The human-elephant conflict (HEC) is the widespread conflict between human populations and elephant populations. The primary sources of conflict arise from the elephants’ diminished range, hunting, and trampling, and displacement of people by elephant herds in protected areas. The human-elephant conflict has affected Sri Lanka in a number of ways.
First, the decline in the elephant population has resulted in a reduction of their habitats. Second, the reduced safety of the animals has led to a decline in the number of people who are interested in elephant-related tourism. Third, the availability of elephant products has reduced, which in turn has lowered the income of those who are reliant on these products.
Finally, the conflict has adversely affected the socio-economic stability of the villages situated close to elephant habitats, resulting in an overall decline of the economic standing of these villages.
In conversation with The Morning Brunch, Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle Convenor Supun Lahiru Prakash spoke about the HEC in the country, sharing his thoughts on whether the situation has improved over the years or destabilised despite the various attempts to mitigate it. He informed us that even after recording the highest number of elephant deaths in history in 2022, there is no hope for a sustainable solution for the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.
“Last year, 412 elephant deaths were recorded from Sri Lanka while 132 humans have been killed due to the HEC. In 2019, there were 405 elephants killed, which was the year that recorded the highest annual death rate of elephants before 2022,” he shared, pointing out that these numbers were concerning to say the least.
Empty promises from officials
When questioned if there was anything that could be done to mitigate this issue this year at least, Prakash pointed out that when he, along with other environmentalists, consider the views of the Minister in charge and other wildlife officials, especially at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, he is sure that there is no hope for a sustainable solution for HEC just yet.
“Agriculture, Wildlife, and Forest Resources Conservation Minister Mahinda Amaraweera stated in his budget speech that 16 elephant corridors will be opened and the HEC in Sri Lanka reduced by 50% in the coming year, but this too, is a flimsy attempt to fool the people who suffer from this eternal conflict,” he charged.
He explained that in one instance, Amaraweera had said that there will be three corridors open this year, and in another statement, he had said there would be five.
“I am unsure if he understands what exactly is needed to eliminate HEC and how to go about it with both the villagers’ and elephants’ best interests at heart,” he shared.
As far as the public is aware, the proposal for 16 elephant corridors came up in 2014, and it was planned to network national parks and a few elephant conservation areas. However, Prakash pointed out: “We know that networking wildlife protected areas through this kind of elephant corridors and confining elephants within them was attempted, but failed completely during the last six decades.”
The main approach to HEC mitigation over the past six decades was formalised in 1959 by The Committee on Preservation of Wildlife appointed by the Government. The plan called for elephants to be driven along temporary corridors into permanent corridors and national reserves when development takes place. Consequently, Prakash pointed out that the main approach to HEC mitigation since the 1950s was the attempt to confine elephants to protected areas.
For over 60 years, much effort and funds have been expended in pursuit of this goal. The main method of limiting elephants to protected areas is conducting “elephant drives” and establishing electric fences on their boundaries. In addition, individual males identified as “problem elephants” have been translocated to protected areas and more recently to elephant holding grounds.
Speaking on behalf of all elephant conservationists, Prakash raised the concern of whether the department of wildlife conservation will try to implement the previous ineffective strategy of confining elephants to the national parks, and if so, he questioned if declaring corridors is the first step of such a process. Under the present status of fragmentation of elephant home ranges in the country, he noted that our mitigation strategy should go beyond that level.
“Conservation of elephant home ranges outside the protected areas should be mandatory. We urge the Government to fully implement the National Action Plan for the Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict at least now, after two years of preparation of that plan,” he stated.
Issues with implementation
Right now, they are aware that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had recently appointed a committee to pilot test this action plan in the Anuradhapura and Kurunegala Districts. However, Prakash informed us that there is not enough support from the administrative officers to implement this plan, and the power given to the committee is not enough as it is not a presidential task force requested by the action plan itself.
“If the Government implements that plan as a whole, we will be able to see a significant reduction of conflict within the next two years, but what if there is an increase in deforestation and encroachments of elephant home ranges?” He questioned, pointing out that this will further escalate this conflict.
With the officials in charge confused, and perhaps channelling their energy towards the wrong solutions, as Prakash pointed out, there is much room for error and this brilliant plan to mitigate the HEC once and for all will be side-lined. We can only hope that the right steps are taken in the best interests of finally ridding Sri Lanka of this one conflict.