de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). The Human-Elephant Conflict. Montage. May 15-June 15. Pages 33-34. Volume 1, Issue 5.
Tragedy caused by misunderstanding the Elephants.
The human elephant conflict is a tragedy which is unfolding around us. If planners and developers and in particular politicians had listened to conservationists who had foresight, the worst of its effects could have been mitigated. There are many aspects to this complex problem. In this article, I will attempt to articulate some of the issues.
There are three central issues to this problem. One is that they are ‘visible animals’ which kill people against which an un-armed person is defenseless. The second is that they are unwittingly destructive animals who can threaten livelihoods. The third is that elephants are large animals which need large home ranges.
Let me deal with each of the issues. Sri Lanka has one of the highest annual rates of death by snake bite. But there is no national hysteria to eradicate snakes. People who are vulnerable to snake bite are not afraid to step out of their home if on the previous day a neighbor was killed by a snake bite. Snakes are small and not obviously intimidating. When confronted with a venomous snake, a human can flee, evade or pick up a rock or stick and even kill the snake. In contrast, an un-armed human being is powerless when confronted with a rogue elephant. The fear evoked by elephants is deep and primal. Hence a death by an elephant immediately results in a lot of pressure on the state authorities to remove the rogue. Although snakes may kill several times more people than elephants in a year, elephants and not snakes will be what causes a national problem.
The second issue is one of threatened livelihoods. Faced with reduced habitat or the absence of suitable corridors to move between forest reserves, the elephants raid farmers fields. A farmer’s field is very tempting for an elephant as the nutritional load is very high. The risks are worth it for a hungry elephant. The farmers protect their crops by at times shooting and injuring elephants. This in turn exacerbates the situation with an injured elephant seething with pain and anger and a markedly ill temperament towards people.
Last of all, to the most important of the reasons, which explains why the conflict has come to a head. Elephants need a vast area. It is only in the last few years, that Sri Lankan scientists have actually quantified the home ranges of elephants. Initially, scientists encountered resistance to radio collar elephants. With perseverance the permissions came through and we are finally able to understand the full gravity of the results. A mature bull may range over 140 square kilometers. Most bulls are lone rangers who for good reason avoid crossing each others paths. Female dominated family units stick together. Even a few female dominated family units and a few wide ranging bulls will need several hundred square kilometers. That is a lot of land in a country with one of the highest population densities in the world.
The earlier conservationists proposed jungle corridors to allow the free movement of wildlife, especially elephants. But these were never enacted and instead land was often given for human settlement with villages serving as a physical boundary to elephant lands. A conflict was inevitable. Even now in conservation circles the need for jungle corridors is not understood. Jungle corridors can help to disperse the gene flow and prevent in-breeding depression by the movement of successive generations of animals through corridors to other linked reserves through random dispersal movements. The animal need not consciously know of and use a corridor as a pre-meditated act. The genes of a butterfly or dragonfly may spread hundreds of kilometers though several generations. The same can work for elephants. However large intelligent animals like elephants who live through more than one ‘season’ can also learn how to move around.
Thus even now it is not too late to protect the stretches of jungle which enable elephants from far and wide to coverage for ‘The Gathering’ of elephants at Minneriya every August and September. The Central Bank in a report published in 2007 argued for the reduction of farming fertiliser subsidies as paddy farming is low in value addition. Elephant watching is very high in value addition and generates much need foreign exchange. It is inevitable that elephants in Sri Lanka will eventually be confined to a few select areas. This is because of the competition for land from a disproportionately high population who have spread into elephant areas due to a lack of planning foresight. But there is an economic if not moral and aesthetic argument to manage prudently what is left of our elephants and wilderness areas.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne ( is a corporate personality who is also a writer and photographer on a mission to create a million wildlife enthusiasts. E-mail him to subscribe to his quarterly wildlife e-newsletter.