Mulling over culling of elephants in Sri Lanka


"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."  -  Haruki Murakami 

According to the article entitled, "Indian Elephant Expert Critical of Conservation Methods" by Malaka Rodrigo that was published in the Sunday Times (20 October 2013), based on a recent public lecture – "A Way Forward with Elephants" – delivered at a forum organized by the Federation of Environmental Organizations of Sri Lanka (FEOSL), the Indian elephant expert and co-chair of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Mr. Ajay Desai had recommended, inter alia, the culling of elephants in ‘troubled’ spots as a means of resolving the human-elephant conflict in the island. Furthermore, Mr. Desai added that "this method was cost effective and would even have conservation gains such as using funds to conserve other viable elephant populations. It would also bring a quick end to these elephants instead of a slow lingering death which is what actually awaits them or a life time in captivity and death in the end".

A central concept of population ecology is that of ‘carrying capacity’ which refers to the fact that there is a limit to the number of animals of any species that a given habitat can support. The precise number depends on what the species eats, and how much habitat space is available. In Africa, when elephants exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat, they are known to push down trees on a large scale and convert woodland into grassland. An adult bull elephant can eat up to 150kg of vegetation a day. When elephants over run their food supplies, some wildlife biologists feel that the only solution is to reduce their numbers to an acceptable level by culling (i.e. shooting) the surplus. Others believe that non-interference is the best response to the elephant problem.

Shooting just one or two elephants does not constitute a cull. It usually refers to the elimination of entire family groups containing the matriarch, other females, young bulls, juveniles and calves. It is a grim business and once the shooting begins it cannot be stopped until all the animals are killed. Injured animals can be dangerous and their distress calls can cause even more stress to the remaining ones. Elephants are animals with complex social relations, and killing them may cause a great deal of suffering to those who survive. In one of the culling operations carried out in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, older animals were shot leaving behind younger ones to form a new "herd". However, in the absence of older bulls, the juveniles ran amok and started killing some rhinos and a few even tried to mate with them and in the process, broke their back. Culling however, failed to halt the population growth of elephants in the Kruger National Park. Elephants rebuilt their numbers in successive years.

Although culling of elephants is one of the management options available to reduce their numbers in overpopulated areas, it should not be recommended except in rare, special and well-defined circumstances. But in Sri Lanka, culling is not even an option. Asian elephants do not seem to push down trees with the same propensity as the African species. Across much of the elephant’s range in Sri Lanka, the problem of destruction of forest does not arise. As Prof. Raman Sukumar – the leading expert on Asian elephant – points out, "the cycle of elephant-tree interaction could have a lower amplitude and longer period in the Asian habitat than in a similar African habitat".

More than habitat destruction, the most serious conservation issue in Sri Lanka is the conflict between man and elephant. It is essential that the impact of elephants on the rural population be minimized if conservation is to receive local support.

Elephants do not just live in forests and national parks; they live in a whole social, economic, political and ecological environment. When humans are few, they generally accept wildlife in their neighborhood. When they become numerous, they tend to become intolerant. At any but the lowest density, large wild animals such as elephants and humans are fundamentally incompatible and as the density of both increases, this incompatibility too increases rapidly. In Sri Lanka, elephants are not killed for food since no one eats elephant meat; they are not killed for their hide, since there is no use for it; and they are not shot for ivory since tuskers are rare. Thus, elephants are killed in Sri Lanka mainly because they interfere with agriculture. This is the crux of the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.

In 2012, a total of 252 elephant deaths were reported from Sri Lanka. In the same year, 66 people were killed by wild elephants. Not all the reported elephant mortality can be directly attributable to wanton killing by man: elephants die of old age; some die of disease; others get electrocuted by naked, low-hung wires; a few animals get knocked down by trains on railroads; and some fall into abandoned pits and die. Thus it appears that in Sri Lanka, annually about 100 to 120 animals may be killed deliberately in the human-elephant conflict.

Sri Lanka, given its small size (65,610 and high human population (more than 21 million) is one of the most densely populated countries in Asia with about 325 people per But the highest human population density is to be found mostly along the southwestern coast from where wild elephants are absent. The First National Survey that was carried out by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in 2011 shows that there can be a minimum of about 6,000 elephants. In Sri Lanka, culling elephants is not a management option, given the sensibilities of both Buddhists and Hindus for whom the elephant is a religious icon. Sri Lankans will never accept the culling of such intelligent, highly social animals with long lifespans. We need to think of other humane solutions to minimize the human-elephant conflict.

We live in a world overpopulated with humans, where human food crops are far more attractive to elephants than the natural vegetation in their habitats. Electric fences can protect both humans and elephants from conflict. But in Sri Lanka, there is a need to reassess the haphazard way in which electric fences have been established across the range of elephants without regard to their movement patterns. Electric fences, if properly constructed and maintained, can certainly prevent the movement of elephants into agricultural areas. Instead of killing elephants, some of them can be captured and trained for use in wildlife management (anti-poaching operations), nature tourism (elephant-back safaris), in forestry operations (logging in forest plantations) and if funds are available, the pocketed elephants can be captured and relocated to other Range States so that they can still live in the wild, and a few could even be maintained in well managed zoological gardens and safari parks. Thus culling of elephants is not an option in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka being an island, it would be impossible to totally exclude people from landscapes where elephants roam. If elephants and humans are to co-exist, we need to make available not only intact landscapes for elephants to range but also make every effort to reach out to those people who share their land with elephants. Mr. Ajay Desai’s recommendation to cull elephants seems to have generated more heat and shed less light on the management of elephants in Sri Lanka. It was unwarranted, unhelpful and unfortunate.

Charles Santiapillai & S. Wijeyamohan Ringling Center for the Study of Asian Elephant at Rajarata University of Sri Lanka;

The William H. Darr School of Agriculture, Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri, USA

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