Majestic jumbos fall from grace | Sunday Observer

Majestic jumbos fall from grace

11 July, 2021

Elephants in Sri Lanka are in a long and arduous struggle to survive when humans continue to encroach on their lands. Clearing of forests to make way for agriculture and human settlements has led to the human-elephant conflict with loss of lives and reduction in the elephant population.

According to the World Wildlife Organization, Sri Lanka’s elephant population has fallen almost 65 percent since the turn of the 19th century and continues to dwindle due to the actions of humans.

Although the number of elephants in the country is debatable, the Wildlife Department estimates around 4,000-5,000 elephants do still remain in the wild, covering the districts of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Ampara, Puttalam, Kurunegala, Vavuniya, Kalutara, Gampaha, Colombo, Kegalle, Ratnapura, and Kandy. Elephants are considered endangered species and protected by the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and Fauna and Flora Protection Act.


“In 2020, over 400 elephant deaths were reported due to natural causes and clashes with humans. During the period of the British, elephant hunting was a sport. But with laws in place, this is an offence. Still, we see more elephant deaths due to human actions than due to natural causes,” said State Minister Wimalaweera Dissanayake overseeing Wildlife Protection, Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electric Fences and Trenches, and Reforestation and Forest Resource Development. The State Minister assured that the ministry carries out all measures to implement the laws and regulations to protect wildlife including elephants. However, he added that there are challenges due to the lack of resources.

“The ministry has over 5.7 million acres of land under its purview. But there are only 3,000-4,000 people serving under the ministry to protect the reserves.

Out of this, a majority of the officers are allocated to set up and maintain the electric fences. But it is difficult to monitor elephants that die deep inside forest reserves. Some die after a few weeks of suffering from injuries due to Hakka Patas or improvised small explosive devices set up by farmers.

We are unable to allocate officers to each village. So farmers just kill off elephants that enter villages to protect their crops and save their lives. Legal action is taken against such persons,” State Minister Dissanayake said.

Dangerous trend

The human-elephant conflict has been one of the main reasons for the dwindling elephant population. Elephants develop clever methods to cross electric fences and farmers have no choice but to resort to other methods to ward them off, often resulting in fatalities. As Sri Lanka loses its elephant population this way, another trend among elephants is causing concern among elephant conservationists.

Rummaging through garbage, elephants looking for easy food is a common scene at the landfill near the Buddangala reserve in Ampara. Over 10 elephants can be seen at once at any time of day at this landfill contrary to the glowing images of elephants on advertisements celebrating Sri Lanka’s unique wildlife.

Instead of feasting on a kithul branch, these elephants prefer wilted fruits and vegetables discarded by people and dumped here by the authorities. Garbage piles up for years and elephants from the nearby reserve draw to the decaying smell of food and accidentally pick up polythene and plastics along with the food, often proving it fatal. Ironically, this is one of the few places where many species gather to feast together in peace, as cattle, dogs and even peacocks are drawn to the stench.

According to farmers in the area, many elephants have died due to plastic blocking the digestive system and authorities are yet to take action in this regard. Shashikalana Ratwatte, an environmental activist working towards the conservation of elephants said he observed over 60 such landfills around the country from Kataragama, Ampara, Buttala, Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Minneriya and son where elephants and other animals draw to on a regular basis.

Of these, he said, Dambulla Dwigampathana has one of the largest landfills which draw many species apart from elephants. He estimated that between 400 - 500 elephants have developed the practice of eating garbage in all these landfills, deviating from their traditional food patterns.

“This is an extremely tragic situation. Garbage has become more delectable for the elephants than their traditional plants and leaves. It is dangerous on many levels,” he said.

“The food is grown using weedicides and pesticides making it toxic for elephants. They fall sick due to the consumption of discarded food. The landfills even have human waste making it extremely hazardous to wild animals due to pathogens, harmful bacteria and parasites. Apart from polythene and plastics, even pieces of glass and other harmful items go into their systems causing death. I have seen the way veterinarians pull out undigested polythene from elephants while plastics have been found in their waste and stomachs. Elephants have died as a result and this needs immediate action to save our elephant population.”

New habit

Ratwatte said more and more elephants find it easier to forage through the dump rather than look for food in the wild.

“Discarded food is more accessible and they get used to new tastes which cannot be found from the natural environment, making it impossible for them to return to their traditional food patterns. Wild elephant attacks on crops and households would become more frequent as they search for the same tastes. This habit could pass on to offspring as they copy their mother’s behaviour.” Ratwatte warned that this could breakdown the entire eco system and authorities need to take it seriously. “The President has moved the country to a new direction with the ban on chemical fertiliser. Why not use this opportunity to create compost plants at existing landfills so that garbage is disposed in a responsible and environmentally-friendly manner? That way we can save our elephants and other wild animals without risking them to diseases and health hazards, while protecting our environment.” According to veterinarians, ulcerated intestines from chemicals in the plastics will eventually occur in 100 percent of the elephants if they spend their lifetime at a landfill. This would shorten their lives by 5 to 25 years or more. When they find easily digestible food, they usually feed on the same spot for the rest of their lives. However, State Minister Dissanayake had a different opinion on the issue. He said this is not a major concern and that elephants pass polythene safely from their system unlike other animals.

However, he said electric fences have been set up around the dumps in some areas to keep elephants away although elephants still manage to get through them. The ministry is investigating the situation and will arrive at solutions in collaboration with stakeholders, he said. The elephants’ loss of natural habitat is a growing concern and puts the entire elephant population at risk.

Elephants are Sri Lanka’s national treasure but these animals continue to succumb to human actions. As heartbreaking scenes unfold across the country, it is the authorities’ responsibility to take more stringent measures on waste management and wildlife protection, and return the country to its original beauty with the majestic jumbo at its heart.w