that this is the way forward.  

QAre Human elephant coexistence (HECOEX) models effective in managing HEC?

The best human elephant co-existence models (HECOEX) are the village and agricultural fences to prevent elephants from entering villages and damaging crops.  These fences have proven to be successful in mitigation of HEC.  In addition, we need to explore options to make elephants an economic asset to the people living in elephant dominated landscapes. Currently, the communities see elephants only as liabilities. If the people can earn revenue from elephant viewing tourism, for example, the elephant then becomes an economic asset to the community.  They will certainly be willing to coexist with elephants thereafter.  

Q How could human elephant coexistence be promoted through tourism?

The key reason for humans to want to coexist with elephant is based on whether humans can obtain a benefit from coexistence.  While there are religious and cultural reasons for Sri Lankans to coexist with elephants, such coexistence will be sustainable in the long term only if affected communities get some financial benefit from sharing a landscape with elephants. Community based tourism is one such possibility.

There are successful models of community based elephant viewing tourism in some countries that could be explored for applicability in Sri Lanka.   But the fundamental principle that we must all realise is that it is the local community which bears the brunt of HEC who should financially benefit from elephant viewing tourism and not the large hotel chains or tour operators as that would defeat the whole purpose of coexistence.  ESCAMP has funds for exploring such options.

Q What role can the Private Cooperate Sector (such as Banks, Blue Chip companies) involved in corporate social responsibility programmes play in supporting broader areas of social and environmental development? 

The private sector certainly can play a very positive and constructive role in sustainable development.  However, to do this they can’t focus only on their bottom line or profits.  Private sector organisations invest quite a bit of money on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.  However, a majority of these programs, while doing some environmental and social good, is mainly focusing on image building of the organisation. Many of these organisations do what I term “random acts of conservation good”, but has it led to changing of public attitudes, behaviour or contributed to policy changes in the country?  In a majority of the cases, the answer is “No”.   

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