Human-Elephant Conflict Is Rising in Sri Lanka

Driven from their original habitats, the animals are raiding crops and being killed by frightened farmers, but conservationists are piloting better ways to coexist

Human-Elephant Conflict Is Rising in Sri Lanka
People visit a sick wild elephant in Thirappane, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. (Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In Makulpotha village, 89 miles northwest of Colombo, Punchibanda woke up to the trumpet of an elephant while he was sleeping in a small wooden hut built on a tree beside his vegetable farm. Fearing that the elephant could destroy his harvest of pumpkins, melons and eggplants, Punchibanda rushed to chase it away. But he could not guard his produce, and instead lost his life. The large bull elephant charged toward the 62-year-old, who fainted out of fear; the animal crushed him to death. Over a year later, villagers still live in fear as they struggle to protect their crops from wild elephants.

Historically, elephants and humans lived in harmony in Sri Lanka. When the farmers were done harvesting their fields, they would allow elephants to feed on the stubble. But deforestation, haphazard cultivation methods and massive development projects have led to increasing human-elephant conflict in the country. Sri Lanka has the highest number of elephant deaths caused by conflict with humans, and second-highest number of human deaths caused by elephants. In 2022 and 2023, over 800 elephants in Sri Lanka died.

In a bid to balance population density across the country, people have been relocated to areas with a high density of elephants. The animals are forced to live in protected wildlife parks that have limited resources. They venture into nearby villages looking for food and water, which leads to the destruction of crops, causing the farmers to employ violent methods to get rid of them. In other instances, elephants would get aggressive and attack farmers. “If you pluck someone who lives in a town and tell them to live in a village, they would not know how to coexist with the wildlife; they would carry the fear and treat them with aggression,” said Zaineb Akbarally​​, vice president of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society.

Sri Lanka is home to a subspecies of endangered Asian elephants and had a population of over 5,000 elephants in 2011, according to a government survey. But Akbarally doesn’t think that’s an accurate number since it is difficult to count elephants in the wild, and numbers appear to have been in decline. “We’ve pretty much lost all the elephants in the central highlands,” she said, adding that only one herd remained in the Peak Wilderness nature reserve and two elephants in Sinhraja, the country’s last primary rainforest, that had previously belonged to bigger herds.

Elephants have been sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka and were considered a symbol of pride to ancient rulers, who employed them in battles. To this day, domesticated elephants play a key role in Esala Perahera, an annual Buddhist cultural and religious procession, where they carry a replica of Buddha’s tooth relic (the holiest religious relic for Sri Lankan Buddhists) in a casket, dress up in extravagant sequin-embroidered outfits and are accompanied by fire performers, drummers and dancers in Kandy. However, wildlife activists allege that elephants are tortured by mahouts to perform during the procession.

Elephant populations in Sri Lanka started to fall during colonial rule as the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British captured them for export. Historical records also suggest that the British killed over 5,000 elephants in 15 years as they hunted them for sport. But after independence in 1948, as infrastructure projects started getting built in the country to provide land to the landless and reduce population density, forest cover was cleared and new farmlands were created next to the elephant habitats, which laid the ground for the current conflict.

In response, local authorities started fencing elephants inside protected wildlife parks. But two-thirds of the home ranges of wild elephants, which included their feeding, watering, mating and resting sites, lay outside these parks. This also led to overcrowding, and elephants ventured into villages. Many died of starvation or became malnourished.

Currently, there are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, and most elephants live in the large ones such as Yala, Wilpattu, Udawalawe and Minneriya. But in a 2019 survey, conservationists found out that while humans lived in 70% of these elephant ranges, only 18.4% of the elephant ranges were in those protected parks.

Meanwhile, farmers were growing crops like sugarcane, rice and vegetables that elephants loved to eat, so they would raid and destroy the crops and knock down houses in the process. Farmers, who are often impoverished and vulnerable, tended to retaliate by shooting at them or bursting firecrackers. Between January and April of 2023, 38 elephants were shot dead in Sri Lanka, according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Villagers also use jaw bombs to drive elephants away. To make these, they pack gunpowder and metal scraps with fodder and hide them inside watermelons and pumpkins, which detonate when bitten. While these instantly kill smaller animals, they end up wounding large animals like elephants or shattering their jawbone so they can no longer eat or drink and suffer a slow, painful death with injuries. In 2022, 55 wild elephants died due to this explosive bait.

Christy Nikson, 36, a farmer in Thikkodai village in eastern Sri Lanka, uses a small, low-voltage electric fence to guard his farm, but it offers little to no help now. “Elephants are smart. When they see the fence, they cover it with dry wood, step on it, and come to our paddy fields,” he said. For six to eight months every year, when water is scarce, Nikson and the villagers have to battle with elephants every single day. “Elephants also know the smell of wheat flour. And they love it,” Nikson said. “When we have flour or roti in our kitchens, they try to enter from our backyards, try to break into our homes, and take the food using their trunks.”

It is a very painful situation for low-income rural communities at the heart of this conflict, according to Akbarally. “The crops are their bread and butter, it’s their livelihood. Suddenly, animals come and destroy your livelihood. We haven’t given people a sense of security either,” she said. “If there’s some sort of compensation when farmers lose their crops, it can at least mitigate the animals being shot and killed.”

While the government did introduce an insurance scheme in 2013 to cover elephant damage to crops, farmers complained it was difficult to claim the funds or that the coverage was limited. Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Center for Conservation and Research, explained that it’s challenging to verify crop loss caused by elephants. “If a farmer is not happy with the compensation, they can even encourage elephants to come and eat the crops. So these programs are very difficult to implement,” he said, adding that the situation leads to distrust between farmers and local authorities.

Sri Lanka’s three decades of civil war also had an impact on conflict between humans and elephants. When the war was underway in the northern and eastern regions, it forced people to flee their homes and abandon their farmlands. With limited human activity, wild elephants started venturing into these areas again. However, as many people started resettling in their villages after the war ended in 2009, it worsened conflict with the elephants.

Meanwhile, over the last few decades the government’s response has been a repeat of the past, as they have forced more elephants into smaller pockets of forest cover creating unsustainable conditions. They do this through elephant drives, which involve hundreds of people walking through the forest and chasing elephants away by making different kinds of noises, firing thousands of firecrackers or shooting at the sky. Electric fences are also erected on the boundaries of these protected areas so that elephants cannot return.

Yet often these elephants do end up returning to the villages. For instance, when shrublands were cleared for the Mahaweli Development Project — a program that began in the 1960s, covering 39% of the country’s area, aiming to develop agricultural land and create hydroelectric power facilities — the wildlife department conducted a large elephant drive to move 130 elephants into the Wilpattu National Park, but about 50 of them returned. Over 100 ended up returning after 150 elephants were driven into the Maduru Oya National Park in 1988. While the authorities haven’t done any major drives since 2006, they conduct smaller ones when people complain. “But these kinds of drives only increase the aggressiveness of elephants and subject them to severe stress,” said Fernando.

While young calves and adult females live in herds, adult males lead a solitary life. And it’s often these bull elephants that raid crops and cause human deaths, injuries and damage to property. Over the years, researchers have found that while elephant drives chase away some of the herds they do not drive away the aggressive, solitary males.

Later on, when the Sri Lankan government realized they could not fence wild elephants, they started building “holding grounds” to retain and rehabilitate them. But conservationists believe that these grounds do not hold enough food for elephants. Audit reports have also revealed mismanagement of funds allocated for feeding elephants. Out of the 65 elephants that were housed at the first holding ground in Horowpathana National Park, 16 of them died in the first six years due to malnutrition. A few were shot dead while trying to escape the grounds. Irrespective of these concerns, the government is planning to build another holding ground in southern Sri Lanka.

“Almost half of the country is now shared by elephants and humans. So it shows that the attempt to limit elephants to protected areas has completely failed and it’s not an option,” said Fernando.

Looking for ways to mitigate the conflict, Fernando and his team have been testing community fencing initiatives across villages in the country. They’ve been experimenting with different kinds of electric fences to be placed around farmland to protect human habitats, as opposed to national parks which limit elephants’ access to sites of food and water. These fences were removed after cultivation and animals were allowed to pass through the farmlands, which, Fernando said, reduced conflict and safeguarded crops.

But small organizations can only show the way, said Fernando. Initiatives have to be planned and implemented by the government. The government has always announced plans and appointed committees but no action has been taken on the ground. Just last year, Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi, the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation, said that a new policy would be formed to address the conflict, but there has been no follow-up to that statement since then.

“We need to make the right policy and governance decisions,” Akbarally said. “Instead, we are creating more conflict by setting up more and more infrastructure developments, constantly cutting down forests and putting more pressure on these animals. It’s not like the elephants come out and decide one day — let’s go to war with humans.”

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