Human-elephant conflict – a different view


"Guns to be given to farmers" screams the headline! Away go the "Animal Lovers ", "Endangered species" say the knowledgeable, "helpless lovable creatures" say the more naïve and so on and so forth! By the way, the last wild elephant census, when all the data was finalised implementing Algorithms that may have been used, showed an increase in the wild elephant population of the country.

This piece will no doubt brand me as an elephant murderer in the eyes of some, but I frankly don’t care. I have more claims to "loving elephants" than most of those who talk about them. If you want stories read "Elephant Tails" my book, and if you want practical experience I have actually captured and trained wild elephants. Probably, one of the last of those still alive who has done it in Sri Lanka. Something done as a callow youth and not very enjoyable but still an alternative available to us, whereas Africa has only culling.

Let’s talk about the farmers first, also different from the usual start to an article on this subject. To quote a passage from my book:

"A chena cultivator stakes his future and the future of his entire family on a crop that gets raided by a marauding elephant a few days before harvest. The entire crop is ruined, and the farmer faces destitution. Can the farmer be blamed for trying his best to keep the elephants out? This leads to death or horrendous wounds on both sides and slow lingering death from gangrene or poison, for the elephants."

Until a viable alternative is found, giving the farmers shotguns and NO-4 ammunition or birdshot is a real alternative. Not only to stop elephants, but have you noticed what wild boar, monkeys and polecats are doing? Have you elephant lovers seen the methods that are now used, due to the lack of any other means?

No doubt you have read about the "Hakkapatas" – explosives hidden inside melons that explode inside the elephant’s mouth when they bite it, planks smaller than the circumference of an elephant’s foot with 6 inch nails on them that sink into the sole of the elephant’s foot, and since the plank is smaller than the circumference of the foot the elephant can’t dislodge it. Gangrene sets in and the foot rots from the bottom upwards on a living animal!

What are some of the reasons for this? To quote my book again:

The human - elephant conflict in a country with a growing population and a level of politically patronized corruption that does not allow the implementation of conservation laws.

The fact that the cultivation is inside a buffer zone of a national park or in some cases actually inside the demarcated zone for a national park can be blamed on local vote grabbing political patronage,...but what else is new !

In some cases, land allocated and reserved for Elephant corridors (to allow seasonal migration of the herds) in the original Mahaweli Development scheme, has been doled out to political catchers to cultivate!

Let’s move on to the elephants. Have you "greenies" seen the conditions that the elephants in the worst affected areas live under?

Often full of wounds caused by barbarous traps and other devices, riddled with internal and external parasites due to close proximity to livestock and lack of water, blind in some cases and really better off dead but for our misinterpretation of the words of the Buddha.

If you haven’t, I have! The last elephant calf we captured almost died from internal parasites, and infestations of ticks that lived on her tail. Only antibiotics saved her and if she lived on in those conditions she would have certainly died a lingering death. Studying the herd, she lived in, gave us some facts and data which I am sure is common knowledge by now.

Crop raiders who are the main cause of the human elephant conflict are almost always male elephants. They are hard core, in human terms like a serial killer or rapist. What do we do with them in human society? They either get locked away forever of face the death penalty. It is to keep society safe and to stop others doing similar acts. We have to start by doing the same to the notorious crop raiders among elephants. We don’t need to kill them, but we can capture them and train them. It is actually easier to train a fully-grown elephant than a calf. You may ask how this is done, but I prefer to explain at my leisure rather than in a hurried article such as this.

Present methods of capture leave much to be desired. The mortality rate is horrendous, and I can see the "lovers" going down the track of capture and release. Unless you release them into an area they can’t escape from, they have a really fantastic "homing instinct" and can find their way back. Besides, would you release a serial killer back into society? Also, these elephants have got used to "better" foods for a crop raiders diet is all CAVIAR when compared to what is available in the jungle. They can have this type of food too if they are domesticated!

There are methods of capture and movement of elephants, and of course training, which are part of our history and culture. It is all dying out …. Would you allow Kandyan dancing or Low Country dancing to be erased from our culture, like what is being done to the ancient methods of domesticating elephants?

There should be a Cabinet paper (written in 1993 during the reign of R Premadasa) lying in the dusty archives somewhere, with a plan to use some of the elephants currently languishing in Pinnawela to form the nucleus of "monitor elephants", and have a mahout training school with licenced mahouts and methods of treating elephants combining indigenous methods as well as modern medicine. This could have been the start of an answer to the Human - Elephant Conflict and it could have started 27 years ago!

There are very few proper mahouts in Sri Lanka at present. Hence the heavily chained animals you see that lead the general public to think that elephants are tortured and beaten in captivity.

This is just a short piece to try and present what I hope is a balanced perspective. The Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is totally out of control. No one is willing to get involved due to the fact that to even implement a possible plan, there may be casualties and deaths on both sides of the divide. People have tried in the past, and weak political leadership has led to very capable people being made into scapegoats and consigned to the scrap heap of history.

We have the knowledge and what we don’t have is easily accessible, it is the leadership that is lacking.




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