Interview with Mr. P.G.D.J. Pebotuwa
Coordinator – Sub-Component 2(b) – Human Elephant Co-Existence, of Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (funded by World Bank; executed by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment)
Has Human-Elephant Conflict Taken a Turn for the Worse?
There is a notion among the public that there is an abundance of elephants in our country, what is the current elephant population in Sri Lanka?
As per the last elephant survey conducted in Sri Lanka in 2011, the elephant population in the country was 5,879. Elephant numbers changing over the last century cannot be precisely concluded since elephant population data are not available in a consistence manner. It is assumed that before the British colonial period, most parts of the land in Sri Lanka was under primary forests that were predominantly occupied by tall trees with sparse undergrowth that do not support high densities of elephants, but there may have been more elephants than what we have at present due to a higher percentage of forest cover. At the turn of the 20th century, it was believed that about 10,000 elephants lived in Sri Lanka. Therefore, one cannot simply say that the current elephant population in Sri Lanka is overabundant, because the habitat available in Sri Lanka is not adequate for the current elephant population.
- The elephant is a keystone species in Sri Lanka, what is the role of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in managing these animals?
Keystone species play a unique role in the ecosystem. Without such species, the ecosystem would cease to exist. The Elephant is a keystone species and the conservation of elephants in Sri Lanka is solely on the shoulders of DWC. The DWC is established not just for mitigating Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) but also to protect wildlife. Currently, the main focus of DWC is the mitigation of (HEC) which has resulted negatively on the long-term survival of this magnificent mammal in Sri Lanka. Therefore, there is much more to be done to conserve this endangered charismatic species. For examples, habitat restoration or enrichment, re-establishment of traditional elephant corridors, preserving their home ranges in terms of quality as well as extent, obtaining wide public support by convincing people of the multiple benefits that could be derived from the existence of elephants are some of them.
- Could you elaborate what Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is, the reasons for HEC, type of damages caused by HEC, and the magnitude of this issue?
The agony that arises to elephants and humans who are competing for the same limited resources in a given sphere of land is referred to as HEC. The elephants only need basically three things – Food, Cover, and Water. As Sri Lanka is an island the elephants have no access for a crossover for another land mass under any circumstances; this is one reason for their shrinking habitats. Sri Lankans mainly depend on agriculture. In a situation where the elephants lose the area from which they can find their food, they tend to invade the areas under cultivation and eventually become the consumers of what is cultivated by farmers in the vicinity of their home ranges. Farmers try to protect their yields, while elephants try to find some food invading the croplands. This gives rise to a conflict leading to crop and property damages, injuries, and deaths to both parties. In Sri Lanka, the annual elephant death toll is 200 – 250; while human deaths due to elephant attacks are 60-90. The number of property damages caused by elephants in a year is around 1200. According to DWC, HEC is reported from 123 Divisional Secretariat Divisions in 18 Administrative Districts of Sri Lanka. This indicates the magnitude and distribution of the issue.
- What are the conventional strategies used in Sri Lanka to mitigate HEC? How successful are these?
Elephant Drives and Electric Fencing are the most common. In addition, the DWC distributes a type of firework called “Thunder Flares” to chase the elephants which keeps them away for a short period, but repeatedly driving them off make them develop some tolerance against Thunder Flares. Capturing and Translocating problem elephant is done by the DWC. The DWC is making an effort to increase the carrying capacity of wildlife in Protected Areas (PAs) with the view of keeping the elephants within the PAs, but this is not very successful due to its scale vs actual requirement, and the grazing of stray cattle in PAs. Elephant drives and translocations have become ineffective because they have a strong bonding for their home ranges. Being an edge loving species elephants roam in areas near the forest edges to meet their daily requirements. Therefore, these conventional methods have not been satisfactory in mitigating HEC totally. Elephants predominantly live in the Dry Zone (except a few living in Sinharaja and Peak Wilderness), there has to be an alternative solution rather than driving or translocation.
- It is a generally held conviction that elephants are super smart animals. Can the electric fences keep the crop-raiding elephants away from fields and villages?
Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals. They have the most complicated social structures in the animal kingdom. An indication of their intelligence is altruism. Elephants are famous for protecting their young ones; this is one of the many characteristics that make them intelligent, (e.g. the incident of Panamure kraal elephant). The sick elephants medicate themselves by chewing the leaves of specific trees depending on their illness. Elephants are playful and can be trained for circuses, perahera (Processions) and carry out many other tasks. Their nimble trunks can be used to manipulate paintbrushes to create remarkable pieces of art. They can recognize themselves in mirrors and can recognize if something new is added to their visage. This cognitive ability of self-reflection is a sign of intelligence. They are also very smart in overcoming barriers such as electric fences, but human beings are smarter than elephants and so far we have been able to manage them with electric fences. However, this is practicable only if we maintain the fences properly.
- Can Human-Elephant Conflict be mitigated only with the involvement of Government institutions?
HEC is a complex issue, thus it cannot be mitigated without the contribution from the communities living in those areas. There are several scopes of HEC mitigation as conservation perspective, disaster management perspective and economic perspective. The lands of HEC areas are under the jurisdiction of different parties – some are public and some are private. Areas under each party are being managed to achieve the desired output of the party who owns the land and not necessarily for elephant conservation. So there is a conflict of interest as one may need to develop an area while the others want to keep it intact for the conservation of wildlife. Therefore, mutual planning is needed for a “win-win” situation. In fact, as well as the governing bodies, the communities, professionals, researchers, academics, students, private entrepreneurs, priests and the media have to play a key role here.
- There are DWC demarcated Protected Areas to conserve wildlife, but why are that most of the elephants live outside these areas – what is the status of these areas?
Forests in Sri Lanka are managed and conserved by two Government Institutions. The National World Heritage Sites, Forest Reserves and Conservation Forests are managed by the Forest Department. The Wildlife Protected Areas such as National Parks, Strict Nature Reserves, Nature Reserves, Elephant Corridors, Sanctuaries and Managed Elephant Reserves are under the jurisdiction of DWC. However, elephants freely move from wildlife protected areas to forest reserves and vice versa, as these include their home ranges. Their traditional migratory routes/corridors have been blocked due to agriculture, settlements or other forms of development. As edge loving species they also roam in villages or other developed strips of land maintained by humans. To maintain their home ranges elephants, continue to use their usual migratory routes and do not refrain from human demarcated areas. As their diet consists of 50-55% of grasses and several other crops, elephants inevitably live outside the protected areas, and it’s difficult to limit these easy food hunters to wildlife protected areas.
- “Conservation efforts must recognize that humans are suffering too and must be placed higher up on the political agenda”, what is your opinion on this?
Human lives are also disrupted by Leopards, Monkeys, Snakes, Bears, Wild-boars and many more, and humans suffer due to microbes too. Therefore, it is important to analyze the issue case by case to select an appropriate management strategy with a better understanding of some fundamentals. It is restricted by law to kill a precious species prone to extinction which has a significant economic benefit to the country. Conservation efforts are anthropocentric because it is meant for the long-term survival of mankind; as a result, HEC has aggravated to the level what we experience today. Since suffering is caused as a result of man-made actions, identifying the root causes of HEC is necessary to advocate “Harmony” or “Coexistence” between humans and elephant. As long as the “Suffering of Humans” is placed on top of the agenda, it further escalates the existing situation. It is also important to note that more than 50% of the human deaths caused by elephants are results of mistakes of human actions and not of elephants.
- In the Sri Lankan context, we usually hear everyone talking about the impacts elephants have on humans, isn’t it important to talk vice-versa?
Elephants are voiceless, their plight caused by human behavior are not highlighted or addressed as it should be by the media. Development projects restrict elephants to smaller areas which ultimately lead the elephants to invade villages. In a conflict situation, both have impacts from the other. Only a few groups of people such as Conservationists, Researchers, Environmentalists, and Professionals pay attention to elephant needs and raise their voices on behalf of the elephants, but the majority is concerned only about the impacts caused on humans by elephants. In comparison to the annual average human deaths by wild elephants (60-90), 200-250 elephants are being killed in a year by humans. There are uncounted numbers of injuries to elephants in the form of gunshots, hakkapatas, nailed boards, electrocution, and burns. Losses of elephant habitat are also huge. This reveals the magnitude of the damage caused by humans to elephants.
If the elephants’ contribution to the national economy is carefully studied, anyone would notice that these giants are national and economic assets. Sri Lanka earns about Rs. 1,500 million annually as the gate income from the National Parks. If both direct and indirect income generated through elephant based tourism are calculated, this could be as many folds. As such there are both negative and positive impacts on each party which have to be considered under HEC.
- What kind of compensation package is available for the victims of elephant attacks? Does it cover crop damages?
The Compensation Scheme operated by DWC has been revised recently. The DWC pays Rs: 500,000/= for a human death caused by an Elephant, Leopard, Bear, Crocodile or Wild Buffalo; up to Rs: 75,000/= for injuries; and up to 100,000/= for property damages. Unfortunately, crop damages are not covered by the currently available scheme. A proposal has been already submitted to implement a crop insurance scheme, and we believe that this would be helpful in attracting people towards “Human Elephant Coexistence. At present, the Agriculture Insurance Board has introduced a scheme to cover the damages for 6 crops (Paddy, Maize, Potato, Chilli, Big onion and Soya bean).
- What are ESCAMP’s plans for crop raiding around protected areas, and Elephant movements outside of protected areas?
ESCAMP is working along with the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation to protect wildlife and habitat enrichment within the forest reserves and wildlife reserves. The project is aiming at minimizing HEC by enriching the protected areas by increasing the basic needs of elephants and implementing a fencing system to combat HEC. With the funding of the project, these protective fences will be constructed around villages and will be maintained by societies formed by the villagers.
The total land area under forest cover is not adequate for elephants. Therefore, opening up some additional lands for elephants is important. The Project is planning to erect seasonal or temporary Paddy Field Fences which could be removed just after harvesting the crop, by allowing the elephants to roam in the open up area. Since human lives and their properties have to be protected, permanent “Village Fences” will be constructed around the village boundary. The project also plans to build the second Elephant Holding Ground at Lunugamvehera National Park to retain captured problem elephants for rehabilitation, and later the rehabilitated elephants would be released back to their usual habitats.
- Human-Elephant Co-existence (HECOEX)- How would you explain humans and elephants living together by sharing the same land area? Isn’t it necessary to give a voice to the communities living alongside elephants?
HECOEX is somewhat different from “symbiosis” where two organisms live together with some mutual benefits without harming each other. Here, in a given landscape, humans and elephants will share the resources and have some mutual benefits with a high level of tolerance by the human counterpart for any possible damages from elephants, but provided with Village Fences and Paddy field fences assuring their protection. As aggression of elephants towards human is mostly a result of inhumane actions on the elephants by humans, mainly humans have to take the lead to correct it and then gradually the aggression between the two parties will disappear. This is what is expected from HECOEX. It is obvious that this will be a challenging task to handle, but this is the best option available to ensure the safety and long-term survival of both the elephants and humans.
- How does ESCAMP plan to make HECOEX profitable to the communities living alongside elephants? And what are the main approaches in the proposed HECOEX model?
HEC poses a major challenge for conserving elephants outside Protected Areas. Both humans and elephants have their own issues. For example, the rural communities face poverty and the elephants’ fight for habitation. This has resulted in the elephants becoming a part of the problems of humans and vice-versa for elephants. ESCAMP targets towards mitigation efforts and highlights the need for habitat enrichment in protected areas. Capacities of the communities who are coexisting with elephants will be developed by converting the elephants to an “Economic Asset”. If properly managed, HECOEX will be profitable for communities. Elephant based tourism can make a significant upliftment in the rural economy. ESCAMP hopes this simple, adaptable, and locally appropriate conflict mitigation strategy would foster human-elephant coexistence in modified landscapes and would find a long-term solution to HEC by adopting a “win-win situation”.
- Elephants play a role as a symbol for the need for conservation of wildlife and nature – Does this new strategy assure sustainability in the long run?
Elephants are a part of world heritage that has a long history of association with mankind, and they have been always subjected to ever-growing human pressure. As a result, wherever they exist they are often in conflict with the communities. Elephants are considered as umbrella species, therefore, conserving elephants is conserving nature. The sustainability of this new strategy needs cooperation from many different stakeholders. Hence, it is our duty to work as a team to save the nature by saving these charismatic species in Sri Lanka. Unlike the conventional HEC migratory measures, here we have placed much weight and trust on the communities which will be the key to assuring the sustainability of this strategy in the long run.
- How would you explain the role of Media to contribute in handling Human-Elephant Conflict?
Media is a facilitating variable that could change the minds of citizens, which in turn produces a change in importance and attitudes of people. Market competition and the search for bigger audiences and circulation force the media to dwell on the dramatic news, or sometimes bad news. It is natural that people suffering from HEC expecting short-term results, but HECOEX cannot be achieved overnight because it takes time and patience. First, an attitudinal change in the village communities is needed in order to build trust on Human Elephant Coexistence. Both printed and electronic media have a role to play to reach this milestone. Some of the issues that should be dealt with are: How this new concept be implemented? What does it include? Who are the stakeholders? What are the roles of different stakeholders? What kind of economic benefits can be derived from HECOEX? How can the risk of elephant attacks be minimized? etc. The ultimate target is to assure the communities mingling with elephants are benefitted by practicing the concept of HECOEX, and this will be a lasting solution for HEC.
To my belief what the media publishes in the context of HEC has so far not been successful in promoting HECOEX, because most of the time the events, the graphic details provided by journalists, or the clips aired on TV of elephants attacking humans are obviously detrimental to elephants. We have noticed that most of the time the entire sequence of the story is being edited and changed to favour humans although humans are the reason for the attack. Therefore, the reporting style, the content, the heading, the language and most importantly unbiased reporting on HEC are important aspects in forming attitudes and perceptions in readers’ or the viewers’ minds. We have found that negative stories outnumbered neutral stories. Being negative towards elephants does not help to solve HEC. Therefore, what we suggest is that it is important that journalists should write about elephants in a positive way. This can be done by increasing the technical knowledge and awareness of journalists on human-elephant conflict situations so that they can write knowledgeably on this issue.