Heading for human-elephant co-existence


by Randima Attygalle


"If we humans are supposed to be the most evolved species, we should be understanding other animal species and work around them. On the contrary, we do our development work assuming that elephants (in this case) will work around us. So we get the bright idea of fixing an electrical fence and driving out these creatures and carrying on with the development project.

They return and find smart ways of breaking the fence and the conflict starts. This is an old story and still recurs," points out Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, onetime Lead Environmental Specialist for South Asia in the World Bank and the former Director General Wildlife who bemoans that as a country we have failed to understand the ‘scientific means’ of addressing the human-elephant conflict.

"We have only been looking for quick-fix, ad hoc solutions," laments the independent researcher on elephant behavior presently working in the Yala and Uda Walawe National Parks. In an interview with Sunday Island, the Environmental Specialist elucidates on ways and means of championing human-elephant co-existence.

"We are basically fire-fighting," reflects Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya who reiterates that human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a phenomena which needs to be comprehensively studied starting from the point of fathoming ‘why do we have an elephant problem and what are we going to do and what are the constraints of not been able to do so’. Claiming some of the best research in Asia on human-elephant conflict management, ironically and tragically we have not translated the research into practical action, laments the elephant lover and researcher. "When I was designing the projects for the World Bank related to the South Asian region, I have been using such research acclaimed as finest in Asia and implemented the same in those countries where the implementation process is much easier than here at home."


Ad hoc development

Poor development planning over the last 30-40 years with no heed to scientific know-how, is perceived as the root cause of this predicament by Dr. Pilapitiya. "Sadly we continue to make those mistakes," asserts the environmentalist who maintains that elephants are reacting to a situation and becoming victims of such reaction. When sugar cane is a staple for the jumbos, can you blame them for vandalizing a plantation set up in their prime habitats, questions the elephant enthusiast who cites the projects such as Pelawatta and Sevanagala sugar in this regard.

The elephant-human conflict in the country was nothing serious about 50 years ago owing to less population density in the country and absence of development projects- latter which propelled the encroachment of prime elephant habitats. "The conflict was also less acute because in our purana gamas (traditional villages) villages knew how to coexist with elephants.

However when large scale irrigation projects were initiated from 1960s onwards, people who had no contact with elephants were relocated in elephant-abundant areas such as Giraduru Kotte with no empowering skills of co-habiting with the creatures."

Leaving the home range of an elephant herd intact with no human encroaching, could mitigate the issue to a very large extent explains the researcher. The elephant home range for females, babies and juveniles is about 100-150 sq km while for males it is about 250 sq km as the latter travel extensive distances when they are in musth (sexually active period) in search of mates. The failed Strategic Environment Assessment of the Greater Hambantota Development Plan is a classic example of this home range being gradually invaded, he says.

"The Assessment identified about 300-400 elephants living outside the national park system and a region of about 25,000 acres was earmarked as what we call a ‘Managed Elephant Range’ (MER) within which only elephant-compatible development would take place. Unfortunately this was not realized and today the MER has come down to about 12,000 acres due to various projects although the elephant number remains the same. A recent proposal to have a 1000-acre industrial estate entailing a Chinese investment was mercifully halted after discussions with the Prime Minister and the Southern Development Minister," he noted.


Fidelity to home range

Elephants have very ‘high fidelity’ towards their home range, the reason why large scales elephant drives in the country have been unsuccessful, as they always tend to return to their original habitat points out Dr. Pilapitiya. "A case in point is the Walawe Left Bank Elephant Drive. 

The Government decided to drive the elephants that were in the Walawe Left Bank development area and about 300 elephants were driven into Lunugamwehera National Park at the cost of about Rs. 150 million.  In less than a year after the elephant drive, elephants returned to the Walawe Left Bank area and presently there are about 300 elephants there. 

The Government wasted Rs. 150 million of public funds on a futile exercise of driving elephants out of a development area and The Department of Wildlife Conservation cannot be blamed for this failure because the Department only conducted the drive at the request of the Government."

Such elephant drives result in making elephants much more aggressive and make female elephants and calves stressful says the researcher who also notes that it could have a negative impact on the survival of calves and the breeding cycles of female elephants. The move by the Wildlife Department to have an ‘elephant holding’ in a 2500 hectare land in Horuwupathana is an ambitious move in trialing rehabilitation of elephants.

"What happens here is once an elephant is rehabilitated it is released into the wilds again. It is not done anywhere else in the world and it’s worth trying," asserts Dr. Pilapitiya.

Out of the 13 Asian elephant ranges, we have the highest density, yet we cannot afford to be complacent given the equal human density prevalent in the country. Comparing each survey conducted to date on elephant density is a case of ‘comparing apples and oranges’ owing to the absence of uniformity in the methodology, says the expert. "This makes it difficult to find out the exact density although around 5800 elephants are said to be found here.

However the Department of Wildlife is planning to follow the same methodology which was used in the last survey done in 2011 for the next survey due in 2017 so get a clearer picture."


Political interference

The former Wildlife Department Chief who recently resigned due to political interference to the extent of politicians determining ‘where to fix and remove electric fences’ is critical of politically-fuelled decision making as opposed to science-based, professional decision-making.

"Over the last 40 years, the public service has been so politicized irrespective of the regime and human-elephant conflict management is no exception," observes the specialist who adds that very often, to give space for agricultural land or development projects of their ‘party supporters’ the Department is pressurized to move electric fences which are proven to be the best deterrent so far.

The former Wildlife Chief who was thus pressurized to remove fences in violation of the basic fundamental of the management strategy, refused to toe the line unless a MOU was signed with the Department, making the respective Minister or Ministry liable for any loss of human lives. "I’m still hoping that the Department will implement this strategy or very soon it will completely lose its independence under the pressure of other agencies."


Ecological fences

The electric fence which is globally accepted as the best deterrent to minimize the conflict so far should be advanced to ‘ecological boundaries’ where the forest and the village meet, explains Dr. Pilapitiya. "All these years electrical fences have been erected on the administrative boundaries of the Wildlife Department (boundaries of national parks) and the elephant doesn’t heed such boundaries but figure out ways of breaking the fences in search of food and end up in villages.

Today we are promoting ecological fences erected right round a village because when the elephant sees human habitation on the other side of the fence the tendency for the animal to move to that area is less." This model replicated in 15 villages in Galgamuwa today where HEC is most acute, by the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) is a success where the community too has a vested interest. "While CCR provides majority of the material free-of-charge, villagers too contribute an amount per acre for the fence and the fence is maintained by the villagers as it runs around the village."

The Wildlife Department also hopes to replicate the CCR model in agricultural land where temporary fences are erected until the harvest is reaped and as Dr. Pilapitiya explains, once the harvesting is complete, the next day farmers have to remove the fence allowing elephants to come and eat the crop residue or ipanella. "This is a win-win situation," remarks the researcher who at the same time notes that farmers need to be vigilant of any possible attacks as scent of crops could entice a jumbo.


Community empowerment

Although very often it is the Wildlife Department which is blamed for HEC, it is not the department’s baby alone, maintains its former Chief who also urges for community responsibility. The recent research reveals that while around 250 elephants are killed each year, about 70 human lives are lost. "The large majority of men who are killed have been walking dead drunk in elephant-dominated landscapes without any form of light according to the findings which makes one question whether it’s the animal or the man who is to be blamed here." The social and economic cost HEC entails as a result of human deaths cannot be underpinned, hence demanding increased community empowerment.

"In addition to making communities living in elephant landscape more aware of elephant behavior so that they can work around elephants, if we really want rural communities to co-exist with elephants we need to ensure that they see elephants as an economic asset rather than a liability," observes Dr. Pilapitiya who points out that at present, the community sees elephants as a hazard resulting in crop depredation, damage to their homes, human injuries and even death. 

"That is why local communities engage in inhumane acts like putting explosives in fruits having their jaws blown out.  This inhumane act results in the elephant dying an agonizing, long drawn out death.  However, if we can ensure that the communities that live in elephant dominated landscapes reap some economic benefits by sharing their landscapes with elephants, they may be more tolerant and be willing to co-exist."

Possible options for economic benefits as the elephant researcher cites would be elephant viewing tourism undertaken by local communities, hotels in elephant dominated landscape buying ‘elephant friendly produce’ from local farmers for their hotels etc., that provide communities with financial benefits for sharing the landscape with elephants.

The jumbo-lover, passionate in his cause looks forward to the dawning of the day when human-elephant conflict could be converted to human-elephant co-habitation, reminding us of Wayne Hepburn’s words, ‘now that I have gotten to know elephants and appreciate who they are, if human beings were better than they are, they would be like elephants..’


(Pix by Saman Abeysiriwardene)

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