Human-wildlife conflicts in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Human-wildlife conflicts in Sri Lanka

Coconut tree damaged by wild elephant (Pic. Sudath Abeysinghe)
Coconut tree damaged by wild elephant (Pic. Sudath Abeysinghe)

The human-wildlife conflicts we see today, are as old as the history of the human race. In the distant past when man was a cave dweller, he was subject to attacks from leeches, ticks, insects as well as a number of reptiles and fish. These attacks were an impediment to his way of life. Man also had conflicts with carnivorous mammals and aggressive herbivores. Man, then a hunter gatherer also caused conflicts with wildlife.

In ancient times the Sri Lankan state protected animals, birds, and other living creatures of the land, pursuant to a moving plea made by Arahath Mahinda, who brought the message of Buddhism to Sri Lanka from India. The first wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka was declared by King Devanampiyatissa. As a result, this is now a part of the traditional culture of Sri Lankans who have always had an ethical concern for the welfare of animals and revere all forms of life. However, certain circumstances have forced a section of Sri Lankans to create conflicts with our wildlife.

The Future: A looming disaster

Throughout the world, interactions between wildlife and people can sometimes lead to conflict. This may manifest itself as crop and property damage, livestock depredation, human injury and death. This situation poses a significant challenge to conservation.

There is heavy emphasis on ‘verifiable’ damage related to larger species such as elephants or tigers (in India), while small-scale but more frequent losses caused by animals such as small mammals including pigs, primates and rodents are discounted.

In 2014 the Wold Wildlife Fund (WWF) researchers reported that between 1970 and 2010 the world lost 40% of its vertebrate species. In 2016 they reported that between 1970 and 2012, 58% of the world’s vertebrates had become extinct.

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilization.

The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by the WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, which was billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.

Human – Wildlife relationships and conflicts

The perception of human-wildlife conflicts is when wildlife act in a way detrimental or harmful to humans. However, when humans do something like trapping, shooting at or killing any form of wildlife, it is not considered a conflict. Poaching animals for their meat or certain parts of their body like skin, tusks, bones, feathers etc is not seen by humans as causing a conflict. However, should a leopard (Pantherapardus) kill a dog, a calf or a goat for its food, this act is seen as a conflict that humans have with leopards.

Humans go into the forest and, apart from killing birds and mammals, take forest produce like yams, fruits, medicinal plants, bee’s honey etc. In Sri Lanka it is perceived as a conflict when elephants (Elephas maximus), deer (Axis axis), sambur (Cervusuncolor), porcupine (Hystrixindica) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) destroy farmers’ crops. Elephants destroy crops on a much larger scale compared to the others and create a greater perception of conflict.

The number of humans killed by elephants each year, on an average, in Sri Lanka is 65. The number of humans killed annually by snakebite in Sri Lanka is around 120 (Anslem de Silva, perscomm) and in 2018 Dengue, spread by a mosquito caused the death of 202 humans. However, it is man’s conflict with elephants that the media highlights regularly and is always kept in the public eye.

Toque Monkey, Langur and Purple-faced Leaf Monkey

The population of the Toque macaque (Macacasinica) has increased significantly. As a result, many have been forced to come out of their jungle habitats in search of food. They initially came to raid the garbage strewn all over the streets. Troops of monkeys are now found in urban and semi-urban areas, throughout the country, searching for food. These monkeys are bold and aggressive, and attempt to bite people who try to drive them away from their houses. They remove the tiles on roofs, raid kitchens for food and cause damage and destruction in many other ways.

On the other hand, the Langur and the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, though agricultural pests, are not aggressive and do not raid houses and generally do not get into conflicts with humans.

Elephants

Sri Lanka is an island with an ever-increasing human population demanding more and more land. The only lands that are now left are the jungle habitats of the elephants. With their habitats reducing the elephants are forced to come out of their home ranges in search of food. This naturally causes conflicts between humans and elephants.

If humans injure or are aggressive towards elephants, they will attack humans, even lying in wait to ambush them. On the other hand, humans use guns and also light firecrackers to keep elephants away. They fill pumpkins with poison and explosives and keep them in the field for the elephants to consume. These pumpkins, locally called “Hakka Patas”, explode when bitten and blows the elephant’s mouth away.

A plank, with steel nails fixed onto it, is left on the paths that elephants use. When trod on, the nails penetrate the elephant’s foot. In pain the elephant stamps it’s leg in an effort to get rid of the plank, which drives the nails further into the foot, increasing its pain. Humans also throw hot oil or burnt polythene onto crop raiding elephants to deter them.

Leopards

Many leopards die due to cable wire traps or snares. These traps, laid out for wild boar, porcupine and deer, also entangle leopards in them since they too use the same paths used by smaller mammals whose flesh is consumed by the villagers. Nothing can be done to release these leopards from the trap. They ultimately die or are killed.

The Sri Lankan leopard is found in all habitats throughout the island - the arid, dry and wet zones. In the hill country, leopards are found in forest patches, tea estates, grasslands, home gardens, pine and eucalyptus plantations.

Leopards prefer hunting at night but are also active during dawn and dusk. It is also not averse to carrying away dogs, goats and calves for food, and thus comes into conflict with man. When domestic animals are taken by a leopard regularly, it is shot. Leopards, especially those who have experienced human aggressiveness, attack humans. Some humans die due to these attacks. In early times there were many records of man-eating leopards, the man-eater of Punani being the most notoriously famous.

In the past 10 years at least 38 leopards have been killed by snares set for wild boar, with the actual toll probably far higher. Snaring is an extremely unpleasant way to kill an animal as it results in extensive suffering and can drag on for a long time.

Wild boar

At present, a farmer can kill a wild boar if it trespasses onto his property, but by law the meat cannot be transported or sold. Wild boar causes a lot of damage in farmers’ fields. They are, however, already being killed in large numbers and sold under cover, since there is a big demand for their flesh.

Already, illegal methods such as trap guns, snares and ‘hakkapatas’ are being used to kill wild boar, which also kill many non-target species. Electrified wires are laid on jungle paths used by animals. Sometimes humans are also killed when they unwittingly come in contact with these wires.

Sloth bear

Humans and bears have no direct conflicts with each other. However, if a bear is suddenly encountered in the jungle, the surprised bear will stand up on its hind legs and attempt to claw or bite the human.

Each foot of a bear has long, strong and sharp claws, which are curved to facilitate digging and climbing trees. Its back feet are planted firmly on the ground when they stand up so that these take the full weight of the animal.

A bear will move away on hearing the approach of humans. However, the bear is generally intent on whatever it is doing and oblivious to what is happening around it. As a result, people moving about in the jungle often surprise a bear and are immediately attacked.

Often the victim does not die unless he bleeds to death. Most victims of bear attacks are maimed and disfigured for life. A bear can inflict gashes on a man’s face and arms, gouge out his eyes, bite his nose and tear off his ears. For this they use their long claws and sharp teeth.

Crocodile

Unlikeother animals that come into conflict with humans, crocodiles are in an aquatic habitat, whereas the habitats of other animals are terrestrial. Of the two species that live in Sri Lanka the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylusporous) is the one that attacks humans and eats their flesh. The Saltwater Crocodile is found in rivers and estuaries in the southern part of Sri Lanka.

Humans are attacked when they get into the water to wash clothes, bathe, catch fish, etc. The crocodile drags the victim under water and keeps it till the victim drowns. Some who are attacked escape. Some lose an arm or leg while fighting with the crocodile to break away from the grip of its strong jaws.

In the Nilwala Ganga in Matara, which has a high concentration of Saltwater Crocodiles, the intensity of human crocodile conflicts is very high. Poisoned meat is used to kill a crocodile, or it is shot.

One of the mitigatory measures that have been taken to contain this conflict is to build an iron netted cage in the water, so that people could bathe safely. In some instances, however, the fourth side of the cage which faced the land, was not closed up. There have been instances when at night crocodiles come ashore and when going back to the river before daylight, they have unintentionally gone into the cage and become trapped. When the people come in the morning and try to use the cage, they are attacked by the trapped crocodile.

Other animals

Giant squirrels raid all types of fruit, even coconuts. Peafowl, parrots and other seed eating birds destroy crops, even eating the seed as soon as it is sown in a field. Porcupines root out plants for their food. Rodents also feed on man’s cultivation. These are all agricultural pests who affect the economy of the villager.

Wildlife habitats are reducing rapidly and are being fragmented due to human intrusions. This has a negative effect on wildlife populations and the prediction made in the early part of this paper, would soon be a reality, unless humans take cognisance of this looming problem and take positive and effective action quickly to arrest this trend.

The writer is Managing Trustee, Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust of Sri Lanka. 
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