Human-elephant conflict: Electric fences – a success or failure?
By Yumiko Perera
The human-elephant conflict(HEC), currently a hotly-debated topic, is something Sri Lanka has grappled with over the past few decades. Although very little progress has been made with regard to this issue – or perhaps due to this – the topic has taken centre stage in the recent past.
Recently, the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) revealed in Parliament that a total of Rs. 490 million has been spent on electric fences in just the last couple of years, and yet, little to no progress has been made so far.
In 2019, the Government spent Rs. 275,447,639 on building electric fences, while a sum of Rs. 221,505,818 was incurred in 2020. The total length of the electric fence constructed at this cost is 4,756 km.
The Sunday Morning got in touch with State Minister of Wildlife Protection, Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches, and Reforestation and Forest Resource Development Wimalaweera Dissanayake, to shed some light on the topic.
“We are trying to understand the shortcomings of the age-old tradition of putting up electric fences, and trying to come up with a more innovative solution. While we are implementing various types of projects to see what works, I feel the traditional fence is unsuccessful because of multiple reasons,” he noted.
“The lack of proper maintenance, and not being placed in the correct places, seems to be the main reason why elephant fences don’t seem to be working. I do believe that it can be successful through managing it methodically. That is where the issue is, I feel. We are still trying to set up a proper framework with regard to that,” he said.
Minister Dissanayake further emphasised the need for construction and maintenance of electric fences to be carried out under the collaborative efforts of the Forest Department and the Wildlife Conservation Department (WCD), with the support of the relevant divisional secretariats, Agrarian Services Department, and the Mahaweli Authority.
A problem in methodology
Speaking with The Sunday Morning, renowned environmentalist and activist Dr. Sumith Pilapitxiya shared his expert view, stating: “The Government in 1959 appointed a committee to come up with a plan to manage elephants in Sri Lanka. That committee’s report specified that elephants should be contained within protected areas that have been designated for the Wildlife Conservation Department. Since 1959, that is what we have been trying to do. We have put up fences on the administrative boundaries of the WCD lands, and tried to drive the elephants inside to keep them enclosed in a limited space.
“When these statements have been made by COPA, stating that a certain amount of money had been spent on electric fences and the conflict is only increasing, the natural assumption for most people would be that fencing isn’t working. It is not that the fencing has failed, the way we do the fencing is the problem.”
He observed that Sri Lanka has been trying for over 60 years, and yet utterly failed, to make fencing initiatives work – which meant that it was probably high time to look at the issue from another perspective.
Although there are various proposals in policy documents to resolve the HEC, he stated that they are not being implemented in practice at the grassroots level.
“By taking a human-centric approach without understanding the needs of the elephants, we will not be able to make any progress concerning this. We are not studying elephant biology; we need to study elephant ranging patterns, and we must take elephant behaviour into account if we are to solve this problem,” he observed.
Dr. Pilapitiya believes that electric fences are indeed the best and the most effective deterrent for the HEC – just as long as electric fences are being built in the right places.
“You have to understand that the electric fence is not to demarcate boundaries; the electric fence is to keep elephants and humans separate. Elephants travel based on ecology, and not on administrative boundaries. If the fence has been erected where a forest gives way to development, there is a distinct change in ecology there.
“In most places in Sri Lanka, fences are not put up to protect elephants, but to protect people and agriculture. A male elephant’s home range is about 150-200 square kilometres. During musth (a periodic mating-related state in which bull elephants become more aggressive), it increases to about 350 square kilometres. For females, it is about 50-100 square kilometres.
“If you have a forest patch that is 25 square kilometres and put a fence around it, do you think you can keep an elephant inside it, even if there is an ecological boundary? Only where there are adequate contiguous forests can you consider putting up fences on the ecological boundaries,” he concluded.
More natural solutions
Meanwhile, environmentalist and activist Sajeewa Chamikara, speaking with The Sunday Morning, shared: “The first thing is that the electric fences should be made by ensuring the habitats of the elephants remain open. There should be a proper network to make sure the elephant habitats are not fragmented.”
Emphasising that the electric fence is still the most successful strategy when it comes to the HEC, Chamikara further added: “I don’t think electric fences have failed; I believe it is a tangible solution if done right.
“When you put up an electric fence, the two sides of the fence have to be secured. The growth of bioshields alongside the fences would not only secure the fence further, but it would also help the fence serve its purpose better,” he said.
According to Chamikara, a variety of “hana” species, which has a broad blade and a sharp thorn nearly two inches at the end, is a method used by some villagers to keep elephants at bay.
“There are also various types of plants that do not attract elephants, like citrus plants. The two sides of the electric fence should be further secured through bioshield plants,” said Chamikara.
Calling attention to the improper construction of elephant reserves and elephant corridors, and the poor construction of electric fences without adhering to the proper standards, Chamikara noted: “A tangible, long-lasting solution to the HEC can’t be sought by doing the bare minimum.”
Highlighting the need of improving the quality of elephant habitats as a measure to lessen the damage caused by elephants, Chamikara noted: “Water sources which these animals use, need to be maintained properly so that the animals don’t have to trespass into villages, and areas occupied by humans, in search of food and water.
“After erecting the electric fence, you can’t keep animals enclosed in that space. We also need to make sure that even within these habitats, there are good conditions through which the animals can survive. A lot of elephant habitats have been spread with invasive plants. Guinea grass, Lantana, and other plants like Katu Una are known to be invasive of elephant habitats, not only limiting their food sources, but also limiting areas where the elephants can roam freely.”
Calling attention to deforestation and clearing of the forest cover happening at present, Chamikara said: “None of this would ultimately matter if we go ahead with short-sighted development projects or commercial agricultural projects. Monoculture and fragmenting the elephant habitats on these kinds of projects are what shouldn’t be done. By doing so, you can’t find a solution to the HEC issue. The problem is not with the fences, but with the invasion of elephant habitats.”
Twenty-eight human deaths and 83 elephant deaths owing to the HEC have been reported in 2021 so far. As human and elephant deaths continue to mount, it is evident that Sri Lanka still has a long way to go in terms of coming up with a tangible solution to this predicament.