2019 Mar 11
The Human-Elephant Conflict is an issue Sri Lanka has been battling over countless years, consistently resulting in flared debates, deaths of both species, and solutions which do not solve the root cause of the problem.
The evidence-based information available on our endangered Asian Elephants is very limited, thus limiting our options for practical solutions to the conflict. However, now, after four years of heavy research, Sri Lankan researchers are finally able to produce a countrywide, data-based distribution map of Asian Elephants in the country.
Of the 13 Asian elephant range states, Sri Lanka is officially the first ever state to issue such a document.
How was it done?
The researchers involved in bringing this initiative to completion are Prithiviraj Fernando, M.L. Channa R. De Silva, L.K.A. Jayasinghe, H.K. Janaka and Jennifer Pastorin, in their paper titled ‘First country-wide survey of the Endangered Asian elephant: towards better conservation and management in Sri Lanka’.
Aiming to cover the entire country, an overlay was created of the Sri Lankan map, forming 2,742 grid cells, each of which was approximately 25 km2, and interviews were conducted with residents within each cell. This was further integrated with 164,568 GPS locations available on elephants from 2004 to 2018, with 28,469 tracking days.
What did they learn?
Elephants can be found over 59.9% of Sri Lanka.
People are resident in almost 70% of elephant range.
Most importantly, most elephants live outside protected areas.
“Therefore the majority of elephants occupied landscapes that were largely human-dominated, disturbed and agricultural.”
Thus, bringing the Human-Elephant Conflict to rise. As both species compete for space and more lands are cleared for human development, the conflict continues to grow.
As stated in the research article, “most Asian elephants come into conflict with people, and therefore they actively avoid people and/or respond aggressively to close approach”.
Furthermore, “rural communities in Asia are largely dependent on agriculture. Where elephants are present in agricultural neighbourhoods they almost invariably use crops, provoking strong negative emotions among residents”.
What must be done?
Until now, the main solution has been to restrict elephants from humans, a method which has clearly failed, based on the findings of this study.
“The notion that elephant groups become isolated and non-viable as a result of development has given rise to the idea of so-called pocketed elephants in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, and their removal by translocation or capture has been suggested.”
Elephant drives to areas protected by the Department of Wildlife Conservation such as national reserves and sanctuaries have been ongoing, yet are not a solution.
Elephants have a high fidelity to their home range, and when driven away try to go back to their natural habitat. Much research shows us that elephants die when they lose their home range.
The initial act of removing causes psychological distress and increases the risk of morbidity and mortality.
Most national parks are already near full carrying capacity causing elephants to attempt escape in search for more suitable conditions. Yala Block 1 has seen a significant reduction in elephant sightings since the 1990’s and a previous study revealed that 54% of calves die before the age of 2.
Such policies of conservation are detrimental and call for new measures to be enacted.
Rather than enforcing boundaries based on human needs, fences should be placed along already existing ecological boundaries, along with other alternative measures to inhumane elephant drives.
This study further found that the elephant range decline in Sri Lanka has been persistent and is likely to continue.
“We recommend a human–elephant coexistence model that promotes stakeholder awareness and mitigates conflict by protecting villages and cultivations with barriers such as electric fences. This approach has been incorporated into the National Policy for Elephant Conservation and Management in Sri Lanka but is yet to be fully implemented. The distribution map…serves as a template for identifying areas where conflict mitigation needs to be integrated into development plans, thus facilitating human-elephant co-existence and the prevention and reduction of human– elephant conflict. Under such management elephants will continue to range outside protected areas, ensuring their survival.”
This new information has now been shared amongst the Sri Lankan public and the authorities involved, who must indeed recognize that current existing strategies to mitigate the conflict are not viable. As such, implementation of the recommended strategies by our dedicated research teams must be taken into account, helping solve one of the biggest issues in Sri Lanka to date.