Human-elephant conflict: Electric fence safeguards temple but puts villages in peril

Danushka Silva

(This is the first part of this two-part article.)

Sri Lanka is one of the foremost countries conserving wildlife resources. When discussing Sri Lanka’s wildlife resources, elephants are a special topic that often comes up. About 10% of the regional wild elephant (Elephant Maximus) population is conserved in Sri Lanka. Therefore, a big responsibility is on Sri Lanka to ensure the survival of the wild elephant.

One of the key factors that have given rise to the incessant human-elephant conflict is the imbalance between the elephant and human populations. Wildlife Conservation Department statistics show that the human-elephant conflict has been aggravating in Sri Lanka during the past five years. As a result, the country loses at least 75-85 human lives and 170-190 elephants annually. 

Historical facts 

In human-elephant conflict analyses, the most common argument is that it is caused due to the reduction of elephant habitats and the increase in the human population. If we accept this for sake of argument, there could not have been an elephant-human conflict in the past when most of the land mass was natural forest and the population pressure was minimal. The writings of those who visited Sri Lanka centuries ago shed some light on the situation that existed then.

About three centuries ago (in 1656), during a visit to Sri Lanka, Protestant pastor Philip Baldaeus noted that a large number of elephants were seen on both sides of the Colombo-Galle road. In his travelogue, Baldaeus recorded that wild elephants killed many people every year and caused huge losses to property. 

In his book “The wild Elephant & the Methods of Capturing & Taming it in Ceylon”, Emerson Tennant, an eminent researcher on Sri Lanka’s wild elephants, says elephants were regarded as the greatest obstacle to the plantation industry and therefore people were not only permitted to kill wild elephants but also paid an incentive for killing them. It is mentioned that following this decree, about 2000 elephants were killed from 1851 to ’56 in the southern region from Galle to Hambantota.

The frequent conflicts between villagers and wild elephants were also mentioned in Robert Knox’s “A Historical Relations of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies” (1681), regarded as an accurate descriptive account of the customs and natural resources of the past Sri Lankan society. These writings reveal that the disruption in the ecological balance between forest density and human population is not the only reason that has given rise to the elephant-human conflict.

The Wildlife Conservation Department’s recent report titled “Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Control the Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka” highlights the primary causes of the elephant-human conflict in Sri Lanka. They include fragmentation of elephant home ranges, lack of specific land use plans, non-implementation of the wild elephant conservation strategies identified in development proposals, and several additional factors such as lack of public support.

Ehetuwewa conflict

Elephants are glorified and held in awe in Sri Lanka largely because of the country’s traditions associated with peraheras, especially the Sri Dalada Perahera and the Kataragama Dewala Perahera culture. 

Although elephants and peraheras are part of the cultural enjoyment of the urban population, no such enjoyment is possible for the people in remote areas because they live in mortal fear of elephants.

For the people in the North Western Province’s Ehetuwewa and Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat areas, the struggle to deal with the threat from wild elephants is part of their daily lives. They are unable to embrace the cultural enjoyment associated with elephants and peraheras due to their bitter experience.

Erecting electric fences is one of the main methods adopted in Sri Lanka to keep wild elephants away from villages. However, it is alleged that in some areas, electric fences are erected to cater to the whims and fancies of powerful people with vested interests. This has exacerbated the human-elephant conflict, as has been seen in Ehetuwewa.  

It is alleged that the Chief Incumbent of the Ehetuwewa Nakolagane Rajamaha Vihara has erected an electric fence with support from a private company for his own personal ends. This has heightened the threat from elephants to residents at Nakolagane in Ehetuwewa and Galgamuwa.

Through a 2008 Gazette (No. 1553), the ancient the Rajamaha Vihara was designated as a temple of archaeological value in the Kurunegala district. At first glance, one may feel that the chief monk has built the elephant fence to protect the temple but this is not the case. It is said the purpose is to protect a mango plantation from elephants. The cultivation was carried out after clearing the 20-acre forest land adjacent to the temple. 

Simply put, for economic benefits, large forest areas have been cleared, and the surrounding villages put in peril and made to face a host of other problems.

Ehetuwewa is considered to be an area with relatively high elephant density. The Wildlife Conservation Department report (Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to control the Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka) has said that about 200 elephants venture out of the area’s forest in search of food.

The area, bordered by two lakes at Palukadawala and Atharagalla, is considered a home and food source for wild elephants. The cleared area was once a forest of outstanding natural beauty with a dense vegetation cover.  But this beauty has now been lost due to a mango plantation.

With Ehetuwewa already facing a water crisis, the impact of this forest destruction may further deplete its water resources, experts warn.

Therefore, they insist the clearing of forest land for any purpose must end forthwith, for it will aggravate the elephant-human conflict, placing the lives of both elephants and humans in mortal danger.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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