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Will the Human-Elephant conflict ever be resolved?

2019 recorded the highest number of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka. And though 2020 had a better record, with 83 elephants dying in the first three months of 2021, there are concerns that this year might be worse than 2019.

Four hundred and seven elephants lost their lives in 2019. So did 122 humans. For both, the numbers surpassed the annual averages of 272 elephant deaths and 85 human deaths.

Humans and elephants are in conflict, that much is clear, though neither party is at fault. In fact, they are the hapless victims of cronyism and ill-conceived policies of governments and public officials.

The most recent elephant death reported showed the animal had died of wounds caused by hakkapatas. As the word denotes, ‘Hakka’ the jaw explodes when caught in that trap. It’s a locally made contraption with black gun powder, iron and lead, and usually kept near cucumbers or pumpkins, which elephants eat. Caught by such a trap, the elephant dies a slow and painful death, with the injury to his mouth resulting in the animals inability to feed himself. And those caught by trap guns set up by poachers suffer a similar fate, especially if it’s the trunk that is injured.

Whether shot, poisoned or wounded, the reality of Sri Lanka’s elephants, paraded in grand splendour during religious festivals, and a popular tourist attraction, is that they suffer many deprivations.

Over the years humans have been encroaching forest areas to build homes, industrial zones, commercial agriculture and highways. And their spaces are getting smaller and smaller, even as their food sources become scarce. So their natural reaction is to head towards villages in search of food.

For over two months now, farmers representing 86 groups have been engaged in protest action seeking a resolution to the human-elephant conflict. The protest is in Walsapugala in the Hambantota area, and their action has gathered momentum with others from across the country joining in.

The farmers are not asking for much; just that the proposed elephant management plan be implemented, so the worsening conflict between man and beast can be arrested.

After all, they both need safe spaces and the ability to steer clear of harm.

The troubles in Hambantota, like elsewhere in the country, began when nearly 2000 acres of forest land was allocated for development of that area. But officials soon realise the importance of safeguarding our fast dwindling elephant population, which currently stands at around 7000. The development work would most certainly take away most of their habitat.

According to available reports, the development zone which falls between two circular roads has already trapped at least 20 elephants. While the farmers await the gazetting of the management plan, and insist the conditions therein must be the same as their recommendations, their protest actions will continue.

Irrigation minister, Chamal Rajapaksa, brother of the President, put his foot in recently when he accused the farmers of being in the pay of non-governmental organisations. Farmers did not take that kindly, challenging Rajapaksa to have a taste of what reality is all about and sleep out in the open, and fight the mosquitos and wild animals that come sniffing around.

If implemented, the elephant reserve would allow these majestic beasts to roam free and forage for food between the forests of Bibile, Udawalawe and Bundala.

While the expansion of the Hambantota development began during the previous regimes, the current administration’s decision to allow the use of forested land across the country for commercial purposes means not only an escalation of the human-elephant conflict, but, soon other wild animals too would be foraging for food and water among human habitats. There have already been many sightings of peacocks’ for instance in home gardens in Kandy and Nugegoda!

Obviously, they too are displaced. What’s more, these past two years have seen several leopards venturing into plantation areas in search of prey.

Experts who study elephant behaviour decry the use of electric fences to keep these animals at bay. Instead they say, villages could be fenced off by planting certain trees that elephants aren’t fond of. In Wasgamuwa, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is spearheading a concept of planting orange trees as a fence between forests and homesteads. They provide farmers orange plants from Bibile, and their volunteers help tend the trees. It’s a win-win situation; elephants stay clear off the farms, and farmers make an extra buck from the sale of the fruit.

Studies indicate that pachyderms are not fond of citrus.

Plans for the proposed reserve too mention planting lemon, hana and bougainvillea in a zig zag manner as fencing.

Indeed such natural barriers are way better than electric fencing or arming members of the civil defence force, as one government minister proposed, in mitigating the human elephant conflict. It is also cost effective, does not harm the elephant, and will be an additional source of income to villagers.

But the government dithers.

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