Understanding elephants and finding solutions to HEC

By L.B.Senaratne

The elephant, whether captive or wild, evokes much interest, debate and controversy in Sri Lanka. On the one hand there is a cry among those who organize processions and religious pageants that there are not enough captive elephants to go around during the Perahera seasons, especially during the period of July to September. On the other hand, farmers and rural people who live in areas close to forests and rely on agriculture as the mainstay of their livelihoods complain of elephant attacks not only on their plantations, but even on their homes. These are the wild elephants whose numbers, according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, appear to have increased in the recent past.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation website records that Sri Lanka has 3,500–4,000 wild elephants. However, the forest cover in Sri Lanka is now less than 18% of the land area and the extent of those designated as “protected” is only 13%. This has resulted in a large proportion of the wild elephants in Sri Lanka being located outside protected areas, in small and isolated clumps of forest that are in close proximity to human habitation and cultivation areas. Hence the inevitable outcome is the human-elephant conflict (HEC), which has become acute and unbearable in many areas, especially in the North-Western region (Wayamba), Mahaweli areas and the Southern region (Ruhuna). \
Practical sessions of the course being conducted at Pinnawela Orphanage

Data from the Department of Wild Life Conservation shows that 1,369 elephants were killed during the past 10 years, with gunshot injuries accounting for 56% of them, 68% being adult bulls. During this period 536 people were killed by wild elephants, with 75% being men.

On average, HEC results in deaths of 150 elephants and 50-70 humans each year. However, in spite of the severe hardships and economic losses suffered by rural people, many still have a positive attitude towards elephant conservation.

This is the struggle that Sri Lanka faces and it appears to be so in many of the other 12 Asian countries which comprise the “elephant range states”.

Then, what is the solution?

The Government has a compensation scheme for loss of life and damages to crops and property, but those who have suffered such losses say that the process takes years and the funds paid out, if at all, are totally inadequate. The other agencies which are involved in agriculture speak out only at the moment of disaster, but they remain mum until another episode occurs. Government servants who should help these unfortunate people by formulating a policy for the government are 'dumb ' on the issue. Some NGOs are active in this field and could provide remedies for quick action as well as long term plans to mitigate the HEC, but they too remain in the background due to various constraints in working with government implementing agencies.

A new initiative recently launched by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science of the University of Peradeniya, with funding from the European Union under an EU-Asia Link Project termed “Managing the Health and Reproduction of Elephant Populations in Asia”

( might provide some novel solutions. The project partners in the EU are the Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the Royal Veterinary College and the Institute of Zoology in the United Kingdom. The partners in Thailand are the Veterinary Faculties of Kasetsart and Chiangmai Universities and the National Elephant Institute in Lampang. In Sri Lanka, the FVMAS is collaborating with the Department of National Zoological Gardens (which also includes the Pinnawela Elephant orphanage), the DWLC and the Department of Animal Production and Health in implementing the project activities.

The project has as its overall objective the development of human resources and capability for better management, breeding and control of both captive and wild elephant populations in Sri Lanka and Thailand. It was initiated in July 2007 and the first two group activities were the holding of an International Symposium and an Inception Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand. Subsequently, review and planning meetings have been held in the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.

Sri Lanka conducted the first of four training courses planned under the project in August 2008 for ten national participants on “Bull management, handling, natural breeding, semen collection and evaluation” at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. The second training course on “Asian elephant breeding and health management in South Asia” was also conducted in Sri Lanka, from September 7-11 for 16 participants from the Asian region, including those from India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

The course was inaugurated on September 6 with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, Professor Sarath Abayakoon, the Dean of the Veterinary Faculty, Prof. Preeni Abeynayake, and the Project Coordinator, Dr. Niromi Jayasekera addressing the sessions. The theoretical training was conducted at Peradeniya, while the practical training on captive elephants was conducted at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Aspects of wild elephant management were dealt with through lecture/discussions and a field visit at the Minneriya National Park.

The objective of this course was to provide veterinarians and wildlife personnel engaged in the management, conservation and breeding of elephants with knowledge and skills on the reproductive functions of male and female elephants; management of breeding animals and methods for natural and artificial breeding; immunological control of reproduction, musth and aggression; and assessment of health status and procedures for maintaining captive elephants in optimum health.

The Course Directors were Dr. Anil Pushpakumara of Sri Lanka and Dr. Nikorn Thongtipsiridech of Thailand. The resource persons included eminent scientists and elephant specialists from the partner institutes in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Thailand and Sri Lanka, as well as an internationally renowned elephant endocrinologist from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in the USA.

The expected outcome of the course is greater understanding of the reproductive functions of elephants among the veterinarians and wildlife personnel in the Asian region, as well as developing long-term linkages and networking between them and the partner institutes of this project, leading to greater collaboration in elephant management, conservation and breeding activities in the future.

High death toll

  • 1,369 elephants were killed during the past 10 years, with gunshot injuries accounting for 56% of them, 68% being adult bulls.
  • During this period 536 people were killed by wild elephants, with 75% being men. On average, HEC results in deaths of 150 elephants and 50-70 humans each year.
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