Asian elephants have been on this island since before it became an island. Sri Lanka is part of the species’ ancestral home and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers came here and cultivated — before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and [...]

Sunday Times 2

Human-elephant conflict: The folly of fences


Asian elephants have been on this island since before it became an island. Sri Lanka is part of the species’ ancestral home and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers came here and cultivated — before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonisers and governments. This was their land long before humans set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else.

Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbours an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: Do we want elephants to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome.

Leaving aside the insults of landscape conversion and persecution the elephants suffered during the colonial era, the greatest threat continues to be our land and water policies. These policies serve economic and agricultural interests. Their by-product, we term “human-elephant conflict” (HEC). But HEC is only a convenient label for problems that originate with the willful ignorance of how nature behaves, an open disregard for science, and an unwillingness to face the really difficult question of how a population 5,000 elephants can manage to survive among over 20 million people. Because, let’s face it, our lives would be easier without elephants. People would feel safer, wildlife managers would be under less pressure, development schemes would proceed unhindered, and many conservationists could turn to careers that actually pay a decent wage. Elephants present a problem. So why don’t we simply round them up, put them where they belong (the designated sanctuaries) and forget about them?

The very process of driving elephants from one place to another is traumatic.

For one, the very process of driving elephants from one place to another is traumatic. Innocent herds of females and calves, which are largely not responsible for conflict or human fatalities, will be shot at and hassled until they are cornered like cattle. They will wander around in unfamiliar territory, which likely already contains its own belligerent population of elephants, until they eventually die. We have seen all this before. If death is the outcome, they are better off shot than enduring such suffering. The bulls meanwhile, which are of actual concern, will not stay put.

The Udawalawe National Park presents an informative case study. For more than 13 years, my team and I have had the privilege of following the lives of the elephants here. Our earliest findings were that this tiny scrap of protected space of barely 300 square km hosts a seasonal population of 800-1,000 elephants, which is two-to-three times higher than the officially acknowledged figure. Just how many of these go in and out of park is unknown, but they regularly pass through the Dahaiyagala and Wetahirakanda ‘corridors’. These electric-fenced passages are really just fragments of the greater landscape the elephants use outside the protected area system. But all is not well even for these elephants. Though the people will show righteous outrage at the occasional death of a tusker, they barely see the bony females and thin calves that will eventually vanish, let alone the ones that are never born. The Udawalawe elephant population may linger for a while, but it would quietly diminish without access to habitat outside the park, just as the Yala population already has.

The electric fence on the UWNP’s southern boundary along the Thanamalwila road was perhaps the most famous. It has been regularly broken by elephants, ever since the over-abundance of electric fences inside the park itself taught elephants how easy they were to knock over. An internal review by the Department of Wildlife Conservation found that only 20 percent of the fences in and around Udawalawe were actually functional. Sri Lanka already has more than 4,000 km of electric fencing (not including the home-made ones), and the plans call for at least 2,000 km more. Yet there is no such thing as an elephant-proof fence, no matter what their design is or how much money is thrown at them.

Then there is the matter of the holding grounds. Prior monitoring had shown that translocated elephants rarely stayed put, and were likely to leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they blundered their way back to whence they came. So the holding grounds were intended as a final solution for just those regularly “problem” animals which could not be dealt with in any other way. Except that if every crop-raiding elephant is deemed a problem, the facilities will fill up fast.

We actually have no idea how many individuals are actually responsible for conflict incidents — 100? 1,000? How many holding grounds and how much resources would it take to contain all of them for the rest of their lives, never mind those new troublemakers that are born every day? These questions are unanswered, yet a second holding ground is slated for construction at Lunugamwehera, with anticipated funding from the World Bank under ESCAMP, to follow the failed attempt at Horowpathana. This one will be bigger and better.

However, there does not appear to have been a consultative process at any stage, either with the local people or the community at large. There are houses next door, with children playing in their gardens. When an elephant breaks out, which it invariably will, who will take the responsibility for the deaths that will result? This colossal waste will not serve elephants, nor will it serve people. What saddens me most is that the outcome can be predicted, yet we choose to repeat these mistakes.

It is too easy to blame wildlife managers, and they are not blameless. But they are merely struggling to do the impossible, carrying out the whims of politicians who come and go like children on a merry-go-round.  Though they are expected to manage the mess, nine times out of ten these officers are not responsible for the policies that bring elephants and people into conflict in the first place — policies such as the irrational and uneconomical pursuit of ever-increasing paddy cultivation despite the fact that we are self-sufficient in rice. To support this pursuit we built irrigation infrastructure that further encourages water-demanding crops in drought prone areas, which may ultimately prove useless in the coming era of climate change. The architects of these schemes evade accountability for the consequences, as they are supposed to be acting in the name of the farmers. Yet will the next generation be willing to spend as much time in the mud?

We cannot forget about the people. Those who stand to benefit the most from elephants are the already wealthy urban elites who profit from tourism revenue or enjoy the occasional holiday jaunt to a national park. Then there are local operators, and those who sustain the sector through their labours. This segment of the population bears none of the cost of elephants. Those who benefit least are the farming families, who also bear the entire cost. Would I want to risk raising children in a place where they might run into an elephant outside? No. Would I be content to pursue a livelihood that could any day be upended by the mere passing of a single animal? No. So how can I expect another to?

Surveying households in the communities adjacent to the UWNP, we found the poorest among them survive on an annual income of less than Rs. 200,000. The cost of living in Sri Lanka has soared thanks to a falling currency, inflation, taxation, and a glut of local and foreign post-war investment. In a just world, those who benefit from elephants in any capacity need to subsidiSe and support the welfare of those who suffer the most, speak up for the interests of all, and invest in building sustainable rural enterprises. It is useless ranting online from the comfort of an armchair while happily profiting from the status quo. Moreover, the money being wasted on elephant management would be better spent on education that anticipates the needs of the future and developing an economy based on ecologically appropriate agriculture and industries. This would be the compassionate and practical means to help those who are truly in need. But of course it is not as simple as erecting a fence. And once it is up, the land beyond can be up for grabs.

Growing up, I took our elephants for granted as many still do. The living animal seemed as commonplace as its iconography.  If we let them die out here, we should also wipe their image from our artefacts and objects of enterprise, lest future generations notice our exploitative hypocrisy. Elephants were once free to roam every square kilometer of this land, from seashore to cloud forest and grassland. Yet, today, they are globally restricted to lowlands. Whereas their ancestors traversed the length and breadth of continents, evolving with the changing seasons and climates, we now haggle over whether they should be entitled to cross the few kilometers between restricted fragments of habitat. Yet our most recent work in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation using camera traps shows that, in fact, elephants are remarkably good at avoiding people, day or night, even on busy paths that both use. It is surprising just how frequently this occurs. Coexistence seems not only possible, but it is already the norm. We need to overcome the barrier-mentality and work toward most lasting solutions.

(Dr. Shermin de Silva is a trustee of EFECT, Sri Lanka and the President and Founder of Trunks & Leaves Inc., based in the United States. She works to advance just and equitable evidence-based conservation. She can be contacted at

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