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Death toll rises as elephants and humans compete for land in Sri Lanka

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Death toll rises as elephants and humans compete for land in Sri Lanka

SLeaving the house to collect wood on a cool spring morning last year, Harshini Wanninayake and her mother had no idea that only one of them would return alive. The two men were walking towards a nearby forest from Eriyawa, a village in northwestern Sri Lanka, when they heard a loud rustling nearby.

“It came out of nowhere,” says Wanninayake. “The elephant was behind the thicket and completely surprised us.”

The elephant rushed towards Wanninayake’s elderly mother, who tried to move out of the way but was knocked down. “He ran away, trampling her as he went,” said Wanninayake, who ran screaming to get help. When she returned with her brothers, it was too late: their mother was already dead and the elephant had disappeared.

“We found his body motionless on the ground, battered and battered. All his bones were broken,” said Wanninayake, still shaken by the attack.

In Sri Lanka, the delicate balance of coexistence between humans and elephants is facing unprecedented threats. Last year, 176 people died during encounters with elephants on the island, and 470 elephants were killed – more than double the number of elephant deaths in 2010.

Shocked villagers at the scene of another deadly human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka, when Harshini Wanninayake’s elderly mother was trampled to death last year. Photograph: Handout

The rising death toll over the past four years has made Sri Lanka the worst country for human-elephant conflicts around the world.

Habitat loss, deforestation, competition for land and dwindling resources have fueled tensions. In 1997, the United Nations estimated that Sri Lanka’s forests covered nearly 20,000 km² (7,000 square miles), or 30% of its total area; in 2022, he had lost 2,100 km² of tree cover.

In January, scientists published new research concluding that clashes between humans and elephants would intensify as the climate crisis worsened.

“We can see the impact of climate change all around us,” says Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, president of the Sri Lanka Conservation and Research Centre, who has studied elephants for more than 30 years.

“Fertile land for food production is decreasing. With rivers drying up and rainfall becoming more erratic, water has also become a contentious issue,” he says.

As more elephant habitats are cleared for cultivation, the animals are forced to pass through human settlements to access food and water. Often they are attracted to the crops and grain stored on the farms they encounter.

Elephants raiding gardens and crops are increasingly common in Sri Lanka, as thousands of hectares of forest are illegally cleared each year. Photograph: Handout

Late at night in Nakolagane, about three kilometers from Eriyawa, Kayakodi Thegis heard a disturbance in his garden. The 70-year-old went out with his flashlight to investigate and looked up to find an elephant towering over him.

“He was thrown across the vegetable garden and trampled,” says Ajith Thurshara, the victim’s nephew, who witnessed the attack. “We found his body crushed near the back door.”

The elephant was attacking the jackfruit tree in the garden when Thegis involuntarily shone the torch in his direction. Flashing lights are increasingly seen as a hostile threat by elephants, says Fernando.

“When elephants come to attack the fields, farmers usually light torches to see the elephant, then confront it, throwing stones and firecrackers or shooting it. Elephants now negatively associate the glow of a torch and react with aggression.

Looting of gardens and crop fields has become increasingly common in the region, due to the illegal clearing of forest lands. Recently, thousands of hectares of forest have been illegally cleared in Nakolagane, with areas being leased for construction projects or for growing cash crops. This blocks crucial elephant corridors.

To protect their crops and ward off marauding elephants, some frightened farmers have begun creating deadly homemade elephant traps. In Hambantota, on the southeast coast, a man recently connected his house’s power supply to a fence encroaching on a known elephant corridor, killing four elephants in one day. He was released with a small fine.

Villagers stand near a cow elephant and her calf killed when a Hambantota man connected his garden fence to his house’s power supply. Four elephants died. Photograph: Handout

In Sri Lanka, killing an elephant is punishable by imprisonment, but a more lenient sentence or fine is usually imposed. But illegal measures aimed at keeping animals away are increasing and becoming more and more violent. Recent incidents include elephants being shot, poisoned or killed with “jaw bombs” – explosives hidden in food as bait that explode in the elephant’s mouth.

“Such activities are inhumane and can never be a solution,” says Fernando. “Even economically it makes no sense: elephants are the star attraction of our tourism industry, bringing in much-needed foreign exchange. We need them more than they need us.

Last year the hotel Uga Ulagalla collaborated with Fernando to open the country’s first elephant research center. Located in Anuradhapura in northern Sri Lanka, experts have worked with the community to help conserve the local elephant population.

Together, they track the elephants, observing how and where they congregate, their seasonal movements, and their feeding grounds.

Community fences, built and maintained by local people, prevent elephants from entering their land. The fences are powered by a battery, rather than the mains, to provide a gentle shock that harmlessly frightens elephants.

“The key to maintaining successful conservation practices is getting buy-in from local people,” says Fernando. “We must learn to live together in peace.

“If things continue like this, up to 70% of Sri Lanka’s elephants will be lost. Human-elephant coexistence is the only way forward.

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

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