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14th March 1999

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Then and now

Review of Gajah Special Issue on Man-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka

By Tharuka Dissanaike

The most recent issue of Gajah, the journal of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group is dedicated entirely to Sri Lanka's man-elephant conflict.

Mangala de Silva, Professor of Zoology of the Peradeniya University presents the case for the threatened elephant as well as the long-suffering villagers. In his comprehensive report de Silva details what kind of survival measures are needed if the species is to co-exist with a fast expanding rural population. Mr. de Silva gives historical reference of elephants in the Mahawansa and Chulawansa, the first of which apparently was when an Indian bride was brought down for Prince Vijaya. According to the Mahawansa domesticated elephants from India were part of the Princess's dowry.

The great elephant kraals and killings during the colonial times are discussed-the culling of entire elephant populations from the wet zone and montane forests to grow tea, rubber and coconut. According to British records between 1853 to 1894 some 3253 elephants were exported from Sri Lanka and from 1845 to 1859, 5194 elephants were killed. During the times of the great kings, when the hydraulic civilization was at its glorious peak, most of the dry zone was cultivated. This left little room for elephants, who were probably pocketed in small patches of jungles, not unlike today. But the difference is that the wet zone and montane forests were intact and sparsely inhabited and it is believed that large elephant populations inhabited areas like the Sri Pada mountain and Horton Plains. But the coming of the British changed this.

The post British period too has not been kind to the elephant. Large-scale irrigation and resettlement programmes, industries and plantations in areas which are normally inhabited by elephants have resulted in inevitably unpleasant encounters. The Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme is seen as being the direct cause of the recent human-elephant conflict in the North West and North East.

The schemes opened up new forest areas for settled agriculture. In the absence of a census of the elephant population in Sri Lanka, the author estimates that there are around 4000-4500 elephants in the wild. The man-elephant conflict (MEC in the report) sees several major areas of conflict. Crop damage is the most frequent complaint, while loss of life is a serious threat. The report points out that the majority killed or injured by elephants are men not women, and most often they were drunk at the time of the encounter. Many try to defend their crop without proper torches or flashes. Damage to property and houses is also frequent. The report mentions the various methods farmers use to keep the jumbos away. Shouting or exploding crackers and thunder flashes to more violent means like poisoning, setting traps, leaving nailed wood on the jumbos' path and using homemade shotguns on the animals were some of them.

While the study showed that crop damage occurred throughout the year, it intensifies during months of drought when the forest food supply dwindles. Elephants attack mostly between 7pm and 1am in the night.

The man-elephant conflict obviously will not resolve itself. Where the population is increasing the demands on land and forest resources will increase. The area available for elephant habitat will dwindle.

The role of the Department of Wildlife Conservation in addressing the MEC and looking at long-term conservation instead of adopting ad hoc remedies is critically examined in the report. Although the Department has to its credit the protection and establishment of many reserves and National Parks, it does not have a coherent plan for the survival of the species in the future.

The delay in obtaining compensation for loss of property or death from elephant attack is another problem. If adequate compensation was paid and on time, people's attitude towards the elephant may not be so violent. De Silva proposes a series of measures both short and long term which could help the survival of the species for a few centuries more at least. In the short-term he says it is essential that the DWC carries out the work they have been doing so far in translocating troublesome elephants, minimizing encounters and providing people with adequate means of chasing elephants away. In the medium term, awareness programmes at grassroots level with the participation of NGOs and village organisations will make sure there is more understanding about the animal and how to protect villagers'crops and homes. Making compensation payments more realistic and quick, removing troublesome herds in village forests to better protected areas are certain other measures recommended.

The long term survival of the species will not be ensured by any of the above measures. The author recommends establishing Elephant Reserves. These elephant reserves would link the present network of protected areas to a certain extent. In the reserves enriching the habitat and water sources so that elephants would not need to break into cultivations and creating physical and physiological deterrents to prevent elephants from escaping will be important. Elephants would in this way be confined to reserves and protected areas already under the DWC . Lastly and rather controversially, de Silva recommends capture and domestication of elephants for breeding in a semi wild environment as well as work in timber sites and temples; He says that if the MEC is reduced with the above measures, jumbo populations will increase and might need controlling (e.g.- domestication) to maintain viable populations.

Copies of Gajah, July-December 1998, are available with Prof. Charles Santiapillai, Department of Zoology, University of Peradeniya

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