Elephants in Sri Lanka can have the demeanor of cranky wedding guests in a slow buffet line. They munch away at grass and leaves, kicking their heels back in annoyance at the pure white egrets standing behind them. Cross their path in a safari vehicle and you might get a raised trunk and a trumpeted warning: I’m walking here!
But these feisty Asian elephants have a problem: Their turf is dwindling. Just a few years out of its 26-year civil war, the tiny island nation actually has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. As farmers expand their land for crops, tourists descend on the country’s beaches and roads are built, the number of human-elephant interactions increases, often with fatal results for both humans and animals.
Sri Lanka is not the only country that has a problem with humans and elephants competing for resources, of course, but “nowhere is it more apparent” than in Sri Lanka, says Ravi Corea of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. His group’s recently finished documentary, Common Ground, notes that 100 years ago, Sri Lanka was home to about 20,000 elephants. Today, the elephant population has dropped to about 5,000.
It’s illegal to shoot an elephant in Sri Lanka. In fact, the animals are revered in its Buddhist culture. But that hasn’t stopped an estimated 200 elephants from being killed each year.
Elephants, in turn, kill about 150-200 humans annually. Some of those killings are perpetrated by male elephants who have been shot in the past by farmers seeking to protect their land. Noel Rodrigo, who runs a leopard safari camp near Yala National Park in the country’s southeast, says that an elephant’s good memory is no myth. “They carry these angers and they will take revenge,” he says. “They see a human and they want to kill it. They’re angry with us. They know that we are taking their land, and they know that we’re shooting them.”
Corea hopes his film will make some progress in stopping the slaughter. While the animals might be safe in national parks, some 70 percent of the country’s elephants live outside protected wildlife areas, he says. “It’s one of the reasons for the conflict. They’re basically living among the people.”
During the country’s dry season from April through October*, Asian elephants, who drink 100 liters of water a day, travel outside the national parks to seek out watering holes. The problem, says Corea, is that humans also use sections of the ancient corridors along which the elephants trek. The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society set up a tree hut outside one national park to monitor a corridor and found “record interaction” between humans and elephants, Corea says.
“In the past two years, we’ve noticed many more people walking through,” Corea says. “Even school kids are going to school and back through the midst of the elephants.”
The wildlife society came up with one solution: an “ele-friendly” bus service that can carry children to and from schools near Wasgamuwa National Park, in the center of the country.
One bus is, of course, not going to solve the problem on a larger scale. Another project that the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is starting with the Kenya-based Elephants and Bees Project is a series of “beehive fences,” simple wire and stick fences with beehives or mock beehives every few feet. Elephants are wary enough of bees that they tend to stay away, and the farmers get honey, another source of income.
Right now the project is being carried out on a smaller scale to gauge whether it’s working, says Kylie Butler, a Ph.D student who is conducting the pilot for the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society and Save the Elephants. Some preliminary fences have gone up around rural homes and home gardens that have a small plot and some fruit trees. “There is a real danger in these areas, as elephants come close to people’s homes to eat their fruit trees and vegetables, and will also knock down sections of houses to get to crops inside,” she writes via email from her base outside Wasgamuwa National Park.
These sorts of multipronged solutions work best, says Ravi Corea. “This way, we’re not saying one is more important than the other; we’re saying both need to be helped. When you approach it in the context of helping people, you’re supporting as well as achieving the long-term goal of helping the elephants.”
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the months of Sri Lanka's dry season.