Sri Lankans' deadly clash with elephants

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Sri Lankan elephants
Image caption,
Human rivalries with the elephant are overcoming its place as a religious and cultural icon

In a sweep of grassland studded with watering holes, a herd of elephants, young and old, moves grazing along a grove of trees.

With spectacular rocky mountains as a backdrop, it could almost be a scene from the East African savannah.

But these elephants are somewhat smaller than their African cousins, and without tusks. This is Sri Lanka.

The twilight scene in the national park is tranquil. But a few miles away, in the villages, elephants and human beings are regularly in conflict - as they are all over this relatively small, crowded island.

Sri Lanka has just 4,000 elephants. A few are in captivity for ceremonial purposes. But generally these animals need living space.

Public enemy

Environmentalists say people have been thoughtlessly settled in their range land.

The animals invade farms looking for crops - and people despair. The result each year is usually more than 60 human deaths and more than 200 elephants killed. Just in the past week, four more people were killed by the creatures in the eastern district of Batticaloa.

It is a serious crisis.

"Unfortunately today due to human-elephant conflict, the elephant is more and more being seen as the public enemy number one for most rural people," says Ravi Corea, president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS).

"But this is a very unfortunate situation because the elephant is still revered as a cultural and religious icon."

You do not have to go far down the quiet lanes nearby, lush with crops like paddy and fruit trees, to hear of major drama. Marauding elephants have killed several people in the area.

In Weheragalagama village several people speak of lucky escapes, including 78-year-old MG Jayasena who lives with his wife in a brick-built bungalow.

Walking in the dark in 1998, he realised an elephant was following him.

"The elephant put its trunk against my back and started pushing me forwards," he recalls.

"It pushed me quite a distance and then it threw me. I fell unconscious. When I came round, I realised the elephant had struck me and I was injured.

"I was very lucky to escape. Usually an elephant will do anything to kill a person."

Feeling vulnerable, Mr Jayasena has given up farming the adjoining paddy field - he no longer feels safe doing so.

Electric fence

But this village is lucky. With the help of the SLWCS, which runs a project nearby to mitigate human-elephant conflict, it has become a pioneer in protection methods.

Image caption,
SLWCS staff help villagers implement strategies to co-exist peacefully with the elephants

Local men and SLWCS staff take me to the edge of the village overlooked by the blue-grey mountains known as the Knuckles range.

Right up to the village perimeter, crops including watermelons grow.

To protect the village there is now an electric fence. It generates a shock big enough to scare away elephants, but not to cause severe injury or death.

With just two entry/exit points, the fence completely encloses the village rather than enclosing the elephants, which need to be able to roam freely and not be confined to small areas or even to the national parks.

Lanka Wijesinghe, an engineer from the University of Moratuwa near Colombo, explained how another initiative, known as "Ele-Alert", worked.

If an elephant does breach the fence, sensors send a warning text message to mobile phones that are provided to selected villagers. Mr Wijesinghe says that gives people crucial extra time to protect themselves.

"Villagers know how to drive the elephants back to the jungle by throwing firecrackers, making sounds and lighting fires and different tactics. And they can actually move to safe places if elephants cannot be chased away."

As if to prove his point, a family living in a small, basic house near the fence has a hut built up a tree as a refuge.

If electric fences and alert systems can be spread to more villages, and properly looked after, a lot of lives stand to be saved.

The SLWCS says farming incomes have almost doubled in Weheragalagama since they were introduced. Previously, villagers simply assumed that a large share would be eaten by elephants.

Rewards of co-existence

Few villages so far benefit from these initiatives. But the SLWCS is working on other ideas.

They include introducing more dairy farming to the worst affected areas, as cattle do not clash with elephants and grass therefore becomes an income source; and switching from crops the elephants like, such as rice, banana and sugar cane, to those they do not touch, such as citrus fruits and bitter gourd.

Such measures may not catch on completely - one man told us he had difficulty growing the substitute plants. But they are helping to mitigate a serious problem.

In another part of central Sri Lanka not long ago an elephant was filmed struggling to get out of a pit in which it was trapped. Eventually it escaped, helped by villagers and greeted by their cheers - a sign of people's love-hate relationship with the creatures which can kill people and destroy their livelihoods.

Ravi Corea points out that, in addition to their significance for the island's major faiths, elephants benefit biodiversity and also help the South Asian country's economy by attracting tourists.

"I think today the people and the elephant are at a huge crossroads," he says. "The decisions we make will be very critical to the elephant."

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