Sri Lanka: “In most instances it’s not the elephants that kill humans, it’s the humans that get themselves killed by the elephants due to their stupidity and negligence,” said Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General of the Wildlife Department, delivering the monthly lecture of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) at the BMICH on October 18.
Speaking on human-elephant conflict management, he said 70 percent of human deaths by elephants are due to human irresponsibility.
He also said that the human deaths caused by elephants were a mere fraction when compared to the number of deaths due to motor accidents. Humans should take more responsibility for their lives. In most instances, it is people who have been under the influence of alcohol who have been killed because they challenge elephants rather than avoid them.
Dr. Pilapitiya said there were instances where people had been so negligent that they have crashed into elephants and got themselves killed. “If we are more responsible and do not act stupidly, we can reduce the number of human deaths significantly,” he said.
Dr. Pilapitiya said that in the 1950s, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is known to have said he hoped someday that Singapore would be like Ceylon, but from the mid 1970s onwards, every successive government in Sri Lanka has hoped that Sri Lanka would be like Singapore. “But we are far from Singapore today. One of the main reasons is that we continue to keep repeating the same mistakes without learning from them. When it comes to the management of the human-elephant conflict (HEC), once again I think we are in a similar situation.”
Referring to research and statistics obtained from Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and the Centre of Conservation and Research (CCR), Dr. Pilapitiya said in Sri Lanka there are known to be about 6,000 elephants in the wild. Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants as well as a very high population density of humans on a rapidly declining natural resource base.
“Unless we plan our development better, conflict is inevitable,” he warned. “HEC cannot be eliminated fully. As long as there are humans and as long as there are elephants, there is going to be conflict. The only thing we can do is manage and minimise the conflict.”
The HEC conflict started increasing with the large-scale irrigation and agricultural development drive initiated in the 1950s. In 2000, 150 elephants died while only 63 humans were killed by elephants, but in 2017, 256 elephants died while 87 humans were killed by elephants.
The committee for the preservation of wildlife appointed in 1959 came up with a plan to manage the HEC in the island by driving all the elephants from developing areas to protected areas of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) through identified corridors and fencing them in.
There were three approaches to managing the HEC: (1) translocation of problem elephants to protected areas of the Wildlife Department; (2) large-scale elephant drives from areas identified for development to DWC protected areas; and (3) confining elephants to DWC protected areas with the use of physical, biological and psychological barriers.
If this strategy was successful, the HEC would have been minimal today. A survey done by the CCR shows that 44 percent of the land area of the island is shared by humans and elephants. Dr. Pilapitiya said research had shown that capture and translocation was not successful nor could biological fences confine elephants within protected areas.
Relocation not the answer
Dr. Pilapitiya said most national parks already have the full number they are able to accommodate, and driving more elephants into such DWC protected areas would result in the death of many elephants and calves due to starvation. He mentioned that one drive had cost the government Rs. 62 million to relocate 225 elephants and calves in a Wildlife protected area. The end result was that the problem was not solved as it was only the she-elephants and calves that were driven, while the single males and male groups had remained to forage on crops. Moreover, many of these elephants that were driven died of starvation. “No one was held accountable for the fiasco and the waste of public funds. It was the development sector that should have been held accountable as the Wildlife Department was under severe pressure to carry out orders.”
The National Elephant Conservation Policy (NECP) which is in effect today was drawn up by a multi-stakeholder committee and approved by the Cabinet in 2006. Some of the goals of the policy are to ensure the long-term survival of wild elephants in Sri Lanka to mitigate the human-elephant conflict and to promote scientific research as the basis of conservation and management in the wild. Some key points are that managing as many viable populations of elephants as the land could support and that landholders will accept both within and outside the system of protected areas. The policy also specifically states that when elephants lose their range, they die.
Plans cannot drive policies
Dr. Pilapitiya said a new plan for resolving the HEC was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on August 7, 2018, which is more in line with the 1959 plan and contradicts certain aspects of the 2006 policy. “To the best of my knowledge, policies should be driving plans and plans should not be driving policies,” he stressed.
He also said there are many positives in the recent Cabinet paper such as constructing 2,651 kilometres of electric fencing within identified areas which shows that there is still room to construct the fences on ecological boundaries rather than administrative boundaries. “It is imperative that inasmuch as the new fences are constructed on ecological boundaries, all existing fences should be relocated to ecological boundaries,” Dr Pilapitiya emphasised. Among his concerns was arming those who are to be entrusted with maintaining the fences with sophisticated weapons that are capable of killing an elephant in its tracks. “Accidents do happen!” he said.
Dr. Pilapitya said development plans should be made accepting the elephants’ presence and by working around them rather than driving them away. “A win-win situation could be achieved by relocating the development project rather than creating conflict.” He also said scientific findings and past experience should govern the decision-making. “All options should be looked at. Community-based village fences and seasonal agricultural fences would be a viable alternative if it is not possible to construct fences on the ecological boundaries.”
“These were some things that I intended to do when I was the Director General of the Wildlife and Conservation Department, but I resigned as I was unable to perform my duty due to political pressure,” Dr Pilapitiya said. “As conservationists, we can lobby and convince decision-makers to make correct decisions rather than repeating the mistakes we made in the past.”