Human-elephant conflict: The growing tragedy in Rajarata


The human-elephant conflict is widespread in Sri Lanka. It is reported from over half of the country and almost throughout the dry zone in Rajarata. Asian elephants are classified as endangered. Basic information such as their distribution has been a matter of guesswork and conjuncture.

However, a recent study has found that Sri Lanka’s elephant population is still contiguous except for two small groups that were isolated in the wet zone of the country in the Adams peak and the Sinharaja forest cover.

There are reports from all over the country about the fast growing human-elephant conflict involving a large number of human and elephant deaths, devastation of cultivations and property and many incidents of invasion of human habitats by wild elephants.

Here are the excerpts from an interview with Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, the head of the Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka, who chaired the Presidential Committee appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for preparing a National Action Plan for the mitigation of the Human-Elephant conflict in Sri Lanka:

Q: What is the Human-Elephant conflict?

A: The human-elephant conflict has aggravated over the past few decades with an increasing number of human and elephant deaths as well as property damages. Although the average number of elephants killed per year due in Sri Lanka is 272, in 2019 there is information that 407 elephants have died. It has been revealed at recent studies that the human-elephant conflict has extended to 131 Divisional Secretariat Divisions in 19 districts.

The human-elephant conflict demonstrates the intimidation of elephants by humans and vice versa. The main reasons identified for worsening the conflict is the accelerated but not well planned agricultural development in the areas where elephants have been living for generations.

Q: What is your comment on conflict preventive measures being adopted by the authorities?

A: The previous approach to elephant management and human elephant conflict mitigation was formulated in 1959 and prescribed limiting elephants to protected areas. Despite numerous efforts by the Wildlife Conservation Department after nearly 60 years of pursuing this goal today, 70 percent of the elephant range is in areas with human population.

According to the statistics collected at surveys, people live in 82 percent of the Sri Lanka’s total landscape and elephants are reported haunting in 62 percent of the country’s landscape concluding that the humans and elephants live together in a landscape of 44 percent out of the total landscape of the country. It is presumed that elephants have lost around 16 percent of their range in the past six decades.

Q: How do you feel about the activities of the Wildlife Department undertaken for human-elephant conflict mitigation?

A: The human-elephant conflict occurs outside the protected zones of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and is prevalent over the dry zone now. People and elephants suffer due to the conflict.

The activities undertaken for human-elephant conflict mitigation such as elephant translocation, elephant drives, electric fencing and the distribution of elephant fire crackers to affected farmer families have proven not fruitful. While electric fences are the most effective tool for preventing raid by elephants at habitats, its use as a just DWC boundary marker has resulted in their failure.

Currently 60% of over 4,600 kilometres of the department’s electric fences are found between Wildlife Department and the Forest Department reservation areas. There are elephants on both sides of most of these protective fences. Such electric fences are found ineffective in mitigating the conflict, as there is no barrier between the elephants on the outside of these fences and the villages.

There is information on the past presence of elephants in areas where elephants were, now absent and the inverse where elephants were previously absent but now present. It is observed that some electric fence have been erected separating the traditional elephants haunting areas and the elephants are given an opportunity to live in the both sides of the fence. Although the elephants who live outside of the electric fence are not able to enter the reserved zone they could easily enter the developed habitation areas, thus aggravating the conflict.

Q: You were the chairperson of the recently appointed Presidential Committee for the submission of a National Action plan for the mitigation of the human-elephant conflict. How do you explain about the outcome of the activities of the committee?

A: Yes. The President in July 2020 appointed the committee with me in the chair, for submitting proposals and viable recommendations for thwarting and preventing the growing destructive the human-elephant conflict. The committee comprised few Government Agents representing human-elephant conflict prone districts including the Anuradhapura Government Agent, officials of the Wildlife and the Forest Conservation Departments’ Environment Ministry, CEA and environmental scientists. We conducted a review of all human-elephant mitigation methodologies and practices before submitting our report.

Q: What are the leading recommendations of this committee?

A: A number of activities were proposed for providing immediate relief to the affected public from elephant depredation. They include constructing community based electric fences such as village and paddy filed fences the present electric fencing model is difficult maintain and so often becoming dysfunctional.

The electric fences should be used only to protect settlements and crops hence be construed at the boundary of developed or cultivated areas which can be easily constructed and maintained by the communities.

Where community involvement is not possible, the Government is to construct and maintain such fences. Electric fences with elephants on both sides are recommended to be relocated to the boundary of areas used by elephants.

We have recommended that activities that might increase the conflict, such as traditional elephant drives, be minimized or discontinued after some evaluation. Although the use of elephant firecrackers escalates the conflict, distribution is to be continued till other recommended activities have seemed reduced the conflict, as envisaged.

Q: What is the reason for you to recommend to stop elephant drive operation in particular which is supposed to be a highly purposeful strategy?

A: Although the elephant drive operations have been conducted for decades since 1960 period there is no any area where the elephants are not present today.

At present 70% of the country’s elephant population live outside the wildlife reservations showcasing the utter failure of such elephant drive operations. In an elephant drive a large number of people jointly with the wildlife officials enter the area where elephants are moving around and drive away the elephants by making loud noises such as hooting, firing elephant crackers in hundreds, and sometimes shooting at them to frighten the animals.

This tiresome harassing exercise has been only able to drive away a small number of elephants mainly including baby elephants and non-violent female elephants leaving behind the problem creating tough male elephants. There is evidence that those who are innocent become provocative and the problem creating elephants transforming in to rough and vindictive elephants worsening the conflict.

These unsuccessful elephants driving away strategy contriving so far has internationally placed Sri Lanka as the country from where the largest number of human-elephant conflicting incidents are reported. It is not advisable to stick to same methodology when convinced unsuccessful.

Q: What are the other recommendations the Presidential Committee has submitted, for human-elephant conflict mitigation?

A: Activities providing results in the medium term will ensure better development planning to prevent creating and escalating human – elephant conflict and provide data for better management. Actions proposed include elephant distribution surveys, elephant census prolonging for years, GPS radio collaring of elephants, conducting habitat management trials, developing new methods of human elephant conflict mitigation and improving existing methods such as trenches and hanging fences.

We have recommended that illegal activities increasing the conflict such as encroachment of crown land, and livestock grazing in protected areas are to be prevented. Also the need for incorporating human-elephant conflict mitigation initiatives in developmental activity and regulating traditional Chena cultivation has been emphasised to be implemented.

Q: What is your opinion about the development and improvement of human-elephant mitigation tools, without confining to the same old unscientific remedial measures?

A: Currently there are no methods that could prevent elephant depredation that work hundred percent, are universally applicable to all situations or that do not have any drawbacks. Many of the barrier methods have limited applicability or elephants learn to overcome such strategies.

With repeated exposure, the jumbos become habituated to even most deterrent methods. As such refinement of existing methods and development of new methods innovative mechanisms to prevent depredation is of immeasurable value.

For example, trenches have been tried in combination of the departmental electric fences at Pelwatte suger and Lunugamvehera National Park and Kathnoruwa but proved ineffective. Modifications of trenches shall be tried out and tested on a pilot basis and incorporated in the Action plan, provided they have been found effective.

Q: After about one year since the Presidential Committee was appointed and about six months lapsed since the action plan was submitted it seems that no comprehensive action taken by the authorities to comply with the action plan recommendations. How do you comment on it?

A: We, the Presidential Committee has fulfilled the task entrusted on it in the most devoted manner. I feel the response towards the implementation of certain short-termed preventive measures too are not being activated.

We have recommended to take to less expensive and more successful village and paddy field fences to thwart the conflict. But still the attention is focused on the construction of more electric fences 1000 km in length in addition to the present length of 4600 k.m. Elephant drive operations too are conducted on full scale.

The level of the HEC is growing at an alarming rate.

Whatever it is, the Daily News in last July reported that the Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) has recommended to the wildlife conservation department to give up the out-of-date strategies and policies which have so far showcased only failure and as such to implement the recommendations formulated by the Presidential committee chaired by me (Dr Prithiviraj Fernando).

I hope that the authorities will take some fruitful action to prevent the HEC for the immense benefit of our farmer community and for the safety of the wild elephants, truly a precious national asset.

The Presidential Committee report has suggested that a Presidential Task force be established to monitor implementation of the Action Plan and that the Action plan be reviewed annually and revised as appropriate adhering to an adaptive human-elephant management approach.

Intensifying efforts at limiting elephants to protected areas is unlikely to be fruitful and productive neither succeed and most probably will cause conflict escalation. The Action Plan proposes activities providing results in the short, medium and long term.

Effective conflict mitigation requires their concurrent and long-term implementation. Short term actions would immediately reduce crop and property losses. Countrywide reduction in conflict will be proportionate to the geographic scale of implementation and a significant reduction could be envisaged within two to three years period if implemented island wide.

It is my view that the only viable and easily practicable option for elephant conservation and human-elephant conflict mitigation is a human elephant co-existence model with management of elephants in and outside protected areas as also. advocated by the National policy for conservations and management of wild elephants.

A recent study has provided guidance for development activities by indicating where human – elephant conflict mitigation activities need to be incorporated into development plans.