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As conflict over land intensifies in Sri Lanka, both elephants and humans are suffering fatal consequences.
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As conflict over land intensifies in Sri Lanka, both elephants and humans are suffering fatal consequences.

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Last year, Harshini Wanninayake and her mother left their home to gather firewood on a chilly spring morning. Little did they know, only one of them would return. As they were heading to a nearby forest from their village of Eriyawa in the north-west region of Sri Lanka, they suddenly heard a loud rustling nearby.

Wanninayake exclaims, “It caught us off guard!” The elephant had been concealed by the thicket and caught us completely off guard.

An elephant charged at Wanninayake’s aging mother, causing her to attempt to flee but ultimately knocking her down. “It fled, causing her harm,” Wanninayake recounts, as she rushed to seek assistance. Upon her return with her brothers, it was too late – their mother had already passed away and the elephant had disappeared.

Wanninayake recalls the discovery of her motionless body on the ground, beaten and with visible bruises. She remains disturbed by the severity of the assault, as all of her bones were fractured.

In Sri Lanka, the fragile harmony between humans and elephants is under serious jeopardy. In the previous year, 176 individuals lost their lives in encounters with elephants on the island, while 470 elephants were killed – a notable increase from 2010’s number of elephant deaths.

14 or so Sri Lankans stand under a tree with a corpse under a cloth in the foreground

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Sri Lanka has become the world’s most problematic nation for human-elephant conflict due to a significant increase in death tolls in the last four years.

The loss of habitats and trees, along with competing for land and limited resources, has led to increased tensions. According to the UN, Sri Lanka’s forests covered around 20,000 sq km (7,000 sq miles) or 30% of its land area in 1997, but by 2022, 2,100 sq km had been lost.

In January, researchers released recent findings indicating that conflicts between humans and elephants would escalate due to the increasing severity of the climate crisis.

According to Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, who has been studying elephants for over 30 years and is the chair of the Sri Lanka Centre for Conservation and Research, the effects of climate change are visible in our surroundings.

The amount of fertile land available for food production is decreasing. Due to rivers drying up and unpredictable patterns of rainfall, access to water has become a source of conflict, according to him.

Due to the increasing destruction of elephant habitats for agricultural purposes, the animals are now compelled to travel through human settlements in search of sustenance and hydration. In many cases, they are drawn to the cultivated crops and grains kept in the homes they come across.

Seven people watch a large bull elephant about 40 metres away across open landThe text cannot be reworded as it appears to be a technical instruction for an action (viewing an image in fullscreen).

One night, in Nakolagane, near Eriyawa, Kayakodi Thegis was alerted by a commotion in his backyard. The 70-year-old grabbed his flashlight and went outside to check it out. To his surprise, he saw an enormous elephant looming over him.

According to Ajith Thushara, the witness and nephew of the victim, he was thrown into the vegetable patch and then stepped on. His body was later discovered crushed near the back door.

Fernando explains that elephants view flashing lights as a hostile threat, as was evident when Thegis unintentionally shone a torch in the direction of the elephant who had been stealing jackfruit from the garden.

When elephants invade and damage fields, farmers usually use flashlights to spot the elephants and then confront them by throwing rocks, setting off firecrackers, or firing at them. However, elephants have now learned to associate the light from the flashlight with danger, causing them to react aggressively.

Illegal clearing of forest land in the area has led to a rise in raiding of gardens and crop fields. In Nakolagane, thousands of hectares of forest have been cleared for construction or commercial agriculture, disrupting important elephant migration routes.

In order to safeguard their agriculture and prevent wild elephants from damaging their crops, certain fearful farmers have resorted to constructing lethal makeshift traps for the elephants. In Hambantota, a town along the southeastern coast, a local resident deliberately connected his residential electricity to a fence blocking a designated elephant path, resulting in the death of four elephants in a single day. Despite his actions, he received only a minor penalty.

A dead elephant lies next to her dead calf in a field as people stand around themThe text cannot be converted to reword

In Sri Lanka, there are consequences for killing elephants that can result in imprisonment, although usually a lighter punishment or fine is given. However, illegal methods of deterring elephants have been on the rise, and have also become more aggressive. Recent occurrences involve elephants being intentionally shot, poisoned, or killed using “jaw bombs,” which are explosives disguised as food that detonate inside the elephant’s mouth.

Fernando states that these actions are cruel and will not provide a resolution. He also mentions that, from a financial standpoint, it is illogical as elephants are a major draw for our tourism sector and contribute greatly to our foreign currency earnings. In other words, we rely on them more than they rely on us.

In the previous year, Uga Ulagalla resort partnered with Fernando to establish Sri Lanka’s initial elephant research facility in Anuradhapura, located in the northern region of the country. A team of specialists and local community members have joined forces to aid in the preservation of the nearby elephant population.

Together, they are tracking elephants, looking at how and where they congregate, their seasonal movements and feeding grounds.

Local residents build and maintain community fences to keep elephants from coming onto their property. These fences are run by a battery, rather than using electricity from the grid, and provide a gentle shock to deter elephants without causing harm.

Fernando says that the crucial aspect of maintaining successful conservation efforts is gaining support from the community. He emphasizes the importance of finding ways to coexist harmoniously.

“If current trends persist, there is a possibility that up to 70% of Sri Lanka’s elephant population will be depleted. The key to preserving these animals lies in promoting coexistence between humans and elephants.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X for all the latest news and features

Source: theguardian.com