Humans and Elephants
to live in perfect harmony


Pic Courtesy of Dr. Lucy King of Elephants and Bees project, Save the Elephants. Dr. King was in Sri Lanka to explore the potential use of beehive fences as a HEC mitigation method for small-scale farmers in Sri Lanka.

As the growing human population wants more space people tend to invade the space previously occupied by elephants. This ignites a conflict, putting the lives of both elephants and humans in danger. However, perils of this invasion are more for the elephants than humans, thus driving this largest mammal on the land, and also one of the brainiest, to extinction.

The situation is no better, if not worse, in Sri Lanka. According to Sajeewa Chamikara, director Environment Conservation Trust (ECT), who quite painstakingly analyzed the situation in Sri Lanka over the past couple of decades, "The elephant population has been continuously decreasing in Sri Lanka, and that too at an alarming pace".

Elaborating on the magnitude of the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) and how it has worsened in Sri Lanka Chamikara says, "Between 1990 and 2000 there were around 130 – 150 elephants and 40 humans dying due to HEC in a year. During 2000 to 2010 period this rose to 180 – 200 elephants and 60 humans per year. Since 2010 this has further risen to 230 – 250 elephants and 80 humans a year, and that’s where we stand today".

At present Sri Lanka is estimated to have about 4,500 – 5,000 elephants.

For this debacle Chamikara directly points a finger at the poorly planned developmental activities in the country. "This is a direct effect of the unplanned development projects carried out in the country. Parallel to the destruction of habitat of the elephants has increased the HEC and the deaths of both humans and elephants".

The space available for the wildlife in general is shrinking. The population growth, coupled with ever-increasing needs of the humans, has invariably have brought humans on a collision course with wild animals. Thus, the larger issue of "human-wildlife conflict" of which the HEC is one - but an important one - has become central to conservation work the world over.

The elephant is a far-ranging animal. On the other hand, its food and water needs are enormous – up to 300 kg of vegetable matter and 200 litres of water a day. They find human agriculture an attractive food source. They also could cause extensive damage to the crops and property. They compete with the livestock for food and water. The people who suffer most from the contact with elephants are the rural poor in any country.

Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman, Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR), speaking to The Island on the extent of the HEC in Sri Lanka, "The human Elephant Conflict exists in almost half of the country’s landscape. And it is ever increasing".

Dr. Fernando identifies reasons for the conflict: "One reason is that there are lots of elephants outside the Department of Wildlife’s protected areas. Earlier the idea was to restrict the elephants to the Wildlife protected areas. However that wasn’t practical. Currently the Wildlife Department has changed its thinking. The current thinking is to have them in both the Wildlife and the Forest department protected areas.

"But there is a large amount of land under the Forest Department but not declared as protected areas. And there are many elephants in those areas as well. That’s where the human elephant conflict is".


Get the support of people


Of the possible way forward Dr. Fernando says: "This is pretty much a sizable landscape in Sri Lanka and people live there. The people expect the Wildlife Department to manage the conflict. But that is not practical. The way forward is to make the people who suffer from the conflict take the lead role and be the stakeholders in managing the conflict and mitigating it".

Tarsh Thekaekara, a PhD student at the British Open University, (who also works for the Shola Trust nature conservation NGO operational in Nilgiri region in South India) recently wrote extensively on the status of the South Asian elephants to The Guardian. He identified, "The biggest cause of human-elephant conflict is that the elephants simply cannot live within the small fenced-off areas that we call the protected area network. Globally, only around 20% of their range is formally protected, and their future hinges on their ability to continue to share space with people – to be tolerated by individuals and communities", very much the same that Dr. Fernando advocates.

Large agribusinesses –A threat to wildlife

Large agribusinesses developed in the natural habitats of the elephants pose a great threat to their survival. Thekaekara wrote "…in Asia particularly, "linear infrastructure" such as roads and highways cuts up their habitat and makes long-range movement more and more difficult for them. Elephants are run down by trains and electrocuted by illegal fences and low-hanging wires. On top of these accidental hardships, they are deliberately slaughtered for their tusks, or in retaliation for damage to crops and property".

Chamikara commenting on the Sri Lankan situation said, "Large agribusinesses in forest areas in Sri Lanka are protected by electric fences around them. Unlike in other places where these fences get a high voltage but a low amperage, some of these fences are connected straight into the main electricity supply. There had been many times when elephants got electrocuted by coming into contact with these fences. This, we saw in Gonnoruwa (in the Hambantota District)".


More threats to elephants

Chamikara also identifies the large garbage dumps maintained by the local authorities in the forest areas as another serious threat to the wellbeing of the elephants in Sri Lanka. There have been many elephant deaths from consuming refuse from these dumps. Chamikara identifies Kanthale, Minneriya and Buddangala (in the Ampara District) as some of the areas where large garbage dumps close to forests are maintained.

Two probable dangers to the lives of elephants arise from the large garbage dumps. One is the infective agents and toxins they are teeming with. The other is the indigestible material such as polythene that clogs in their gut that later kills them. Chamikara says, "There had been number of deaths of elephants from both these reasons in the past".

Chamikara further identifies "hakka patas", an improvised explosive device, as another serious threat to the lives of the elephants in Sri Lanka. "These are made by stuffing empty bottles with explosives. These are camouflaged concealed fruits such as pumpkin and watermelon. When elephants eat these fruits they explode in their mouth totally tearing apart their jaws. Many elephants have died in the past from such accidents".

Thus Chamikara sums up enumerating, "Clearing and fragmentation of the elephants’ natural habitat, construction of roads and railroads through those, maintenance of large garbage dumps close to those, large agribusinesses, electric fences and "hakka patas" as some of the pertinent issues of the Sri Lankan version of HEC.

Elephants around the world


The present world’s human population stands at 7 billion. It is expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050. Parallel to the growth of human population the elephant population is decreasing across the world.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), elephants are found in 37 African and 13 Asian countries, a total of 50 countries in Asia and Africa. Traditionally two species– the Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) – exist. The latter is now subdivided into the savanna (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis).

While both the African and Asian elephant have similar requirements for food and water, the contexts differ vastly, particularly with respect to interactions with humans.

According to the Washington DC headquartered INGO Defenders of Wildlife, the present world’s elephant population stands at an estimated 450,000 - 700,000 African elephants and 35,000 - 40,000 Asian elephants. But the irony is that the world elephant populations have really plummeted, from an estimated over a million African elephants and over 100,000 Asian elephants, since the turn of the 20th Century.

Three subspecies of Asian elephants are recognized, and include the Sri Lankan elephant (exclusively in Sri Lanka), the Indian elephant found in mainland Asia – India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Laos, Malay Peninsula, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, and the Sumatran elephant (exclusively in Sumatra, Indonesia).

Asian elephants share their territory with a lot more people than its African counterpart. In Southern Africa, for example, with a relatively well managed elephant population, has about 25 humans per square kilometre. In South Asia the figure is closer to 350 people per square kilometre. The Human Elephant Conflict is therefore clearly a much bigger problem in Asia than Africa, at least as of today.



African elephants born tuskless due to poaching

The species could become extinct in some areas, with those elephants that do survive evolving to be almost completely tuskless

Charlotte England wrote to the Independent last November,

An increasing number of African elephants are now born tuskless because poachers have consistently targetted animals with the best ivory over decades, fundamentally altering the gene pool. In some areas 98 per cent of female elephants now have no tusks, researchers have said, compared to between two and six per cent born tuskless on average in the past. 

Almost a third of Africa’s elephants have been illegally slaughtered by poachers in the past ten years to meet demand for ivory in Asia, where there is still a booming trade in the material, particularly in China.

About 144,000 elephants were killed between 2007 and 2014, leaving the species at risk of extinction in some areas. Meanwhile those African elephant populations that do survive could become virtually tuskless, like their Asian cousins, researchers have warned.

Joyce Poole is head of the charity Elephant Voices and has been tracking developments in the species for more than 30 years. She told The Times she had seen a direct correlation between the intensity of poaching and the percentage of females born without tusks in some of the herds she monitored. 

In Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, 90 per cent of elephants were slaughtered between 1977 and 1992, during the country’s civil war.

Dr. Poole said that because poachers disproportianetly targetted tusked animals, almost half the females over 35 years of age have no tusks, and although poaching is now under control and the population is recovering well, they are passing the tuskless gene down to their daughters: 30 per cent of female elephants born since the end of the war also do not have tusks.

"Females who are tuskless are more likely to produce tuskless offspring," she said.

The most striking example is in the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, where 98 per cent of female elephants have no ivory. Big game hunters there had killed all but 11 elephants by the time the park was created in 1931. Four of the eight surviving females were tuskless.

In 2008, scientists found that even among elephants that remained tusked, the tusks were smaller than in elephants’ a century before – roughly half their previous size. Although not having tusks may protect elephants from poaching, it is not ideal.

"Tusks are used to dig for food and water, to dig up trees and branches and move them around, for self-defence and for sexual display," the BBC reported. 

"Conservationists say an elephant without tusks is a crippled elephant."



Dr. Joyce Poole

Dr. Joyce Poole, is regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on elephants. She is a member of Amboseli Elephant Research Project, the world’s longest study of elephants, which forms an unparalleled body of knowledge. In 2011 she and her husband, Petter Granli, founded an elephant conservation project "ElephantVoices" in the Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Poole holds a Ph.D. in elephant behavior from Cambridge University, and has studied the social behavior and communication of elephants for over 40 years. Her contributions to science include the discovery of "musth" (a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones) in male African elephants, the description of the contextual use of elephant vocalizations including those below the level of human hearing, and the discovery of vocal imitation.

Her finding that ivory poaching destroys the fabric of elephant society was instrumental to the decision to ban the international trade in ivory in 1989. Her understanding of male elephant behavior, and the importance of social learning and role models in elephant society have been key to the adoption of more humane elephant management practices.

As head of the Elephant Program of Kenya Wildlife Service from 1990-1994, Joyce was responsible for elephant conservation and management throughout Kenya. Her knowledge and enthusiasm inspired many Kenyans who hold key elephant management positions in the country today.



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