Fighting the Extinction of Sri Lanka’s Elephants
Photo courtesy of Sahan Gooneratne
December’s deaths caused by illegal electric fences of three tuskers, beloved characters in their territories, marked the 449th elephant death of 2023, brought the estimated death toll to the highest ever recorded in Sri Lanka. More than 169 people too have lost their lives, mostly from rural communities engaged in agriculture.
For centuries elephants have roamed the verdant forests coexisting with other animals and humans and gaining a reputation for being gentle, intelligent giants. The country’s Buddhist heritage venerates elephants and ecosystems have evolved deeply interconnected with this species.
Around 15,000 elephants lived in the island but were later hunted by the British as a sport in colonial times and their numbers were drastically reduced. From 1796 to 1948 the hunting of wild game was encouraged, rewarded and celebrated as a sport. Major Thomas William Rogers is noted for having killed the largest number of elephants – around 1,500 elephants within 11 years out of which more than 60 were tuskers. During the last two years of his life, Major Rogers’s exploits no longer deserved the name of sport but rather that of indiscriminate slaughter. The hill country elephant was practically wiped out during that era.
Today it is not hunting that decimates them but illegal encroachments, loss of habitat, destruction of forest land and the state sanctioned gunfire and explosive traps of farmers whose crops have been affected. The recent Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) arose in the 1970s as a result of such initiatives as the Mahaweli Scheme. HEC is a complex, multifaceted issue compounded by political apathy, haphazard and unsustainable development and the lack of awareness of the crucial part played by elephants in ecosystems.
Year after year Sri Lanka accounts for some of the highest numbers of elephant deaths worldwide. Statistics climb annually and speedy measures are required if we are to save the remaining elephant populations. In the tourist sector, elephants are a star attraction bringing much needed foreign exchange but for rural farmers and people in agricultural districts they are a dangerous nuisance. While elephants roamed free many years ago and lived in coexistence with humans, today it is a fight for survival on both sides. Water is a contentious issue, with elephants trekking miles to access sources and requiring large amounts of fodder for sustenance, resulting in them travelling through human settlements. Naturally, they are attracted to the food and salt stored in homesteads.
Some elephants are forcibly taken away from their familiar habitat and confined in habitats that cannot sustain them only to die a slow death by starvation. Others are shot and suffer for days and months with bullet wounds before they too die. Then there are those who suffer for weeks before dying of starvation, with their jaws ripped to pieces after having eaten food with hakka pattas(explosives hidden in food as bait). A barbaric and incredibly inhumane manner of death in a Buddhist nation.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List categorises the Asian elephant as an endangered species. With ever increasing annual statistics in elephant deaths, the stark possibility of actual extinction of our sub species, Elephas Maximus, is a definite possibility that faces the country.
Sri Lanka’s sub species is one of only three living species of elephants or elephantids in the world, the others being the African bush elephant and African forest elephant. It is the second largest species of elephant after the African bush elephant. One need not be an expert to understand that a tipping point could be reached within a year or two where the remaining estimated 4,000 elephants could join the ranks of extinct species such as the Syrian elephant and the Western Asiatic elephant.
It has to be recognised that extinction of our elephants is a real possibility. A random virus or a severe drought can easily send remaining populations into a point of no return. Solutions put forward by experts have been many and varied but the common consensus is that this crisis demands swift and urgent action.
Ten Practical low cost solutions to reduce HEC:
- The urgent need for planning quick and coordinated action has to be recognised factoring all stakeholders including conservationists, animal lovers, state and tourism sectors. They need to understand this urgency and agitate for rapid and prioritised solutions. Elephants are called a keystone species which means that an entire ecosystem depends on their stability. They are seed transporters, help nourish and conserve topsoil and connect to ecosystem connectivity. Elephants often dig for water in dry riverbeds to access underground water sources. In doing so, they create water holes that benefit numerous other species during periods of drought. These water holes become essential resources for a variety of animals, promoting biodiversity and supporting the overall health of the ecosystem.
- Corridor Connectivity – electric fences should be removed as they have been proved deadly, expensive and ineffective due to their haphazard locations across elephant corridors preventing access to food and water. Experts agree that electric fencing is largely ineffective. Electrocution frustrates and angers hungry elephants leading to them becoming aggressive and contributing to human deaths.
- There should be a ceasefire of the conflict. The supply of the destructive materials such as guns, crackers and explosives mostly sourced from the Wildlife Department itself should be ceased. Elephant herds are complex living organisms and the fear and agony felt by an individual affected by shooting or electrocution will transmute throughout the herds, affecting other herd members.
- Elephants are creatures of habit. The incidence of train accidents should be studied and railway timings can be adjusted to prevent deaths on the particular routes where they are most common.
- Prevention of garbage dumping and discarding of plastics and poisons that have led to a number of unexplained deaths in elephant territories.
- Drones can be used in studies and as deterrents to keep herds away from particular areas. Proper studies should be carried out prior to relocation/translocation of any elephants to grounds that cannot sustain given elephant populations.
- Seeding of border and forest areas with crops for elephants will reduce elephant accessing farms and settlements. The tourism sector, which is benefitted by elephants, can collaborate to contribute to such investments as part of CSR.
- Removing and resettling high risk human settlements from border zones, allowing elephants to access traditional feeding grounds and preventing clashes. (These lands have been given to human settlers for political gains).
- Community outreach and Education of stakeholders including local authorities, farmers and populations at high risk on management and entry into reserve areas of elephants to reduce human life lost by conflict occurrence.
- Networking Sri Lankans here and abroad, experts as well as lay people, who can come together setting aside differences and political aspirations to address this issue and apply pressure as a matter of priority before the window of opportunity closes and another subspecies is lost to the planet.
ELENET is a group of concerned citizens who have joined together, harnessing the power of social media, to address and raise awareness on the importance of elephant conservation in Sri Lanka.