Sri Lanka, a country that reveres elephants, is now thinking hard to combat the conflict humans have with these animals with the unprecedented number of shocking deaths of jumbos over the past few days raising eyebrows here and abroad.
What’s alarming is that as many as seven (7) elephants died during the past five days as of Wednesday; a figure if not taken seriously by the government would make the islanders establish quite an unwanted record in terms of animal tragedies in the world. The total number of elephant deaths recorded according to Wildlife and Conservation Department during the period January 1 to July 14 this year is a staggering 238. As many as 1787 elephant deaths were recorded between January 1, 2019 and July 14, 2023, according to government data. What we must understand foremost is that Sri Lanka is blessed with having an elephant endemic to this country and identified as ‘Elephas Maximus Maxmus’. At present it’s termed as an endangered species. Elephants like humans need food and land to live and add to their population. But the poor animals know little about man’s greed for expanding territory and to pursue so-called development work. Government statistics show us that despite man clearing more and more land and pursuing development goals this nation has been labelled as bankrupt. The only solution for mitigating the human-elephant conflict (HEC) is the erecting of electric fences and that too has been halted to a great extent due to the government’s lack of funds.
The elephant population from the time of British rule in the 19th century has shrunk from around 14,000 animals to less than 6000, according to statistics from the Department of Wildlife and Conservation as quoted in the media. The problem here lies more in subject ministers appointed to ministries that deal with wildlife in Sri Lanka and development and expansion work knowing little or nothing about the subjects entrusted to them; hence the taking of haphazard decisions and being unable to see beyond short-term goals to mitigate the HEC. Strangely Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime initiated a national action plan to mitigate the HEC, but despite a report being produced by an expert committee appointed for the task the document was kept in cold storage. President Wickremesinghe facilitated the using of this plan, but implementing it has been slow.
A close study of Sri Lanka’s HEC shows us that people have built construction sites and expanded territory in areas where there are existing elephant corridors. Then asking the question whether the elephant has encroached into human territory seems silly. Government official statistics reveal that both man and elephant inhabit a landscape that stretches across 44 percent of the island’s terrestrial area. There are also records to show that 70 percent of the existing elephant range falls within an area where human life exists. This calls for the services of wildlife experts to find a solution to this problem as opposed to what politicians or subject Ministers have to say; in the same lines as we would consult a qualified doctor when seeking a cure for illness as opposed to what friends would have to say about the health issue. The HEC demands a professional solution.
The Buddhists in this country have a close relationship with the elephant and their religious studies state that the animal has high intelligence (vignanaya). Hence they believe the jumbo is one life away from gaining a human birth. Culturally the elephant is a symbol that defines good luck; especially if seen when one is starting a journey. Elephants were tamed in the past to be used for labour and to fight in wars. Once a foreigner travelling in a car from Galle to Colombo saw an elephant majestically striding on the road with the mahout accompanying it. He made a quick remark, “You people have to be special to tame an elephant and get it to walk on a busy road congested with traffic. You have got it wrong somewhere down the line in your history”. We do have and it’s a jumbo sized problem with no solution in sight!