Sri Lanka has had a long-standing problem with garbage, with many ineffective disposal methods used, and now we’ve seen the results of it with the recent elephant deaths. Around 20 elephants have died over the last eight years after consuming plastic trash in the dump in the Pallakkadu village of the Ampara District, about 210 km (130 miles) east of the capital, Colombo, and just last week two more were added to that list.
Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research, speaking to The Morning Brunch on the topic of the recent elephant deaths, explained that garbage dumps attract many animals because they contain an abundance of food items that are high in energy and nutrients and are therefore, a reliable resource. “Because of their body size, elephants require large quantities of food. As hindgut fermenters, they employ a strategy of feeding on low-caloric vegetation that is abundant and quickly process large amounts of food,” he explained, noting that consequently, free ranging elephants consume around 150-300 kg of food daily and spend about 18 hours a day feeding.
Asian elephants are mega-herbivores and rely on both grazing and browsing. They are generalised feeders and consume more than 100 species of plants, but prefer types of grass and legumes. In addition to natural vegetation, elephants may consume crops by raiding. Unfortunately, due to the lack of food in Sri Lanka, and owing to elephants being restricted from roaming freely due to the human-elephant conflict (HEC), several African and Asian elephants have been reported to consume garbage.
Dr. Fernando also shared that most of what elephants eat at a garbage dump is fruit and vegetable matter that is discarded. They also eat prepared food such as rice and bakery products if available. “They are attracted to such dumps because there is a lot of food there that is better since it is of higher nutritional value than what is in the forest,” he added.
As per a report published by Dr. Fernando, the main possible negative impact is the consumption of something that is poisonous, which can injure their digestive tract (like sharp objects, glass, etc.) or block it. However, since elephants are very selective in what they eat, the possibility of this is low, the report added. “While they do eat lunch sheets and sorts, because they are not ruminants, the chances of their digestive tract getting blocked is minimal,” he had noted. In the wild they consume things like the bark of trees and stems of bananas which are also not digested but pass through as large masses. Even though it may not seem that the polythene is harmful, we must question what other harmful toxins are in these landfills that cause death in elephants.
The landfill site in Ampara was created about a decade ago near a protected wildlife zone that is home to about 300 elephants. The Sri Lankan Government has sought to protect elephants and other wildlife by moving to ban the import of most plastic products.
Although the Sri Lankan Government has had plans in place for at least four years to recycle plastics in open landfills and install electric fences around their perimeter to prevent such deaths from happening in the first place, those efforts haven’t fully materialised. The Pallakkadu village – which collects waste from nine villages – once had an electric fence around the landfill. However, it was struck by lightning and hasn’t been fixed or replaced since 2014. Further, the site isn’t properly recycling its waste. At other Sri Lankan landfills, the Government has resorted to digging giant moats around landfills to keep elephants out. We can only hope that with this new tragedy that took place, these elephants’ safety will be taken into consideration soon.