Are Trenches Really the Solution to Human-Elephant conflict in Sri Lanka?

By Salik Ansar     

 

Day by day, elephants are losing their habitat. Hour by hour, they are losing their sources of food and water. Now, they are faced with yet another threat – falling into man-made trenches. These falls, and getting stuck in trenches, could be life-threatening. In 2021, the State Ministry of Wildlife Conservation decided to dig trenches to try to prevent elephants from crossing into human-occupied lands. However, experts fear the decision will cause more harm to the animals than good.

As a nation, Sri Lanka has suffered over the last few years: the economic crisis caused by the dwindling economy, the rise in inflation and questionable policy decisions; large-scale deforestation; mismanagement of state funds… the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, human-elephant conflict (HEC) appears to have been at its highest these last two years, with losses from both sides. While many NGOs and concerned individuals are constantly finding innovative ways to mitigate HEC, Sri Lanka’s governing body – the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) – has also been busy finding solutions. After deliberation, the DWC has resorted to digging trenches to mitigate conflicts in the selected area. But as you’ll see below, we ask the question: is this really a solution?

The plight of the elephants is simple, day by day they are losing their habitat, their sources of food is decreasing, and now they are having to navigate dangerous trenches in order to feed themselves.

Who thought of this solution?

The State Ministry of Wildlife Conservation, in a sudden change of events, decided to dig trenches in an aim to prevent elephants from entering human-occupied land. To understand this sudden decision, we need to delve into the political landscape. Over two years ago a new political party came into power and with them came promises: a promise to find a solution to HEC in all affected areas in the country. 

Tring to uphold these promises, the state minister along with the President of Sri Lanka appointed a “Presidential committee” to look into many state matters, including the matter of resolving HEC. The committee had members who were wildlife experts, and they came up with an action plan for HEC mitigation, which did not include trenches. However, the state minister, who is not a wildlife expert himself, came up with the idea to build trenches around farming communities where HEC is at its highest.

 

Are Trenches the right solution?

According to the former Department of Wildlife Conservation head, Dr. Pilapitiya, trenches have been tried before and it has failed, not only in Sri Lanka but in many other ranges across the world. It is ineffective and inhumane.  

“In Sri Lanka, trenches have been tried in combination with DWC electric fences at the Pelawatte Sugar Company and the Lunugamvehera National Park in the south and Kathnoruwa in the northwest but proved ineffective. Private landowners in the Puttalam area have also tried out trenches but without success,” Dr. Pilapitiya points out, with evidence in hand.

The view from Thailand

Earlier this year, we initiated a collaboration with partners in Thailand to monitor elephants in agricultural fields using camera traps. Trenches have been in use for some time to keep elephants away from the pineapple and other fruit crops in the area. Having habituated to this tactic by now, it was interesting to see how the elephants behaved. In the video below, PhD student Tyler Nuckols from the University of Colorado Boulder is filming elephants entering the agricultural area using night-vision binoculars. Instead of serving as a barrier, some wiley individuals use it as a shelter for hiding from the night patrols! This is only natural, given that elephants often use dry river banks as movement paths.

Many experts feel that trenches will cause more harm than good. In Sri Lanka especially, the trenches are ineffective, as the heavy monsoonal rains fill the trenches and eventually the sides collapse. Moreover, the trenches will be a barrier to the movements of smaller animals. As is observed in other parts of the world, smaller animals will get caught in these trenches and eventually succumb to slow deaths without food, water, shelter or a means to escape.

Another point to note is the cost. Trenches are expensive both financially and environmentally. In order to build them, heavy vehicles tread into the forest, thereby damaging the sensitive ecosystem and surrounding environment. 

Despite all this, in December 2021, the DWC expedited this trenches project. By the end of the month, excavations began in Wilpattu, Lahugala, and Udawalawe, using additional DWC resources and were excavated within weeks. DWC plans to excavate more trenches in the coming months. 

How are we dealing with this now?

Many environmental NGOs banded together to stop the trenches project. The Centre of Environmental Justice (CEJ) was the pioneer in this struggle. They immediately filed multiple lawsuits against the digging of trenches in several areas in the country, including the Protected Areas under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No 2. Of 1937. They argued that trenches are not a strategy to mitigate HEC, particularly without either expert recommendations nor considerations of past experiences. The case is scheduled for a hearing this month and CEJ is hoping for a favorable response. Meanwhile, historic protests over the economic crisis has precipitated a change in political leadership. Fingers crossed that the case and future environmental decisions meet with a favorable outcome – stay tuned!

      

Sri Lankan Economic Crisis: Why it Matters

UWERP’s field technician, Janaka, delivering a month’s supply of dry rations to a rural Sri Lankan family

The story so far

Over the last few months, Sri Lanka’s economy crashed and the island nation is now facing its worst economic crisis in history. For Sri Lankans, the crisis has turned their daily lives into an endless cycle of waiting in lines for basic goods – many of which are being rationed. Why is this happening?

The main reasons are loss of foreign currency due to COVID’s impact on tourism, and mismanagement of the country’s predominantly agricultural economy. Foreign reserves have been reduced by roughly 85%, grinding daily life to a halt. There are huge lines for fuel (for transport) and gas (for cooking). The lack of fuel also affects the country’s power supply, with people facing up to 16 hrs of power cuts daily. The lack of fuel has created a shortage of vegetables in the market and thus the prices have shot up by 30-80%. Additionally, as the country cannot afford imports, products like butter and milk powder are now unavailable. The Sri Lankan Medical Association has also stated that medical supplies are running low and by the end of April, Sri Lanka ran out of key medicines and medical supplies. 

Why are we helping farming communities? 

Trunks & Leaves has been involved in the Udalawawe area for more than a decade. We have worked with communities around the national park helped them for many years, because we know that people are key to conservation success. Although farmers are sometimes painted as villains owing to their part in so-called “human-elephant conflict,” nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers recognize and appreciate the value of elephants and other wildlife, they simply need to earn a livelihood as well. Last year in 2021, farmers in Southerns Sri Lanka actually went on a hunger strike, demanding the creation of a promised reserve, which they hoped would help the elephants and reduce the pressure on their croplands.

This year, we were to launch our trials of (elephant-resistant) alternative crops on a larger scale, but have had to put everything on pause given the current crisis. And yet we realized, NOW is when help is needed the most. Although we are a wildlife conservation organization and not dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, we couldn’t stand by and do nothing.

Continue reading

New pan-Indian study of elephant genetics reveals surprises

Herd of elephants in Terai Arc Landscape

Asian elephants were once widely distributed in India, but are now restricted to four widely separated regions: the north-western (NW), north-eastern (NE), east-central (ECI), and the southern India (SI). When you undertake the population genetics study of a wildlife species, the quality of the result is related to the design of the field sampling protocol. This is to ensure that the sampling is extensive covering different areas to avoid over-sampling of more accessible populations. When we started our population genetics study of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus L.), we planned to collect fresh elephant dung samples from across the beats and various ranges of protected forests in India. This of course often involved traversing through inhospitable and difficult terrain with a forest staff in attendance. The first problem were the elephants themselves. To get fresh dung, one had to go close to elephants for collecting samples. This often did not go down too well with some individuals who responded to the invasion by a determined charge. We were fortunate not to have suffered any mishaps and ultimately it worked out well and we were able to collate an impressive database of elephant dung samples.

Continue reading

Camera Trapping Elephants in Agricultural Areas

In partnership with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand, we’re excited to share this picture diary from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


Written by Brooke Friswold

It has been another busy month in Ruam Thai Village! We have erected ten camera traps on pineapple farms with the consent of local farmers in areas with reported high frequency of visitation and five on lemongrass farmland rented by Bring the Elephant Home.

In speaking with the farmers they were very excited and enthusiastic to share their experience: some of the farmers say that the elephants are coming most nights to their land, while others say it can be weekly or also come in waves, with times of high visitation followed by lapses in appearance. The farmers were very eager and interested to share and discuss where the best placement would be for the camera traps, the trails the elephants use to enter, and the recent visitations they had.

Continue reading

Trialing Camera Traps 

We’re partnering with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand to trial the potential of alternative crops to support farmers living with elephants. We’re excited to bring the first news from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


by Brooke Friswold

The team in Thailand has been busy over the last two months – especially while director and founder of Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH) Antoinette van de Water has been in country! With the start of data collection for a subset of five BTEH rented lemongrass plots and ten community-owned pineapple plots on the horizon, equipment and methodology trialing has begun. Data collection via camera trapping is set to begin in mid-May to record baseline elephant behavior in control and experimental plots for the HECTAARE project and for Brooke Friswold’s PhD research with King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in partnership with BTEH and HECTAARE. 

Continue reading

Convolutional Neural Networks for Individual‑identification of Wild Asian Elephants

Visual monitoring of wild animals has been modernized over the years through technologies such as high definition photography and camera trapping[1]. Researchers can now document populations, movement, and behavior of certain species using large volumes of data over longer periods[1,2]. These tools aid population research, but photo-identification still relies on our ability as humans to distinguish certain features of individuals[3]. Because identification remains a manual task, extracting information from visual data can be expensive and time-consuming[4]. (Read our previous blog on UWERP’s EARS – Elephant Attribute Recording System – IDs Database here).

MSc student, Elgiriyage de Silva, at the University of Colombo, is lead author on their recently published CNN study, alongside others including Dr. Shermin de Silva and Udawalawe Elephant Research Project’s (UWERP) Research Supervisor, T.V. Kumara. The study made use of CNN in order to determine the feasibility of such technology to identify Asian elephants, and used 10 years of labeled photographs of wild Asian elephants collected by the UWERP study. The researchers considered full body, face, and ears as three points for individual identification. Two techniques namely Training from Scratch (TS)  and Transfer Learning (TL), which made use of a pre-trained model, were applied to five CNN models: Xception, Inception V3, VGG16, ResNet50, AlexNet. These models were evaluated for their efficiency in correctly identifying an individual as the top candidate or including the correct individual among the top five possible candidates[3]

Caption: Photos of male 006 showing all three types of images used in the study – body, face and ears. Clearly photos of even the same individual can look very different based on angle, lighting and movement!
Continue reading

Getting past COVID in Udawalawe 

By Salik Ansar

Before COVID-19, the field team would regularly visit the Udawalawe National Park to track and monitor the elephant population in the region. They update records by seeking out new calves, checking for injuries or deaths among the population, and observing their day-to-day behavior. All of this regular contact also maintains a good relationship with the park authorities. During the lockdown, however, this work was impossible to carry on and our visits occurred in fits and starts, on again off again every few months.

On top of that, our work with the local community had also come to a halt with the island-wide lockdowns. District boundaries, which ordinarily one could cross without the slightest thought, turned into checkpoints that harked back to the civil war. Udawalawe National Park in fact straddles two, and suddenly our field team, based in one district to the West side of the park, could not cross over to visit the communities we had been working with in the East. They nevertheless kept in touch by phone to ensure we can resume our work on the Coexistence Project when the lockdown is lifted.

Udawalawe National Park – roads levelled and clean with no visible litter.
Continue reading

Human-Elephant Conflict: Opportunities for coexistence

As the world grows more crowded, spaces inhabited by wildlife and humans tend to overlap resulting in human-wildlife conflict (HWC). While peaceful coexistence is possible, negative encounters due to various factors continue to be a challenge in conservation. Human expansion into wildlife habitat is especially problematic for Asian elephants that need a large area for their ecological needs[1]. As a result, these animals break into human settlements and cause significant losses to the community. 

Asian elephants are found to impose the highest damages with a probability of 35.1%.[4] Photo by Lokesh Kaushik on Unsplash
Continue reading

Conservation Amidst COVID-19

By USW

Life has been a challenge for everyone these past two years. COVID-19 has made every little aspect different and difficult. Much like everyone else, I too, had to adapt and change to this new normal. The country’s situation was much better in 2020 than in 2021. As the virus started to spread, many rules and restrictions were imposed, our conservation work was hindered.  Meanwhile, the lockdowns enabled increases in poaching, elephant killings, human-elephant conflict and the like.

Against such a backdrop, I tried my very best to stop these unauthorized activities in and around the Udawalawe National Park, relying on the assistance of farmers, villagers, environmental organizations, the Wildlife Conservation Department, and the Forest Department. Both the Wetakhirakanda and the Dahaiyagala corridor were key area of focus for most of these activities. Over the years being in this region and my work outside of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, I have strengthened relationships with these stakeholders – especially the villagers and farmers – which allows me to be updated and quick to respond to any such activities.

Continue reading

The Global Goals and Asian Elephant Conservation

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for people and the planet. In celebration of Earth Month, we broke down all 17 Global Goals to discover how each relates back to our mission to protect and conserve Asian elephants and their habitat.

Global Goal 1: No Poverty

In developing countries where elephants roam wild, like Sri Lanka, poverty and elephants can become intertwined. Small farmers can lose their entire livelihood overnight from an elephant raid, and an 8,000 pound animal walking through a farm can destroy everything in its path.

Finding ways for farmers to make a living alongside Asian elephants is key to the survival and success of both elephants and people. Our Coexistence Project studies both sides to develop innovative ways that farmers can maintain a steady income while living peacefully alongside wild Asian elephants.

Continue reading