Sri Lanka is part of the ancestral home of Asian elephants and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers colonized and cultivated, before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonizers and governments. This was their land long before humankind set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else. Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbors an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: do we want elephants (and their bretheren) to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question on World Elephant day because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome.
Leaving aside the insults of landscape conversion and persecution elephants suffered during the colonial era, the greatest threat to elephants today continue to be our land and water use policies. These policies serve economic and agricultural interests. Their by-product, we term “human-elephant conflict”. But HEC is only a convenient label for problems that originate with the willful ignorance of how nature behaves, an open disregard for science, and an unwillingness to face the really difficult question of how a population 5000 elephants can manage to survive among over 20 million people. Because let’s face it, our lives would be easier without elephants. People would feel safer, wildlife managers would be under less pressure, development schemes would proceed unhindered, and many conservationists could turn to careers that actually pay a decent wage. Elephants present a problem. So why don’t we simply round them up, put them where they belong (the designated sanctuaries) and forget about them, as called for by the latest plan by the Ministry of Wildlife?
For one, the very process of driving elephants from one place to another is traumatic. Innocent herds of females and calves, which are largely not responsible for conflict or human fatalities, will be shot at and hassled until they are cornered like cattle. They will wander around in unfamiliar territory, which likely already contains its own belligerent population of elephants, until they eventually die. We have seen all this before. If death is the outcome, they are better off shot than enduring such suffering. The bulls meanwhile, which are of actual concern, will not stay put.
Udawalawe National Park presents an informative case study. For over thirteen years my team and I have had the privilege of following the lives of the elephants here. Our earliest findings were that this tiny scrap of protected space of barely 300 square km hosts a seasonal population of 800-1000 elephants, which is 2-3 times higher than the officially acknowledged figure. Just how many of these go in and out of park is unknown, but they regularly pass through the Dahaiyagala and Wetahirakanda “corridors”. These electric-fenced passages are really just fragments of the greater landscape elephants use outside the protected area system. But all is not well even for these elephants. Though the public will show righteous outrage at the occasional death of a tusker, it barely notices the bony females and thin calves that will eventually vanish, let alone the ones that are never born at all. The Udawalawe elephant population may linger for a while, but it would quietly collapse without access to habitat outside the park, just as the population in Yala already has.
The electric fence on the southern boundary of UWNP, along the Thanamalwila road, was perhaps the most famous and (at one time) functional one in the country. It is regularly broken by elephants now, ever since the over-abundance of electric fences inside the park itself taught elephants how easy they were to knock over. An internal review by the Department of Wildlife Conservation found that only 20% of the fences in and around Udawalawe were actually functional. Sri Lanka already has over 4000 km of electric fencing (not including the home-made ones), and the plans call for at least 2000 km more. Yet there is no such thing as an elephant-proof fence, no matter what their design, nor how much money is thrown at them.
Then there is the matter of the holding grounds. Prior monitoring by the Center for Conservation Research and the Department of Wildlife Conservation had shown that translocated elephants rarely stayed put, and were likely to leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they blundered their way back from whence they came. So the holding grounds were intended as a final solution for just those regularly “problem” animals who could not be dealt with any other way. Except that if every crop-raiding elephant is deemed a problem, the facilities will fill up fast. We actually have no idea how many individuals are actually responsible for conflict incidents – 100? 1000? How many holding grounds and how much resources would it take to contain all of them for the rest of their lives, nevermind those new troublemakers that are born every day? These questions are unanswered yet a second one is slated for construction at Lunugamwehera, with anticipated funding from the World Bank under ESCAMP, to follow the failed attempt at Horowpathana. This one will be bigger and better. However the consultative process, both with the local people or the community at large, leaves a lot to be desired. There are houses next door, with children playing in their gardens. When an elephant breaks out, which it invariably will, who will take responsibility for the deaths that will result? This colossal waste will not serve elephants, nor will it serve people. What saddens me most is that the outcome can be predicted, yet we choose to repeat these mistakes.
It is too easy to blame wildlife managers, and they are not blameless. But they are merely struggling to do the impossible, carrying out the whims of politicians who come and go like children on a merry-go-round. Nine times out of ten these officers are not responsible for the policies that bring elephants and people into conflict in the first place, but expected to manage the mess. Policies such as the irrational and uneconomical pursuit of ever-increasing paddy cultivation despite the fact that we are rice self-sufficient. To support this pursuit we built irrigation infrastructure that further encourages water-demanding crops in drought prone areas, which may ultimately prove useless in the coming era of climate change. The architects of these schemes evade accountability for the consequences, as they are supposed to be acting in the name of the farmers. Yet will the next generation be willing to spend as much time in the mud?
We cannot forget about the people. Those who stand to benefit the most from elephants are the already wealthy urban elites who profit from tourism revenue or enjoy the occasional holiday jaunt to a national park. Then there are all the local operators, and those who sustain the sector through their labors. This segment of the population bears none of the cost of elephants. Those who benefit least are the farming families, who also bear the entire cost. Would I want risk raising a child in a place where she might run into an elephant outside? No. Would I be content to pursue a livelihood that could any day be upended by the mere passing of a single animal? No. So how can I expect another to?
Surveying households in the communities adjacent to UWNP, we found the poorest among them survive on an annual income of less than rs. 200,000. The cost of living in Sri Lanka has soared thanks to a falling currency, inflation, taxation, and a glut of local and foreign post-war investment. In a just world, those who benefit from elephants in any capacity need to subsidize and support the welfare of those who suffer the most, speak up for the interests of all, and invest in building sustainable rural enterprise. It is useless ranting online from the comfort of an armchair while happily profiting from the status quo. Moreover, the money being wasted on elephant management would be better spent on education that anticipates the needs of the future and developing an economy based on ecologically appropriate agriculture and industries. This would be the compassionate and practical means to help those who are truly in need. But of course it is not as simple as erecting a fence. And once it is up, the land beyond can be up for grabs.
Growing up, I took our elephants for granted as many still do. The living animal seemed as commonplace as its iconography. If we let them die out here, we should also wipe their image from our artifacts and objects of enterprise, lest future generations notice our exploitative hypocrisy. Elephants were once free to roam every square kilometer of this land, from seashore to cloud forest and grassland. Yet today they are globally restricted to lowlands. Whereas their ancestors traversed the length and breadth of continents, evolving with the changing seasons and climates, we now haggle over whether they should be entitled to cross the few kilometers between restricted fragments of habitat. Yet our most recent work in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation using camera traps shows that in fact elephants are remarkably good at avoiding people, day or night, even on busy paths that both use. It is surprising just how frequently this occurs. Coexistence seems not only possible, it is already the norm. We need to overcome the barrier-mentality and work toward most lasting solutions.