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Bridging conservation and livelihoods: Addressing SL’s Human-Elephant Conflict

Bridging conservation and livelihoods: Addressing SL’s Human-Elephant Conflict

14 Aug 2023 | BY Ruwan Samaraweera

On World Elephant Day (12 August), attention turns to the unique challenges faced by Sri Lanka in the realm of the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC). The HEC’s escalating toll paints a stark reality. Human communities endure property damage, crop loss, and tragic fatalities, amplifying poverty and socioeconomic instability. Last year, as per the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Sri Lanka documented a total of 145 human fatalities resulting from the HEC. Simultaneously, elephants face habitat loss, injuries, and mortality due to retaliatory killings and encounters with human settlements. The DWC reported a substantial rise in elephant mortality, reaching a peak with a recorded total of 433 deaths in 2022. Therefore, the urgent need for implementing effective solutions to minimise the HEC in the country becomes paramount. 

The HEC is one of the widespread environmental issues with severe socioeconomic and political implications in Sri Lanka. It arises from numerous reasons, with the competition for resources and land between humans and elephants being the most prominent. Rapid urbanisation, encroachment into elephant habitats, the conversion of forests for agriculture and other infrastructure development projects like road infrastructure have disrupted the traditional migration patterns of elephants and fragmented their habitats. Consequently, elephants often venture into human settlements in search of sustenance, leading to conflicts that endanger both the lives of elephants and human.

The HEC in Sri Lanka inflicts severe consequences on both humans and elephants. As far as the number of incidents affecting humans is concerned, crop damages are the most prominent type of damage induced by wild elephants, followed by property damage. Death and injuries to humans are the other types of damage seen quite often.

A farmer in Galgamuwa, Sumanadasa, shares his experience of frequent elephant raids on their crop lands: “As a farmer, my family depends on the crops that we cultivate for our livelihood. However, the constant raids by elephants have taken a toll on our lives. We wake up each morning with anxiety, not knowing if our fields will be destroyed overnight. Our hard work and investment go in vain as elephants trample and devour our crops. It has become a struggle to provide for our family and maintain a sustainable income.”

These heart wrenching stories highlight the profound impact of the HEC on individuals and communities. Beyond the economic losses, the emotional trauma and the loss of human lives are immeasurable. The alarming increase in human and elephant fatalities resulting from the HEC in Sri Lanka underscores the gravity of the situation (‘The HEC in Sri Lanka: History and present status’ by T.D. Gunawansa, K. Perera, A. Apan, and N.K. Hettiarachchi). 

The average annual human death rate due to the HEC increased by approximately 42% from 1992 to 2021, with the 2021 figure reaching 142 deaths. Despite fluctuations, the number of human deaths due to the HEC has consistently exceeded 100 per year over the last three years, resulting in a total of 2,111 human and 5,954 elephant casualties within the last 30 years. 

Apart from that, crop damages emerge as a pervasive and severe issue. A. Senaratne, K. Wickramasinghe, and R. Samaraweera’s study titled, ‘Commercial insurance for farmers for human wildlife conflict by elephants’ revealed that among the crops grown in HEC-prone areas, paddy is the most vulnerable crop for elephant attacks, following coconut and banana. Furthermore, farmers have altered their cropping seasons due to this wild elephant risk.

Likewise, elephants experience notable repercussions that, on certain occasions, culminate in their demise. The DWC reports that the primary causes of elephant mortality are attributed to HEC-induced factors. Two major causes, namely ‘hakkapatas’ (chew bombs) and gunshots, account for over one third of the total HEC-induced elephant fatalities, with another 12% attributed to electrocution.

These incidents underscore the urgency to address the HEC and safeguard both human wellbeing and the conservation of elephants.

Recognising the urgency of addressing the HEC, Sri Lanka has undertaken various policy initiatives and conservation efforts. Some of these are institutionally-arranged measures while some are voluntary adjustments by the affected communities. The DWC plays a crucial role in mitigating conflicts, implementing institutionally arranged measures such as creating elephant corridors, elephant drives, the distribution of thunder flashes, habitat enrichments, and installing electric fences to reduce human elephant interactions. 

Additionally, community based conservation projects involving local communities in decision making have shown promising results in promoting peaceful coexistence in some parts of the country. As a multifaceted approach to mitigating the HEC, the DWC has been implementing the ‘Gaja Mithuro’ programme since 2008. Under this, the DWC launched the aforementioned mitigating measures in 58 Divisional Secretariat Divisions in 18 districts. 

Similarly, residents in affected areas practice numerous voluntary measures to deter problems from elephants. Some examples of voluntary measures  include erecting watch huts, creating noise (e.g., firing thunder flashes, shouting), establishing biological fences, and using methods which involve light such as fires, kerosene lamps, flares, and flashlights to frighten and chase away the elephants. 

However, none of the mitigation measures has given a perfect solution due to various limitations. For instance, some elephants develop adaptive behaviours to actions such as thunder flashes, thus making those no longer effective against them. 

Hence, to effectively manage the HEC, innovative solutions are imperative, and the Government, the academia, and other interested stakeholders continue to actively pursue innovative approaches and optimal strategies to effectively tackle the issue of the HEC in Sri Lanka. Technology driven approaches, including using infrared cameras, drones, sensor based systems, and satellite imagery to detect habitat monitoring and elephant movements and then using mobile communication systems to alert nearby communities in real time (early warning system), can help prevent conflicts. 

Through educational programmes in schools and community outreach initiatives, a sense of responsibility can be instilled while highlighting innovative market-based solutions like insurance. Senaratne et al.’s study found that insurance as a market-based solution can deliver promising results. These solutions can be complemented by agro ecological practices such as cultivating elephant resistant crops, bee fencing, and establishing community-managed buffer zones around protected areas.

As the World Elephant Day serves as a powerful global platform for raising awareness on elephant conservation, Sri Lanka can capitalise on this occasion to promote understanding, empathy, and conservation values within local communities. 

It is crucial to acknowledge that no single solution can entirely address the complexities of the HEC issue, given its regional variations, changes in elephant behaviour, and diverse human activities. Therefore, adopting a holistic approach that combines suitable traditional methods alongside innovative strategies, involving local communities, and considering the conflict’s ecological, economic, and social aspects become essential for effective and sustainable HEC mitigation. Collaboration among Government agencies, conservation organisations, and local communities become paramount in achieving a harmonious coexistence where elephants roam freely, and humans thrive.

By adopting this comprehensive approach, Sri Lanka can strive towards a future where both elephants and humans coexist peacefully, safeguarding the wellbeing of these majestic creatures for generations to come. The World Elephant Day serves as a poignant reminder that collective action and shared responsibility are crucial in preserving the rich biodiversity and cultural heritage that define this Island nation.

(The writer is a Research Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies. He can be contacted at


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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