Hakka pattas – a fast-increasing cause of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka

By Jithendri Gomes

Photo credit: Sampath Ekanayake

Hakka pattas, the name suggests a fun explosive for us to play with, but in reality is the extreme opposite of it. It is soon becoming the number one reason for reported elephant deaths, surpassing gunshot wounds. It is also the most inhuman way of killing that inflicts a lot of pain and suffering on the animal. Yet, the trend is increasing, leaving us to wonder how our people who lived in harmony with these gentle giants now have the heart to place these merciless explosives. We spoke to experts in the field to get a better understanding of something that in reality should be quite simple.

A slow and painful death

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has now confirmed that the cause for elephant deaths due to hakka pattas is fast increasing and may even be more than the rate of elephants dying due to gunshot wounds, which was the previous highest reason for deaths recorded. It claims that it was originally used for bushmeat and still may be a main reason why it is used by villagers. But the unfortunate truth is that it is mostly young elephants that fall prey and die. The farmers or villagers hide these explosives inside fruits or vegetables and leave it lying at random places. The young and more inquisitive elephants pick this up to eat and the explosives take effect once bitten into.

As a result of hakka patas, the tongue, jaws, and all the soft tissues get severely damaged. This means, the animal, unable to consume anything including water, literally starves to death. The infection spreads fast, leaving them in excruciating pain, and they die in a matter of a day or two.

Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando

“What really surprises me is that we claim to be a Buddhist nation and are supposed to treat all animals equally and compassionately. In fact, any religion teaches you to be kind towards other animals or beings. I don’t understand how anyone can engage in such activities that will cause immense pain for another being. It is a completely inhuman act and I condemn it whole heartedly,” said Centre for Conservation and Research Chairman Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando to The Sunday Morning Brunch.

Dr. Fernando went on to say that he believed bushmeat had a big role to play and that animals may not be targeted specifically yet. He also highlighted that if these villagers’ motive is to get rid of the “troublesome” elephants by using these explosives, they are far from achieving their target. Almost always, it is the young calves or at most an elephant from a herd that get injured, whereas the ones actually causing damage to their properties are lone males.

“The usage of these methods has been in existence for the last 10 to 20 years, but it has been increasing in the last few years. It must also be highlighted that not everyone can assemble these explosives – you must have the knowledge and materials to do so. It is very technical and not everyone can do it. Therefore, any villager would know who is builds them in their village. So we can certainly use peer pressure to address this problem,” he explained, adding that villagers must also be taught why this method is not the way to achieve their target.

According to Dr. Fernando, this method is also legally offensive and punishable. But monitoring find out the culprits is very impractical, unless the villagers confess as to who is engaged in such activities. He said that it is not easy to take legal action. “The DWC is doing a lot to collect the statistics and information, but along with them, it appears the conservationists are certainly not doing enough to create awareness about this problem,” he stressed.

“As much as these awareness programmes are done for the villagers, it must also be done in the urban areas, as it is them who create the demand for bushmeat in the first place; it is they who go into the villages and ask for meats like wild boar, increasing its demand. I believe creating awareness about this matter, both in the city and the village, is the way forward.”

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya

World Bank Lead Environmental Specialist Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya also contributed his thoughts to on this matter. He explained that there was an increase of incidents reporting elephant deaths due to these explosives in comparison to the deaths due to gunshot wounds.

“This could be because during the last few years, the DWC put a lot of effort to monitor people. Illegal guns are easier to track and a dead elephant in your property is difficult to ignore. Therefore, the culprit is easier to track. I believe the farmers and the people found an easier way to kill their ‘predators’ without being accused of the crime,” he explained.

Dr. Pilapitiya also emphasised the fact that, unlike in a situation of a gunshot wound, the elephant doesn’t die immediately. Instead, they wander off away from the place it eats the hakka pattas, making it even more difficult to track where it would have happened and who was responsible. This makes it even more impossible for DWC to take legal action. Dr. Pilipitiya was also quick to stress on the role clergy played in mitigating the problem. He emphasised on the fact that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country that believes in non-violence and compassionate treatment to all animals, although people still engage in the most inhumane way of killing another being.

“Any religion preaches to love all being and not to harm them. I believe the clergy has a big role to play in this matter. For example, in a Buddhist-majority village, the people will most often not go above the word of the chief priest. So if we can encourage them to speak against this practice and educate their villagers, we may make a better impact and reach more people. And it just might be the way to put an end to this,” he said.
He also confirmed the effectiveness of educating children to get through to their parents. When the children take the message to their parents and question them on the inhumane practices they are engaged in, it shows a better result of being successful.

“Everyone from the clergy, teachers in school, conservationists, children, and the DWC has a role to play in the solution for this problem. We cannot put this off hoping someone else will do it. I must also emphasis that I never believed it was for bushmeat, because when using hakka pattas, just like the elephants, the wild boar too does not die immediately. It too will wander off and die elsewhere. So how can the killers track them? And not to mention, the elephants’ deaths due to hakka pattas are increasing day by day,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

What does the law say?

Jagath Gunawardana

We also spoke to environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana to gain his insights on the matter. He confirmed to us that using hakka pattas is definitely punishable by law under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, which reads as an ordinance “to provide for the protection, conservation, and preservation of the fauna and flora of Sri Lanka; for the prevention of the commercial exploitation of such fauna and flora; and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

“It is also illegal to maim or kill a protected animal under which the elephant falls under. And on top of that, to use any unauthorised explosives of any sort is illegal, especially under the current emergency law state. Therefore, one can convict someone under three different offences – at least two if the animal is not categorised as ‘protected’,” he said. We also asked him about his thoughts regarding the practicality of accusing those who assemble and place these explosives.

“I always believed that we must have a selection of informants in these areas who can gather information. Using this information, we can raid their houses for holding explosives and take them into custody to at least question them. If these explosives are also placed within a certain property holder’s boundaries, they can be accused. The DWC must conduct more training programmes on how to gather information. I always believed that they too need to have their own intelligence officers who can act as informants – it is the optimal solution with the current situation,” he responded.

Also sharing insights with us was Manori Gunawardena. She is a director of Environmental Foundation (Guaranteed) Ltd. and a leading wildlife scientist. “I too believe that the farmers are not targeting the right animal if it is done to harm or keep the elephants away. It is the lone adult males that raid crops as opposed to the young calves that are the victims. The death rate due to hakka pattas has surpassed that of gunshot wounds. We can attribute shooting to a self-defence mechanism when the elephants raid the crops or at worst for poaching. But with hakka pattas, we can’t do so. We actually can’t quite pin down why people do it at all.”

Gunawardena explained that the majority of it is related to bushmeat. For example, it is mostly placed on a pathway leading to a water source. We need to do more research and have a deeper understanding as to why they engage in this inhuman activity. Mostly, the wild boars and the elephants are the ones that fall victim, whereas for some reason, the deer does not consume it. However, she also mentioned that there were also some recordings of the villagers’ own cattle falling victim to their own explosives.

“The first recorded incident took place supposedly eight or nine years ago in the Trincomalee District; this is mostly prevalent mostly in the North Central Province. And now, it has spread to the Hambantota District as well. The trend of using the hakka pattas is now spreading faster than expected. I also remember an incident being reported around five years ago where some children playing with hakka pattas were injured and harmed. But the story was never followed up,” she informed.

According to Gunawardena, the more interesting aspect to research was how one learns to build these explosives. It is not easy to manufacture and assemble hakka patas, and it is a very technical craft. The question is: How is the knowledge to build it transfer and spread between two ends of the country? The material, of course, is easy to find because all you have to do is dismantle a fire cracker. However, the mechanism behind getting it to detonate is different.

“Only a selected number of people poach in the villages, but even that is increasing because of the increasing demand, especially in the Kataragama area around the festival season. This proves, yet again, that it is the people coming from outside who create the demand. It is a very Sri Lankan thing to consume ‘dada mas’ while on holiday. What is even more terrifying is that the same people who go during the day on a safari to appreciate our wildlife demand for the very same thing in the night. This pattern must change,” Gunawardena noted.

She too emphasised the fact that the conservation community need to educate the middle and upper classes – both urban and rural – about this problem and how it indiscriminately kills any animal that gets caught to it.

“Your consumption habits ultimately have a negative impact on the baby elephants. It is also interesting to find out why the adult elephants are not consuming it – do they know to avoid it?”

Regardless, it is one the most inhuman ways to kill any living being, so we must, as a society for conservation or simply as humans put an end to it and educate any and all levels of our society.