NIMMI SANJEEWANI (Attorney-at-Law)
The Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas Maximus Maximus) is the largest of the four Asian elephant subspecies that have a significant and iconic role in the culture, biological diversity, and ecological integrity across the country. They were once spread throughout Sri Lanka, but today they are mostly restricted to the forests in the dry zones of the country. This native animal has been threatened by the loss of habitat, habitat degradation, and fragmentation. Elephants are listed as Endangered (EN) by the International Union of Convention (IUCN) due to decrease in their population size over the last three decades. Elephants are endangered because of illegal killings and the destruction of their habitats.
Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) has a devastating impact on the local elephant populations, the increase in conflict is mainly due to habitat loss by deforestation, increased human settlements, cultivation, and various development activities. These reasons have led to a continuous shrinkage of their natural habitats and restrict their food and water supply. Furthermore, elephant migratory pathways are entirely blocked by human settlements. As a result of this, we witness an increase in the death toll of both elephants and humans. While it is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of the elephants in Asia, every year nearly 300 elephants are killed by gunshots, electrocution, planting hakka-patas or Jaw-bombs, snares, man-made traps and pits, poisoning, and train accidents. On the other hand, elephants kill roughly 50 people annually. In 2018 alone, 319 elephants and almost 100 people were killed, according to the official data in the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). It is thus crystal clear that managing human-elephant co-existence has become a major issue in Sri Lanka.
Moreover, recently in 2019 seven carcasses of cow elephants, including a tusker were discovered in Habarana-Hiriwadunna and Digampathana-Thumbikulama forest reserves. Wildlife experts and veterinarians investigated the cases but the cause of their death was never verified. Therefore, the Centre for Environmental Justice filed a case (CAWR 26/2020) seeking an investigation into these deaths to punish perpetrators and manage HEC under writ applications, through the proper mechanism in the Court of Appeal. It is the duty of the responsible authorities to resolve these puzzles and take actions according to the law and to penalize culprits and properly manage Human Elephant Conflict.
DWC is bound by the statutory duty of protecting, conserving, and managing elephants in Sri Lanka as it is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) from 1979 and in line with the Fauna and Flora Ordinance No. 02 of 1937. Under section 12 of the Ordinance (Amendment No.22 of 2009), it is illegal to hunt, shoot, kill, injure or take away any elephant outside of a National Reserve or Sanctuary. Thus, anyone who acts illegally is liable for imprisonment or/and a fine of up to several hundred thousand rupees under section 20 of the Ordinance. Unfortunately, even if the Sri Lankan elephants are well protected under the law as mentioned above the death toll of elephants is continuously increasing annually and the government has failed to address this critical issue.
Therefore, if action is not taken wisely to reverse the current trend, the Sri Lankan elephant population will reach towards the Critically Endangered category very soon, which would then ultimately lead to their extinction. The indication that such an irreparable loss could be a reality on Sri Lankan ground means action needs to be taken immediately. HEC must be eliminated or mitigated by formulating a strong National Policy, and a proper management system that will ensure the protection of elephants, including solutions to prevent attacks on human beings. [END]