The human – elephant conflict: does it have to be like this?

Every year on average over 200 elephants are killed and 60 to 80 people lose their lives as aresult of elephant attacks. With maybe no more than 5000 to 6000 elephants left in the wild in Sri Lanka time seems to be running out for the Sri Lankan wild elephant.

At one time wild elephants could be found in most parts of the island. Now they are confined mostly to the north-central region of the island. They were driven out by hunting; for example on the Horton Plains where elephants once used to be plentiful, as well as the land clearances which created the vast tea and rubber estates.

Elephants and People; the old days

The traditional agriculture of the intermediate and dry zones is called Chena. It is a version of slash and burn. Chena cultivation is dependent on the rainfall, so at the onset of the monsoon, a patch of forest was cleared and cultivated for about 4 to 5 months and then abandoned. This then created low scrub/ woodland ( secondary regeneration) which is the habitat the elephants prefer

So, traditional Chena cultivation was compatible with maintaining the elephant population and, in fact, meant that people and elephants didn’t come into contact as often as they do now. The elephants simply moved on to abandoned and regenerating forest when the farmers moved on to open up another patch of forest.

What has changed?

The extension of sedentary agriculture in the centre and east of the country which began in earnest in the 1970’s was the single change that brought elephants and people into close contact and which has put the elephants at  risk of extinction.

The main causal factor is the  Mahaweli River Development Scheme (an irrigation scheme) Aimed at agricultural development it was begun in the 1960’s but accelerated after 1977.

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The Mahaweli scheme

The project had a number of inter-related aims:

  • to reduce growing population pressure and landlessness in the wet zone
  • to expand rice production and reduce dependence on imports
  • to develop hydro electricity to power new industrial development
  • opening up new employment opportunities to landless farmers

Settlers were encouraged onto the newly irrigated lands with the promise of land, a house and irrigation water. Apart from rice, the staple of Sri Lanka, farmers were encouraged to diversify into sugar cane, soya, corn, vegetables, fruit and cash crops.

The area under rice cultivation almost doubled to 87,000 hectares whilst rice production rose from 164 million tonnes p.a. to 471m tonnes p.a.

Land under other crops also doubled in area as a result of the  programme. However large areas of secondary forest were lost and the traditional chena system was largely  abandoned because it was not profitable.

and you have to question why large areas around Udawalawe in the South have been turned over to sugar cane production and at what cost? Surely a crop that Sri Lanka doesn’t really need; ask the 20% or so who are type 2 diabetics for example…

And the result:

  • the traditional elephant ranges have been reduced in size and become fragmented.
  • the traditional migration routes have beenblocked off to the elephants
  • with the traditional source of food for elephants (secondary forest) now not so readily available to elephants,  their food supply diminishing and migration routes blocked the elephants raid villages for food which is how the conflict is created.

The Farmer’s story

 Kalawagala is a small agricultural village with approximately 200 + families and a population of around 1200. The farm economy is centered on padi (or rice) cultivation, vegetables and fruit.

Hinnimama is typical; along with his family he farms around 3 acres and grows padi rice plus melon, pumpkin, okra, sweet corn, green grains long beans sesame and brinjal. Some farmers may also keep a few buffalo from which they sell curd.

 

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Apart from rice which is irrigated all the rest rely on the seasonal monsoon.

He would expect to grow crops in three cycles through the year (which he calls Chena) ; the more water demanding crops first and so on, and make around 100,000 rupees plus sales of rice surplus; each cycle yields around 30000 rupees dependent on amount of rain.

For Hinnimama there are 2 problems:

  1. When rainfall is not enough his yields take a tumble, and his income falls.
  2. Elephant herds invade the village land on a regular basis;  one raid can completely decimate his crop leading to serious loss of income

He told me that:

  • in the last 2 years alone 8 villagers have been killed as they attempted to drive marauding elephants away from their fields
  • groups of elephants (ranging from 2 or 3 to over a dozen) raid the village fields most nights
  • when they come for food elephants will completely destroy a farmers’ crops with the loss of the potential revenue; one night of destruction costs LKR 30,000 or more: this would be the equivalent of 1/3rd of the annual revenue

There are electric fences surrounding the village, which are supposed to keep out the elephants, BUT the elephants kick them over causing the electric current to fail and they walk through the gaps. (one ranger told me he had even seen an elephant jump a fence). The fact that the fences are poorly maintained doesn’t help Hinnimama to have much confidence that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (who are responsible for managing the situation) can do much to help him.

As a result, Hinnimama sleeps out in temporary shelters on his fields most nights. He has little choice and he feels he has no alternative but to drive away the elephants with whatever means he can employ. These methods can include shouting, using firecrackers or home made explosives, raising the voltage on the electric fences, poisoning, digging pits and possibly (although he wouldn’t say so) shooting the elephants.

The elephants story

Recent research has uncovered a lot more information about the Sri Lankan elephant:

  • Elephants don’t migrate far either seasonally or annually and their ranges are small in size (roughly 50 – 150 km2 on average).
  • Elephants follow the same migration routes (elephant corridors) year after year.
  • Ranges and corridors are well established and pre date human settlement.
  • Ranges don’t always match up with protected areas, however. Around 70% of elephants live outside protected areas.

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from the Sunday Times

To accommodate there elephants the number and size e of protected areas needs to be much bigger

  • Elephants prefer open low canopy woodland and grassland and disturbed habitats such as abandoned Chena lands which are the result of clearance and secondary plant succession.
  • A single wild elephant consumes approximately 150 kg of food per day. A hundred elephants would require 15,000 kg of food per day, and a large area of woodland every day.

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elephant country

Elephants were well established before commercial farming pushed into the interior. In simple terms they were there first. However, they have been squeezed out of their traditional “range” lands. Their alternatives have been shrinking every year.

  1. Between 1948 and 1975 as a result of the Mahaweli Project; 1/3rd of the natural forest was lost due to clearance for agriculture. The depletion of the elephants main food source increased pressure on remaining natural food supplies to the extent that the elephants were forced to search elsewhere for food.
  2. A combination of fragmentation of habitat and blocked migration routes have created major pressures on the elephant population. Land was allocated to settlers by politicians (seeking electoral advantage), which blocked the traditional elephant migration routes or corridors.
  3. Increased numbers of cattle and water buffalo have further reduced the amount of grassland available to elephants.
  4. The disappearance of the traditional Chena (shifting cultivation) system will mean that through natural succession, habitat in many of the protected areas will become progressively less able to support high densities of elephants because they thrive on secondary forest created by Chena cultivation.
  5. An inadvertent introduction of the plant lantana camara into Sri Lanka has had an almost catastrophic impact on the vegetation in Udawalawe, one of the protected “elephant homelands”. The plant is toxic to elephants and highly invasive. It is currently replacing the endemic vegetation at a rapid rate resulting in significant habitat and disastrous food loss for the elephant population.

The net result has been that elephants and villagers are increasingly competing for the same space with disastrous results all round.

Managing the Human – Elephant conflict

So far the main response has been to try to keep elephants and farmers apart. This has been attempted in the following ways:

  1. The irrigated and resettled lands have been protected from elephants with electric fences.
  2. Protected areas and national parks have been created for the elephant population. Elephants living outside of the protected areas are captured and relocated into the protected areas where possible.

Problems

  1. However, so far this strategy hasn’t worked too well. Elephants break down fences which results in major problems for villagers. The fact that those fences are poorly maintained is a major source of frustration to the villagers.

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a fence pushed over by an elephant

  1. Nor does moving captured the elephants into the protected areas doesn’t make ecological sense; in effect this is a policy of creating elephant concentration camps. This is because:
  • Protected areas can support only a certain number of elephants (the carrying capacity), which is determined by the amount of resources such as food and water available for elephants. Eventually there will be too many elephants in each “safe zone”
  • Translocating a large number of elephants that normally range outside protected areas into protected areas just adds to the elephant numbers, and increases the pressure on the habitat leading to habitat destruction.
  • Any attempt at managing protected areas to provide more food for more elephants would require a vast amount of funds and resources that would have to be spent indefinitely. It would also result in a massive loss of biodiversity, as a large number of fauna and flora, many of them endemics, require relatively undisturbed forest. Simply put it is not sustainable
  • In any case most elephants range outside of the protected areas or maybe their ranges are partly in and partly out of protected areas. So you can move them into a protected area but the chances are that they will take off at some point and go back to the areas they are used to ranging in.

The Main Point:

Translocation of elephants into protected areas keeping them there and finding enough food for them is just not sustainable; a new approach is needed.

New Management for Old

One such approach is suggested by The Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka:

  • Manage the protected areas and their elephant populations as the core of future elephant conservation.
  • Manage areas outside protected areas so that together with the protected areas, they form a contiguous landscape for elephants.

They argue that Management of outside areas can be achieved by regulating Chena cultivation, so that:

  • Traditional cycling regimes are preserved and conversion to permanent cultivation is prevented.
  • Providing facilities to chena farmers, so that they derive a direct conservation benefit from elephants being outside protected areas, and costs of having elephants in their area, such as crop depredation, are offset.”
They argue further that “such a conservation strategy, … will benefit both elephants and humans, and will ensure the sustenance of a healthy elephant population in Sri Lanka, for the future.”

This means going back to a form of slash and burn; Chena. But Chena farmers would need to be financially supported and that does not appear to be a likely outcome. In any case would the government be able to persuade the second/third generation farmer/ settlers to accept this? It seems unlikely.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) takes a more practical view.

The idea is to engage with people at the grassroots level:

Mission: “to build capacity, foster leadership and empower citizens to support sustainable, long term conservation success.”

They adopt a range of innovative approaches which are all aimed at helping the local people live in harmony, not in conflict with elephants, and which are sustainable.

Here is a summary of some of their projects:

  • Electric Fence Intrusion Alert System (eleAlert) monitors fences remotely and give early warning of elephant intrusion to villagers and fence damage to crews who can go and repair the breach.
  • An electric fence maintenance team was established in the 2,300-year-old Buddhist Temple, historic Somawathiya Chaitiya, in the North Central Province.
  • in Wasgamuwa, SLWCS formed a community organization to promote the cultivation of oranges. Elephants do not eat citrus, therefore farmers are less likely to lose their crops to elephant raids.; see Project Orange
  • A number of community based organizations for human elephant conflict mitigation, home garden development, and agro-forestry, have been established at Lahugala, Pottuvil and Panama in the Eastern Province.
  • microfinance is being made available to communities to enable them to diversify away from farming into other activities.
  • encouraging improved methods of dairy farming to raise yields not numbers of cattle which would reduce the demand on grassland resources
  • Ele bus: Saving elephants while helping people is at the heart of the SLWCS’ brand new “Ele-friendly Bus project.” The bus will buffer school children, farmers and other pedestrians from elephants (and vice versa) by providing safe transportation along a busy rural roadway that transects one of the region’s most important, ancient elephant corridors. In turn, fewer negative human-elephant encounters will occur, helping to keep people safe and elephants alive.

In one of the newer projects they are experimenting with beehive fences, where beehives are strung out along fence boundaries. Elephants stay away from bees and so the hope is that a network of such fences will deter elephants form invading farmers land

see: http://elephantsandbees.com/sri-lanka-beehive-fence-progress/

Summary

The future for elephants in Sri Lanka is far from secure. There are signs in the media and in various pronouncements from the authorities that the threat to the Sri Lankan elephant is now being taken increasingly seriously.

Tourism can  play a part. Around 20% of tourists visit Sri Lanka hoping to see elephants in the wild. What would the loss of the wild elephant do to the tourist trade? What does the decimation of the elephant population do for the image of Sri Lanka?

The key to protecting the elephant is a multi layered strategy;

  • collecting more date on elephant behaviour is needed to try to better understand elephant movement
  • strict conservation zones can be useful but only as one tool in the box
  • the adoption of the practices being trialled by the excellent Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society
  • giving the villagers a stake in the future of the elephant by becoming more actively involved in elephant conservation; that also means giving the villagers a greater stake in tourism development and a greater say in how that management should take place.

If villagers can be helped to see the economic sense of maintaining the elephant population (I think arguments about biodiversity don’t cut much ice), then this may be the way forward in terms of putting a stop to the pointless and very sad loss of life we are seeing today.

Stop Press

Report from the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is worth a real close look; check it out now

 

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