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.

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

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

E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them? Continue reading

The Brief Life of [T212]

By SdS & USW

All looks peaceful…


…until you look closer.

He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.

But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong. Continue reading

Investing in The Next Generation

By SdS

Students at Kalawelgala elementary school can now learn in peace thanks to the metal grilles installed on the windows, which prevent monkeys and other animals from getting in.

Back in June we held a crowdfunding campaign to support our work with some of the villages bordering Udawalawe National Park and the Wetahirakanda corridor. Thanks to our sponsors, we were able to raise $6000 for improvements at five pre-schools (Montessories) and an elementary school. We re-visited each of the schools in July to confirm their needs. In August it was my pleasure to visit with each of the teachers in order to provide the initial installments of funds. As the schools were on break, we visited several at their homes. Each teacher undertook individual accountability for showing that work was progressing and funds were being spent as intended.

Ms. Lakshimini accepts the sponsorship.

The first stop was with Ms. Lakmini of Pubudu Pre-school. Continue reading

The Folly of Fences

Electric fences that split forested habitat are all too common. As a result, occurrences like this are frequent.

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. Continue reading

The Coexistence Project

Update June 20th: We are halfway through the campaign & on track with reaching halfway to our goals of raising $5000 from at least 40 people! Help us close the gap by multiplying your impact on Bonus Day, June 20th – the top 5% of fundraisers within that 24 hour period will be eligible for matching support from Global Giving! Donate now >

Elephant and people observe each other across an electric fence.

The Udawalawe Elephant Research Project (UWERP) started as an attempt to understand the behavior and ecology of elephants, and yield information useful for conservation of this elephant population, and perhaps even the species. But it was always evident to us that understanding the elephants’ side of the story was important, but only half the picture.

It has become fashionable in conservation to speak about the need for “coexistence” with wildlife, as opposed to conflict. Elephants are a prime example, being a conflict-prone species, with large area requirements. Because elephants can never survive purely within the confines of national parks and protected areas, this means finding ways that people and elephants can share their space. But you may wonder – elephants and people have been living on the same landscapes for thousands (if not millions) of years, how was this possible? Weren’t they already coexisting? Continue reading

Mind Over Matter

Those sneaky sneaks!

It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again. Continue reading

Save Our Skins

“The use of elephant skin in Asia is not new. Surveys by the nongovernmental organization Traffic found elephant skin openly on sale in Mayanmar’s Mong La market in 2006,2009, and 2014, with ever larger quantities on show each year. Yet these findings, and their implications for Asian elephant conservation, were overshadowed by the conservation world’s focus on the poaching of elephants for ivory and, as a result, solely on efforts to save African elephants.”

Skinned: The growing appetite for Asian elephants. Report by Elephant Family, April 2018

If you ask people what the leading threat to elephants is, most will likely respond: “ivory poaching”.  But if you take a look at the pictures posted throughout this blog, you will see that this does not pose a risk to the majority of Asian elephants, which have no tusks.  All females and most calves are tuskless, and some males as well. Instead, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflicts with people, smuggling of live babies and now lately – poaching for skin.

Warning: this post contains graphic content. Continue reading