Human-elephant conflict: Seeking a new approach 

  • Nearly 191 elephants died between January and July this year 
  • National Action Plan to mitigate HEC yet to be implemented 
  • Rs. 490 m spent on electric fences during past few years 
  • Focus diverted to community-based electric fencing  

By Yumiko Perera 

The human-elephant conflict (HEC) has long plagued the country and is widespread across the island. Each year, the reports of crop damage, property damage, along with human and elephant deaths, continue to soar. According to authorities, the conflict between people and elephants has seen a dramatic escalation over the past few decades.  

It is estimated that Sri Lanka is the country with the highest number of elephant deaths in the world due to the HEC and authorities have highlighted the need for a different approach towards the issue, pushing for a change in the policy pursued in this regard thus far.  

As per the statistics of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), nearly 191 elephants have died between January and July this year, and the human casualties have significantly increased as well.  

Stop looking from human standpoint: Prof. Vitharana

Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana, speaking with The Sunday Morning, highlighted that the only way to make any sort of progress on this front is to stop looking at the issue from a human standpoint.  

“The present approach to this issue is to attempt to put elephants in an enclosure which is surrounded by an electric fence, and drive the elephants into that. However, what is happening in practice is that it is often the mother elephants and the little ones that remain inside the enclosure, but the bigger elephants continue to roam around and create trouble, damaging crops and property,” Prof. Vitharana elaborated.

Noting that the Government has failed to implement the “National Action Plan for the Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict” that had been prepared by a multi-stakeholder committee chaired by Dr. Prithviraj Fernando back in December 2020, Prof. Vitharana further elaborated that it is high time to change the age-old approach that has not been able to provide tangible, long-lasting results. He added that the country must opt for different policy measures to tackle the matter at hand.

Although the average number of elephants killed per year due to HEC in Sri Lanka is 272, 407 elephants died in 2019. It was also revealed that while the average number of human deaths due to HEC stands at approximately 85 per year, in 2019, 122 human casualties were reported.

COPA pushes Dr. Prithviraj Fernando’s HEC management policy

COPA recommends that the DWC abandon the present, old policy, which has so far failed, and implement the policy formulated by Dr. Fernando, The Sunday Morning learnt.

The present policy with regard to elephant management and HEC mitigation was formulated in 1959 and focussed primarily on attempting to confine elephants to protected areas. For over 60 years, many efforts and funds have been expended in pursuit of this goal, to no avail.  

The main method of limiting elephants to protected areas is conducting “elephant drives” and establishing electric fences on their boundaries. Despite dedicated efforts by the DWC to limit the areas within which the elephants roam, approximately 70% of the elephants’ home range has human settlements, rendering decades of work useless.

“The cost to maintain electric fences has also increased over the years, and more deaths are reported every year; yet, neither the elephants nor the humans are happy, and the conflict is constant. This is why the COPA suggested that the present policy needs to change as soon as possible,” Prof. Vitharana concluded.  

The COPA, earlier this year, revealed in Parliament that a total of Rs. 490 million had been spent on electric fences in the last couple of years. In 2019, the Government had spent Rs. 275,447,639 on building electric fences, and a sum of Rs. 221,505,818 had been incurred in 2020, and the total length of the electric fence that had been constructed is approximately 4,756 km. 

Factors fueling HEC

While elephants are creatures that are known to travel vast distances in search of food and water and occupy large home ranges, various development projects, constructions, roads, and human settlements have encroached into their habitats, cutting off major migratory routes. 

Moreover, present-day elephant habitats extend into and overlap with agricultural lands and human settlements, resulting in an inevitable conflict between man and elephant.

It is estimated that there are approximately 6,000 elephants in the country, with over 4,000 elephants that are likely to inhabit areas with human settlements.  

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, Centre for Conservation and Research Chairman and renowned scientist Dr. Prithviraj Fernando noted that there are several reasons that have contributed to the failure of the country’s policy.  

According to Dr. Fernando, due to biological factors including the carrying capacity of the protected area, ecological requirements, and behaviour of elephants, the efforts to limit elephants to protected areas is unlikely to succeed and would only cause an escalation in the conflict. 

While it is also not practically possible, financially feasible, or desirable from a biodiversity conservation point of view to significantly increase the carrying capacity of protected areas when large numbers of elephants are driven into protected areas and fenced in, they face the threat of starvation, as the carrying capacity of an area is determined by the availability of resources, which means that an area can only support a limited number of elephants. 

As areas designated as “protected areas” have been occupied by elephants for centuries, all protected areas in Sri Lanka are already at their carrying capacity, and hence cannot accommodate large numbers of additional elephants, The Sunday Morning learnt.  

Proposed solutions

Elaborating on the proposed “National Action Plan for the Mitigation of Human-Elephant Conflict”, Dr. Fernando explained that the main focus should be on constructing community-based electric fences across human settlements and agricultural areas to prevent elephants from entering and causing damage, instead of herding elephants into an enclosure.  

While community-based electric fencing differs from traditional electric fencing, as it would directly provide protection to communities where it is needed, rather than seeking to enclose elephants in designated habitats, community-based fences are mostly “exclosure” fences that would prevent elephant intrusion into cultivated fields or settlements, built and maintained by the communities that are protected by them.  

In addition to providing the labour for construction and maintenance, communities bearing part of the cost of fence material would reinforce the sense of ownership which is crucial for its success, Dr. Fernando stated. 

Adding that where community involvement is not possible, the new policy proposes that the Government would intervene and maintain the fences. Dr. Fernando noted: “A number of solutions have been proposed for providing immediate relief to the conflict, especially towards the people that are directly affected by elephant depredation, and activities that may increase conflict, such as elephant drives, would be minimised or discontinued.”

Furthermore, Dr. Fernando added that the strengthening of compensation for deaths, injuries, and property damage is also recommended by the new action plan. Insurance initiatives and plans for clearing road verges as well as installing street lighting at critical locations for preventing accidental deaths by elephants would also be developed and implemented.  

Several attempts made by The Sunday Morning to get in touch with State Minister of Wildlife Protection, the Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches, and Reforestation and Forest Resource Development Wimalaweera Dissanayake for further insight in this regard, proved futile.