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Sri Lanka Brief update on World Elephant Day: Human-Elephant conflict and violation of right to life.

Compiled by Sunanda Deshapriya

  1. World Elephants Day falls on 12 August. In Sri Lanka, Human Elephant Conflict continues unabated.
  2. On 25 June 2023, a 66-year-old woman was killed by an elephant in Kurunagala District. She was on her way to her brother’s house to borrow a hopper mortar. Her house was attacked by an elephant a few days back. On 25 July 2023, a villager was killed by an elephant in Kowana village, in the Kurunagala district. The nearest elephant habitat is 25 km away from the incident took place. On 6 August 2023, a villager, a 53year old father of two was killed by an elephant in Anuradhapura district while coming back from feeding the cows. On 4 August 2023, a 63-year-old mother of one was killed by an elephant in Monaragala district. She was harvesting crops in the field when attacked.
  3. All these people who died belonged to the underprivileged social segments and these deaths do not count in national political discourse. English medium press, which the ruling class reads even does not report these deaths.
  4. The Sri Lankan elephant population is facing serious threats and vulnerabilities mainly due to anthropogenic factors culminating in a bloody conflict between humans and elephants, each for their survival.
  5. Over the years human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka has taken a heavy toll. During the period between the years 2000 and 2021, 3,073 elephants and 1061 humans lost their lives mainly due to the increasing human-elephant conflict. There are several reasons for this but unplanned development ranks foremost. The lack of forethought in development plans has resulted in a serious loss of habitat for wild elephants, and the resulting loss of food sources drives them to seek sustenance in adjoining human cultivations. This results in the inevitable increase in human-elephant conflict, and deaths on both sides.
  6. The major reason for these environmental challenges relates to rapid population growth and the drive to expand to previously unexplored terrain, often the habitat of animals. However, many of these environmental challenges relate to farmers and inhabitants of rural areas who have not received adequate financial compensation for their agricultural produce. This neglect of Sri Lanka’s farmers and rural sector has been an ongoing crisis for the past 50 to 60 years but the adverse environmental impacts have been particularly devastating in the last 10 to 15 years.
  7. The performance report of the Department of Wildlife Conservation for the year 2018 provides a general picture of causes of Elephant deaths in Sri Lanka: Gun Shot 53, Electrocution 38, Poisoned 3, Hakka patas, (an improvised explosive device that detonates when bit) 64, Train Accident 16, Unknown 29, Accident  32, Natural  38, Other Causes 46. Total 319.
  8. Many wild elephants face various diseases and die due to the intake of garbage at present and Veterinary Surgeons said that various things such as non-degradable polythene, shopping bags, and plastic bottles can be seen in the stomach of elephants in postmortems carried out. It had been identified that more than 300 wild elephants hang about in 54 places where garbage is disposed in wildlife zones. Around 20 elephants have died during the last eight years between 2016-2022 after consuming plastic trash in the dump in Pallakkadu village in Ampara district.
  9. Categorization of Human Deaths due to Elephant Attacks (2011 – 2018): Male (Adult) 517 Female 76 (Adult) Children 11. Total 604.
  10. Sri Lanka is the country reporting the highest number of elephant deaths and the second highest number of human deaths due to the conflict in the world. Despite this grave situation, the comprehensive action plan prepared by the multi-stakeholder expert committee had been pigeonholed for more than a year(March 2022. It has not been implemented yet. About 70% of elephant home ranges in the country lie out of the protected areas.
  11. Estimates of the elephant population in Sri Lanka vary. According to the IUCN Red List, the total number of Sri Lankan elephants’ population is 2,500-4,000 individuals. Overall, the Asian elephant is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List. This number has been decreasing drastically by the day. The Sri Lankan elephant population has fallen by almost 65% since the turn of the 19th century. According to a survey (2011), only 3.03 percent of wild elephants live in jungles outside the Reserves.
  12. At least 375 wild elephants had been killed in 2021 and 439 in 2022. In 2023 up to July 238 at least elephants have been killed. On average more than one elephant is being killed daily in Sri Lanka.
  13. Just over a century, Sri Lanka’s Forest cover has reduced to a third of what it used to be. The forest cover which amounted to 44% in 1956 has come down to just 29% in 2010 and encroachments, population growth and shifting/illegal cultivation are some of the main drivers of deforestation. The remaining forests and National Parks in the country could have a carrying capacity of between 4,000-5,000 elephants. The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is native to Sri Lanka and one of three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant.
  14. The Sri Lankan elephants are highly social animals. They are known to form matriarchal herds of 12 – 20 individuals. These social units consist of related females and are led by the oldest female. There are 2 types of herds: nursing units, made up of lactating females and their offspring; and juvenile care units, composed of females and juveniles. These elephants are migratory animals, traveling strict routes between the wet and dry seasons, determined by the monsoon season.
  15. Even though 17 such elephant passes had been identified and out of those at only the elephant pass at Kawdulla –Minneriya could be published in the Gazette by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Auditor General’s report (2018) concluded that the failure in legal opening of 16 identified elephant passes approved by the Cabinet of Ministers and the failure in maintenance of proper elephant passes had resulted in an increase in the number of deaths of elephants and humans.
  16. The electric fence is being used as a psychological barrier against wild elephants since 1966 in Sri Lanka. Today it has become the leading management tool in mitigating elephant depredations in agricultural and plantation areas. Fences are not maintained and erected properly due to widespread corruption in the country. For instance, in the gazetting of the Hambantota Elephant Management Reserve (2021), it was revealed that 1384 hectares have been looted by the political allies of then government.
  17. Department of Wildlife Conservation is heavily understaffed with only over 1,000 officers while there is dire need for at least 6,000 personnel and added that it is crucial to address these issues to protect wildlife. During the period 2015-2017,  384 elephants were killed by  gunshots  only 43 cases were filed against the perpetrators .  At the same time half of Sri Lanka’s police force – over 44,000 of 88,000 personnel in fact – are deployed for VIP protection duties.
  18. Human elephant conflict and resulting deaths in Sri Lanka are part and parcel of lager issue of lawlessness, impunity, corruption, and mismanagement. Instead of piecemeal solutions a wholistic approach necessary to manage and minimise human -elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.

Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka Brief update I World Elephants Day I 2023 , Compiled by Sunanda Deshapriya  [email protected]

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