Explosive Food and What it Tells Us About Ourselves

By SdS

Injured elephant in water.

Photo by Mohan Krishnan of injured elephant in the water.

Somewhere, there is a hungry elephant, following her nose, wandering an ever-diminishing forest in search of food. She ventures to her usual places, finds them lacking. She wanders further from where she feels safe, considering what she may find closer to the villages nearby.

Somewhere there is a hungry person. Perhaps a farmer, perhaps a hunter. He is looking to drive away pests from his land, or maybe to earn a bit of money from bushmeat. He selects a large fruit or vegetable, say a pumpkin or pineapple. He hollows it out, hides an improvised explosive inside, leaves it where some animal will find it.

We know what happens next.

In the past days, there has been an uproar concerning the sorry fate of a pregnant elephant in Kerala who encountered baited fruit that ended not one, but two lives, in a most horrific manner. There have been many expressions of outrage and disgust, cartoons and caricatures of the ugliness of humanity, as revealed by their deaths. At the same time, some friends and colleagues have questioned why people seem suddenly so upset now, at this particular story, when such awful incidents are unfortunately all too common.

They remind us that everyone shares a responsibility for what happens to wildlife, and the environment at large – including those in urbanites whose consumption habits lie at the roots of environmental injustices and conflicts around the world.

We appreciate both sets of sentiments – the outrage itself, and the questioning reaction to it. June 5th is World Environment Day, so we wanted to unpack this story and the tensions it reveals, to aid the sensitivities and understanding of those who are not so familiar with the issues conservationists, particularly those who work on elephants, are all too familiar with. We also wanted to look at elephants themselves, and contrast what these incidents reveal with the romantic notions people have about the incredible abilities of these animals.

First the question – why now? Let’s look at the trends in Sri Lanka, where use of similar explosives (known locally as Hakka patas or “jaw explosion”) has been on the rise for years (read: related article on Mongabay), illustrated in this graphic (source: Devini Senaratne on Medium, based on data here and here):

Causes of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka 2005-2018.

Use of explosives, hakka patas, along with other unknowns (e.g. suspected poison) is increasing even as shootings are declining in Sri Lanka. The Department of Wildlife Conservation has an interesting hypothesis to explain this – that as they have cracked down more severely in prosecuting those responsible for shootings, people have switched to other fatal methods that are more difficult to trace back.

HEC news article.

The headlines change little from year to year.

Explosives are widely used throughout Asia both as a means to punish crop pests such as wildboar and elephants, as well as for poaching. The use of poison is also widespread.  This is one way people retaliate against wildlife that are perceived to cause them hardship. Because let’s not forget, in addition to losing their subsistence crops, hundreds of people are killed by elephants each year as well, comprising the other half of the casualties in the war labelled “human-elephant conflict” (reviews here and here). The grieving families may rightly ask – where is the righteous outrage when a child or grandmother is killed in their own home by an elephant? Absent help from the outside world, some take matters into their own hands.

So what’s so special about this story? For a start, the original heartfelt and emotional post by a forest officer, who personified the elephant and described her innocence suffering as he imagined it (click on  post to see translation):

Then there were the media, who took his words and reported it as though the animal had been hand-fed this bomb (“…after locals fed it to her…”), though this is probably not what happened and there is no way to know (perhaps some would call this a subtle difference, but psychologically, it is a much more powerful and emotion-invoking image which the media surely understands).  Whatever the circumstance, it doesn’t lessen the cruelty of the outcome (Read related post: Morning walk).

So now we have this moment, what do we do with it? If the only thing that happens is that people express anger and vitriol online, then simply go about their daily lives afterwards, the death and the attention will have been pointless. My colleagues are correct to call on everyone to examine their own lives, and how they contribute to the greater catastrophe of environmental degradation, of which this incident is just a single outcome.

I do think though that this is an opportunity.

As conservationists, we often struggle for air time to get recognition for grave problems that we may be all too familiar with but the rest of the world seems to have no clue about. Human-elephant conflict is one of them. Rather than question why people suddenly seem to care, we should be grateful – grateful that people care at all, and have constructive conversations about what needs to change. For those who didn’t know that things like this happen – now you do. Without merely placing blame on the nameless faceless people who daily live with the hardships of having elephants next door, if you can ask yourself what role you play in the bigger picture, and what you can do to change it, that would be more useful (Read related post: Feeding our Waste to Wildlife).

It would be tone-deaf here not to mention what is happening in the United States and juxtapose the two. Having struggled for centuries with racial biases and inequality, faced with yet another atrocious horrible death it doesn’t do to question why people are suddenly so upset now. The more useful response is to seize the moment, keep up the awareness, and mobilize for change. It may have happened a thousand times before, but the hope each time is that this time will be different, that SOMETHING important will change.

Don’t think that it’s absurd to draw this parallel. What’s the value of human life, of different colors? Of animal life? Of one individual vs. many? Do they compare? The world long since stopped paying attention to the Rohingya refugee crisis, but the massacre still occurred and the city-sized camp is still there, in the midst of an elephant corridor. Where is the outrage and in which direction should it go? These are not easy questions. Each individual has to figure out for themselves how they weight these things, what they’re willing to do or give up.

For my part, I wish the elephants would wise up. I’m sure many people have wondered this – dogs can sniff out explosives, can’t an elephant? Some years ago, researchers noticed that elephant herds in Angola seemed to be able to avoid minefields left behind by war. They wondered whether this could eventually help save human lives. But animals have to learn to associate a sight, sound or in this case smell, with danger. A lot of elephants had to get killed or injured first before herds recognized what they needed to avoid. They trained themselves. This doesn’t seem likely with threats like food bombs, which are rare, irregularly placed over a vast landscape, and may often be encountered by solitary animals that later perish.

So let us not diminish the legitimate anger people feel, and let us express our grief and sorrow without self-righteous finger pointing or demonization of Others whose lives we can barely understand. Let us continue learning, empathizing, struggling, to make the world a bit better however we can.

Baby tantrums

We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!


August 22 2012

Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…

Continue reading

When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence. Continue reading

Day 3 – Wrapping Up the 2019 Cohort

Lighting the oil lamp at Samagi preschool.

Our first stop was Samagi preschool, where we were pleased to see a very large contingent of parents attending. Together with the teachers, we took turns lighting a tall brass oil lamp, a traditional symbol of good fortune and prosperity in Sri Lanka. We were a bit nervous when they tried to hand the kids a match, but then it was decided it might not be quite such a good idea! Continue reading

Preschools Day 2: Or, how toilets can also be bridges!

New slide at Nirmala Sigithi preschool.

The second day we were accompanied by a hard-working (and long-suffering) wildlife officer named Naveen. Not only was it an opportunity for us to meet the parents, but it was a rare chance for dialogue between the community and wildlife personnel, with whom there tends to be a strained relationship in areas where there are conflicts with elephants. Continue reading

Coexistence Project Preschools: Day 1


Children dressed in their finery for the year-end school concert at Chuti Tharu preschool go for a spin on the merry-go-round sponsored by the Coexistence Project.

We supported 12 pre-schools in 2019 as part of the Coexistence Project thanks to contributions from individual sponsors and the US Fish & Wildlife Asian elephant conservation funds. We visited each of the schools toward the end of the year to take stock of what was done and meet the parents of the children. We were also invited to attend the school play and other festivities, where we distributed small packs of school supplies for the kids.

The teachers universally appreciated that we had asked them to decide what was most needed in their pre-schools rather than doing so our ourselves, and the smooth process for receiving the assistance they had been promised. A series of posts this week and next provide a run-down of the improvements made at each school and our experiences at them; photos were taken with their permission to post. Continue reading

Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight. Continue reading

Old Acquaintances

By SdS

Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!

A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as [047] on top.

[047] 2008

[047] in 2008.

When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading

Monsoon Days

October brings welcome rain for the people and the wildlife. This year the monsoon started as early as August, so by now everything is a luxurious green. The elephants are having an easier time because it has been wetter than usual. Perhaps for this reason, there have been a lot of babies born this year.

The rains follow a typical pattern over the course of the day – sunny and hot in the morning, showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Udawalawe sits at the intersection of two climate zones, which makes for strange and beautiful cloud formations with at times surreal atmospheric conditions. In the park we play games of cat and mouse with the rain clouds, trying to dodge the hyper-local downpours that are visibly framed against the brilliant sunlight. Pro tip – elephant viewing is best when there is a little bit of drizzle to cool us all off. Continue reading

Militant exploitation vs. militant conservation – how far will this go?

By SdS

Protecting nature can be dangerous and messy. Two recent reports bring to light what seem to be flipsides of the same coin. On one side are those who heroically fight and even lose their lives defending their homes, wild places, and wild animals. Then there are those who take lives, for the same purpose. August 12th is World Elephant Day. Normally, I would say something about elephants. But I already did that in the last post. So today I want to reflect on the people who protect wildlife, in one way or another.

It’s been on my mind a long time, but particularly since a conference I attended a few years ago. It was supposed to be an academic conference, but the audience was a mix of scientists, conservation practitioners and activists. Alongside the sessions people would huddle around in their little cliques, chatting about the state of affairs on the ground. Some of the conversations were depressing, there was no hiding it. Here we were free to speak truth out loud, in an atmosphere of urgency that everyone present acknowledged. I had a palpable sense that some (perhaps even many) of those present acted as though we were at war. It was a mindset that people stewing in, breathing in, day in and day out. I imagined that this was not unlike how reporters felt, who had spent too long embedded in war zones – a creeping feeling that far from the comfortable lives that most of our colleagues and acquaintances led, an epic battle was raging. Continue reading