In conversation with Dr. Tempe Adams of Elephants Without Borders on global HEC
There is a lot to be said about Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in the Sri Lankan context. Despite best efforts, strategies to mitigate HEC often prove ineffective and despite elephants being an integral part of cultural identity and a valuable tourism resource, they are endangered.
The statistics to do with HEC are troubling; each year we (conservatively) see approximately 350 elephant deaths due to HEC, as well as over 100 human deaths. The causes for this conflict are many, but chief among them are unplanned development, illicit deforestation, and illegal encroachments into protected areas – humans share over 40% of the island’s landscape with elephants.
HEC is not endemic to Sri Lanka. Indeed, there are countries with much larger elephant populations that also see a great deal of HEC. However, in terms of elephant deaths, Sri Lanka reigns supreme.
Last week, the Wildlife and Nature Preservation Society (WNPS), Sri Lanka’s oldest nature protection society, hosted its Monthly Public Lecture featuring Dr. Tempe Adams of ‘Elephants Without Borders’ (EWB). A researcher based in Botswana, which boasts the world’s largest population of elephants (a staggering 125,000+ compared to Sri Lanka’s approximately 5,200-strong population), Dr. Adams spoke about the similarities and differences in the challenges faced in protecting the Botswana and Sri Lankan elephants.
Ahead of her public lecture, The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with Dr. Adams for a chat on elephants, just how similar or different the Botswana and Sri Lankan ecosystems are, and what the countries can learn from each other.
Becoming an expert on the African elephant
Dr. Adams is currently the Coexistence and Education Manager for EWB. She uses its innovative research and educational studies and information-sharing resources to strive to encourage mankind to live in harmony with wildlife and the natural world. Her role in the organisation is working with communities and helping them live and farm within wildlife areas, free from conflict. She is currently based in the Chobe District of Botswana.
From Australia, Dr. Adams initially started out in the marine science world studying blue whales; the charisma of the blue whale and its position as a marine umbrella species drew her to their terrestrial counterpart – the elephant.
“I had a clear understanding of how protecting something large and charismatic like the blue whale can save everything within that ecosystem,” Dr. Adams explained, noting: “Elephants are like that for the terrestrial world, saving elephants saves their habitats and their ecosystems [and all the species within it]. It’s quite an economic form of conservation.”
Dr. Adams works on the premise that conflict resolution cannot happen instantly but must be worked on and cared for over time, through rigorous science and the building up of relationships between those affected by conflict and the relevant authorities. Her overall goal is to further develop ways for communities and wildlife to coexist in close proximity to one another, by improving ways to manage wildlife corridors and other low-impact, long-term strategies that increase community involvement.
Her work with EWB reflects this. Operating in Botswana since 2004, it has created a ‘Side by Side’ Elephant Coexistence Programme and offers a holistic approach, combining science and community empowerment to combat conflict. To assist with this, they have created the ‘EleSenses’ toolkit – a low-cost, user-friendly, mobile, solar-powered/green, sustainable, mitigation system aimed at protecting human lives and property.
They have also been conducting long-term studies monitoring elephants and wildlife movements across the landscape of both the international movements between countries and, at a fine spatial scale, around villages and towns. Corridors are identified by wildlife’s movements between needed resources. This information is vital and is shared with a range of stakeholders to incorporate corridors into land-use management plans and provides indications of how wildlife is adapting to people and development, over time.
The Botswana and Sri Lanka ecosystems
Botswana holds the accolade of having the largest elephant population in the world, with an estimated population of 125,000. In the Chobe District alone, in northern Botswana, there are an estimated 32,000 elephants in the dry season, who live alongside a population of 30,000 people.
In comparison to Sri Lanka, Botswana is much larger (Sri Lanka is 65,610 sq. km and Botswana is 581,730 sq. km) and has a much smaller population (Sri Lanka’s population in 2021 is recorded at 21.2 million and Botswana’s at 2.4 million). However, elephants in Botswana still face numerous threats – poaching being one and Human-Elephant Conflict another.
“The two countries are almost opposite case studies when it comes to elephants,” Dr. Adams shared with Brunch, noting that this was part of why it was important for the two countries to have dialogue because even opposite scenarios could have learning experiences. “The way conservation science works now is by talking to other people and reading their papers, and though Botswana and Sri Lanka are completely opposite dilemmas, the core issue is the same.”
And this proves true, because the core reason of HEC is the same in both Botswana and Sri Lanka – competition for resources. “Though Botswana has a small population, everyone lives around the same resources, in this case, near water,” Dr. Adams explained. “Wildlife and humans both need water. The Botswana population is growing and developing quite rapidly and sharing the same resources, which is where conflict comes in.”
Even where Dr. Adams herself is based in northern Botswana, there is more and more land being reclaimed for both agriculture and urban development and more and more people are moving up north for work. “A lot of the time we talk only about agricultural conflict and not urban conflict,” Dr. Adams noted, adding that urban areas too saw human-wildlife conflict, especially when it came to people who were unfamiliar with wildlife.
“Most people move up north to work in tourism and down south, you don’t have elephants, so they’re experiencing elephants for the first time.”
Co-existence: The road to meaningful HEC mitigation
Sharing how Botswana approached mitigating HEC, Dr. Adams explained that the approach was multifaceted. A lot of attention is paid to understanding elephant ecology and how and why they move through spaces – for instance, is it for crop raiding (foraging for food) or because their normal pathways have been blocked?
“Understanding the psychology of elephants is so important. We use GPS collars and camera traps to understand their movement trends and wildlife corridors and pathways, and then that information goes into land-use planning. It’s given to town planners to let them know which areas are heavily used by wildlife so they know to work around it,” Dr. Adams said.
Even agriculturally, a lot of thought goes into mitigation strategies that leave the elephants unhindered and the farmers protected, from growing crops that deter elephants from crop raiding in a specific area to using organic sprays on crops and trees that elephants tend to stay away from. The ‘EleSenses’ toolkit comes with a number of alarm systems, from noise-based alarms to flashing lights which help keep elephants away from specific areas.
One key HEC mitigation strategy in Sri Lanka is the electric fence. They are primarily put up by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and Sri Lanka sees about 4,500 km of electric fencing put up for the purpose of HEC management. Maintaining these fences is a huge undertaking, especially when they are deep inside forests. They are also very expensive to put up (Rs. 8 million per km), costly to maintain, and need to be replaced frequently.
The effectiveness of electric fencing as it is used now is debatable. These fences cut across elephant ranges and separate herds. It is sometimes the placing of these fences across an elephant’s range that leads them to nearby villages and fields in search of food, thus contributing to HEC. Also, when they are no longer able to be powered with electricity they become useless, with elephants quickly learning how to get through them or take them down.
Recently, a private partnership took a new approach to electric fencing, focusing instead on building portable, solar-powered electric fences around specific human areas, like paddy fields and small communities seasonally as opposed to larger electric fencing mechanisms to confine elephants to specific areas. A pilot project still in its initial phases, the success of the project and its scalability is yet to be determined, but this new approach proposes a more mindful way of managing HEC using electric fencing.
Dr. Adams noted that electric fencing in Botswana also took a similar approach. “With barriers, you have to be very mindful and understand wildlife movements. Barriers will never work, especially with elephants, when you’re blocking movement, denying access to resources, or separating families.”
Learning from mistakes
Conservation is an ever-evolving field. Strategies that worked well previously can become redundant when the parameters of an environment change, regardless of why that change has occurred, and so, Dr. Adams stressed, it was important not just to talk about which strategies worked and which did not, but to also talk about why a tried and failed strategy had not worked.
“There’s never a straight ‘no’ to a form of mitigation, but lots of projects have time crunches – people need to be seen to be doing something,” Dr. Adams explained, noting that projects also had lots of consultants coming in and an array of people involved. Despite this, however, if an initiative doesn’t prove effective, the reasons for it being ineffective are very rarely openly discussed.
“It’s really important to document why this has failed, but this doesn’t often happen because people don’t want to talk about failure. But if you know what went wrong, then you won’t repeat it. Being adaptable is key because then you can win.”