April 5, 2024 climate

Hundreds of Sri Lankan elephant deaths are caused by human activity

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Yala National Park, 2023. A lone, male elephant.

Picture by: Hesandi Sarasini Ravisinghe

In 2023, 470 elephants died and human activities were responsible for almost half of this number.

In the same period, 176 people were killed after encounters with elephants as many villagers found themselves ‘on the frontline of a worsening conflict between humans and elephants’.

Human-elephant conflict, which occurs due to hostile interactions between humans and elephants, is a large contributor to this rising number. This is a major threat to both elephants and humans.

Currently, Sri Lanka has the highest number of elephant deaths related to human-elephant conflict in the world. The surge in numbers is attributed to fragmentation, habitat loss and growing human populations.

Guns, hakka patas (jaw bombs), electrocution and poisoning are some of the common causes of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka – all human actions. Elephants are often harmed by weapons meant for other animals, but some attacks are deliberate. Killing an elephant can lead to the death penalty under the Sri Lankan law but lenient sentences, such as fines, are carried out far more often.

A jaw bomb – which destroys the jaw when bitten – is an easily accessible explosive used to kill wild boars and now elephants. Other hunting equipment is also now being used to kill wild elephants. Snare traps, usually designed to catch animals like deer and wild boar, are used to stop elephants from raiding crops. Farmers also use guns in order to protect their crops from elephants.

Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, chair of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Conservation and Research, commented that “such activities are inhumane and can never be the solution.”

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  • Yala National Park | Taken by Hesandi Ravisinghe

    Picture by: Hesandi Sarasini Ravisinghe

  • Specially designed electric fences to keep elephants away from farmers’ crops are also becoming more popular, as farmers can easily connect barbed wire fencing to their household electricity. Dr Prithiviraj told The Sunday Times that this method is illegal and “any animal coming into contact with such fences will get killed.”

    Renowned elephant ethologist Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, also commented how ‘electrocutions are prevalent in areas where the human-elephant conflict is high and the houses and farmlands are connected to the electricity grid’.

    Train accidents also account for 15–20 annual elephant deaths in Sri Lanka.

    Protected wildlife areas occupy much of Sri Lanka at almost 20% but elephants don’t stick to those areas alone. Contrary to popular belief, elephants prefer grasslands to thick forests with little sunlight.

    Over 70% of wild Sri Lankan elephants (a subspecies of the endangered Asian elephant) range outside of protected wildlife areas, sharing 44% of this land with humans.

    Dr. Pilapitiya reported how studies found “that the density of elephants in primary and secondary forests such as Wilpattu is in the range of 0.2-0.3 elephants per square kilometre, while the density of elephants in scrub jungle and savannah grasslands is around three elephants per square kilometre.”

    Urbanisation to support a growing population in Sri Lanka means more easily-developed grasslands are being developed upon causing both habitat loss and increasing human-elephant conflicts.

    Unsustainable agricultural practices is also a key threat to the elephant population as it leads to malnutrition.

    Chena cultivation (a popular traditional farming practice which usually takes place before the rainy season) can lead to forest destruction and leave little plant life behind as nutrition after farmers abandon the area. Traditional feeding grounds, now scarce due to habitat loss and climate change, have also been destroyed.

    Research in Udawalawe National Park also spotlight prolonged birth intervals in female elephants, from 3 to 4-6 years, because of malnutrition as a result of droughts and invasive plant life, such as Lantana camara. In Yala National Park, 54% of calves under the age of two die due to malnutrition.

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  • Udawalawe National Park | Taken by Hesandi Ravisinghe

    Picture by: Hesandi Sarasini Ravisinghe

  • The well-known Minneriya elephant gathering, the world’s largest congregation of Asian elephants in the wild, has also witnessed a drastic decline in numbers.

    The Moragahakanda project (part of a network of dams), ridding the Minneriya reservoir of food during the dry season resulted in elephant numbers decreasing from 400 (2017) down to 210 elephants (2020).

    An electric-powered fence, set up in 2001-2002 to prevent elephants from invading and destroying farmlands adjacent to Yala National Park, also prevents them from migrating. Although not a major issue at the moment, inbreeding may occur; with the lack of habitats and migration, adult males may inbreed with females of the same herd.

    A 2011 waterhole census (a population survey done by counting the number of animals seen at waterholes) showed the minimum number of elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka as 5,879. While these numbers are estimated to be higher, the overall population has fallen by 65% since the turn of the 19th century.

    Dr Pilapitiya highlighted that these numbers are in contrast to the increasing tourism demand these wild animals attract.
    The next nationwide count will be able to provide a more in-depth view of the current state of the elephant population in Sri Lanka.

    Currently, we know there are several transit homes, rehabilitation centres and orphanages for elephants on the island, along with 61 sanctuaries. But as Dr Pilapitiya emphasises, “as long as there are humans, and as long as there are elephants, there is going to be conflict.”

    Written by:

    author_bio

    Hesandi Ravisinghe

    Contributor

    Galle, Sri Lanka

    Born in 2009, Hesandi lives in Galle, Sri Lanka, and is interested in art, nature and wildlife (especially elephants, leopards and birds). In her free time, she enjoys painting and has a passion for travel.

    She speaks English and Sinhala while learning Indonesian.

    Edited by:

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    Sofia Radysh

    Science Section Editor

    Animal welfare correspondent

    Kyiv, Ukraine | London, United Kingdom

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