Clearing the Woods and Tilling the Soil: Can it really help communities affected by HEC in Sri Lanka?

“Gather to stand against forest destruction” is what we often hear today. While environmentalists protest, plead and try to educate the society on massive scale forest destructions occurring around the country, politicians justify them as “increasing the quality of life of the poor rural communities”. But, can destructing dense forests really uplift the quality of rural communities?

In all around the country, on average 213 elephants and 70 humans die annually  ( 2000-2019) due to the Human-Elephant conflict or HEC (with reference to the Department of Wildlife Conservation- DWC). The fact is being discussed only when human and elephant deaths are sensationally highlighted in the media. But, communities who live in the areas with elephants in their neighborhood live in constant fear and stress. The same goes for elephants as they have to compete for resources with humans and at the same time defend themselves against fatal threats imposed by humans. Elephants are attracted to human settlements for palatable crops grown and when their habits are disturbed by continuous human activities. The outcomes are disastrous.

HEC Mitigation Cost Farmers

A study conducted by the Centre for Environmental Justice under the financial support of KNCF (Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund) in 2020- 21

showed that annual turnover of cultivations of people in North-Western Province (NWP) that live along with HEC can be considerably low, trapping them in the vicious cycle of poverty.  The study titled ‘ Land-Use and Chronic Human-Elephant Conflict in North Western Sri Lanka’  reviews the impact of human-elephant conflict on communities of NWP in relation to the land use practices in the area.  According to local researchers, NWP records the 4th highest number of HEC incidents, including both human and elephant deaths and crop and property damages.

For the CEJ-led survey, 4 Divisional Secretariat divisions were selected; Karuwalagaswewa and Nawagaththegama from Puttalam district, Giribawa and Galgamuwa from Kurunegala district. Talking about deaths, there has been an average of 9 human deaths and 13 elephant deaths in Kurunegala District during 2012-2019 (DWC data). Similarly, Puttalam District reported 4 human deaths and 10 elephant deaths during the period.

The questionnaire used in the survey mainly focused on the Household information, Agricultural details, Human-elephant conflict, Prevention and mitigation measures in the selected areas.

It was highlighted in the study that using measures like putting up and maintaining the usual protective fences and electric fences to fight crop raiding elephants cost them a lot.  Along with using firecrackers, flashlights  and batteries cost them up to 406,000 rupees.  This is around 14% to 42% of their income from agriculture, which falls between Rs. 6,000 to 1,100,160.

515 elephants were shot dead during the past decade and another 415 were “starved to death” by hakkapatas !

While it was identified that the number of human and elephant deaths are on increase in NWP, the main cause of elephant deaths was gunshots, followed by hakkapatas (jaw explosives), electrocution, accidents (specially train accidents), poisoning, injuries and natural deaths – DWC data. It should be understood that providing guns to farmers will never be a good decision to protect the harvest from wild animals as it would only increase the number of animals killed including elephants. In fact, elephant deaths by gunshots could be prevented through regulating farmers using guns or else enacting the existing law.

Hakkapatas, a type of firecracker that explodes the Jaw, is the most inhumane way to kill an elephant. When an elephant bites onto a food with a hakkapatas it blows the jaw of that animal making it difficult to feed any longer. A wild animal that generally requires around 130kg fodder per adult per day would then starve to death with intense suffering unable to express the pain. Young elephants are usually subjected to  hakkapatas injuries for their inexperience dealing with unfamiliar food sources. Just imagine how you try to cope up with the pain the very next day after a tooth extraction; you have to heavily depend on painkillers. We hope this analogy gives some idea to the readers how hakkapatas-affected elephants would die a painful death accompanied by starvation.   CEJ is currently conducting an awareness campaign to address the problem through educating people and children.

Increasing cultivation without regulation will only increase HEC

The main source of income of the  people in this area is agriculture and livestock farming contributes secondary and tertiary. The total income from crops grown in chena, fields and home gardens isn’t always observed high when loss of income to elephants and the expenses they have to bear for mitigating HEC are considered . They usually lose between  19% to 32% of their income from cultivation due to elephant crop damage.

CEJ also observed that the incidents of elephant and human deaths are high in some months of the year depending on the location and they were correlated with paddy and chena cultivations, mainly around harvesting. In Kurunagala District, we saw peak elephant deaths  in February and August while in Puttalam district the peak elephant deaths occured identified in March, July and also in September.

This observation suggests that cultivations attract elephants and more elephant deaths occur during cultivation periods. Therefore, we can assume that clearing more lands for cultivation will only increase the number of elephant deaths unless effective mitigation measures are practiced constantly.

Elephants do not frequent villages for nothing. Locals acknowledge that they are in search of food and water or simply because their habitats are disturbed by people and their movement paths are barred by human settlements. Elephants have a high affinity to their home range or ‘traditional’ range they are used to roam.

The community also explained that elephants come near villages more in the dry season. When water resourcesinside the forests parched  during the dry season, elephants come near villages in search of water. This could be another reason to increase elephant deaths in dry months such as February, March and July to September. 

Small wevu inside forested areas, sometimes next to Protected Areas, store rainwater inviting locals to do seasonal chena farming around them. This is another unauthorised land-use practice of local farmers disturbing the peace in forests and contributing to a high number of HEC incidents. However, farmers also think that deforestation is a reason for elephants to visit human settlements as clearing forested areas destroy their habitats. 

How short-sighted politics affect natural habitats and eventually threaten ecosystems  is well explained in Karuwalagaswewa, Puttalam District. A non-native plant species, Mesquite tree (Prosopis juliflora or Kalapu Andara In Sinhala) was introduced to the area by authorities about 20 years ago as to enhance the habitat quality through shade and nourishing the soil. Now the species has become an invasive species spreading over 15,000 hectares according to the locals. Prosopis is propagated by cattle, by means of seeds in their dung. When cattle compete with elephants in their natural habitats while grazing, Prosopis  easily invades forests reducing the quality of habitats. Finally, both cattle grazing and spread of Prosophis considerablyreduced the feeding area of elephants in Puttalam District.

Surviving with and without our forests….

The argument today is whether to utilize the remaining national forests to expand our cultivations or to preserve them so that we get a constant supply of fresh air as a part of their ecosystem services.. One shouldn’t forget the services the forests provide including Non-Timber Forest Products (NTBs) discussed below.

The Global Forest Watch (website)  illustrates how Sri Lanka’s total green cover changes over the period. The total national tree cover includes cultivations, home gardens and forests including Protected Areas. According to their records, Kurunagala has lost a total of 3614 hectares (around 8930 acres) between 2001 to 2011 and a total of 10882 hectares (around 26890 acres) from 2012 to 2019. Kurunegala district shows an increasing trend in green cover loss while it correlates with the increasing number of elephant deaths in the area during 2011-2019.

When locals were asked whether they considered forests are important, 80% of the respondents of the survey answered that they did. Rain-fed water stored in local weuv meets the majority of their domestic and agricultural water demands and forests act as the catchment areas of such water sources. Livestock farming also heavily depends on stored water. Further, the locals thought the forests are home to important animal and plant species; both endemic (those only found in Sri Lanka) and endangered  (those are likely to extinct from wild) species. Villagers also say that forests provide them supplies (Non-timber Forest Products) and some consider that forests act as tourist attractions and thereby an income source for them.

Opposite camp ( 20% of the respondents) thinks that forests are a mere nuisance as the forests are home to wild elephants and other pests that damage their cultivations and property.  Living next to a forest patch or a protected area, they agree, increases the risk of wild elephants threats.

These flip sides of the story suggest interesting dynamics of local mindset. People who live along the forests usually forget that they take forest services as granted.  

Unlike an urban housewife that buys every single supply from the market, rural housewives fulfill half of the needs from the habitats in her neighbourhood. She finds leaf vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, medicines, firewood, timber for fence posts and even building materials from the forest nearby. Therefore, her household exempts a considerable amount of expenses similarly borne by an urban household.

Current rural agricultural model doesn’t help mitigating HEC

Will extensive forest clearance, leading to more cultivations, particularly single crop cultivations in HEC-affected areas, can secure the rural economy?

Research publications, survey data and views of locals were incorporated in drawing conclusions and recommendations. Our study shows how the land-use behaviour patterns of locals such as cultivating around wevu inside the forest, making settlements in elephant corridors, intense grazing of livestock inside forests, spreading of invasive species that affects  elephant habitats induce the HEC in NWP.

Farmers in Sri Lanka still follow farming habits adopted by ancient Sri Lanka except for using massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. While the world practices advanced technology in agriculture that allows cultivation without soil (hydroponics), vertical gardens that reduce consuming more space, food varieties that have a greater harvest compared to extent of the cultivation, we, Sri Lankans, still clear our forests to expand cultivations to obtain profitable harvests and better returns. There’s enough land already being used for cultivations, we believe.

Further, crop cultivation today is not always a secure income for farmers. They face challenges of water scarcity in the drought, destruction due to heavy rains and even extensive pest damages of single species (for example Sena Caterpillar).  Without introducing climate-resistant species and adopting better technologies to increase the yield and then to profit from it, Sri Lanka is in the false expectation that poor farmers will be benefited when they are given more land for cultivations.

In addition, unregulated land clearing for agricultural and development projects will obviously increase the HEC. The current land demand for cultivations and development is escalating throughout the country destroying a number of sensitive ecosystems. When farmers try expanding their cultivations to newly cleared elephant habitats, they will need to invest more in HEC mitigation while losing considerable amounts of crops to raiding elephants. Hence, more productive and efficient use of existing agricultural lands will be more profitable  and environmentally friendlier than further clearing elephant habitats for new agricultural use. 

“We like to live where we were born and elephants like to live where they were born too”, Mrs. Ayirangani Herath, Pradeshiya Sabha Manthrie, Mahanaanneriya, Galgamuwa.

Community clearly expresses their opinion in favor of both humans and elephants. In Fact they know that elephants too need resources and like to reside in their native lands.

Community also thinks that enrichment of forested areas with water by building small water reservoirs (Wavu) and removing invasive plant, Mesquite tree (Prosopis juliflora or Kalapu Andara) to grow grass that elephants need to feed on would be the long term solution to mitigate HEC. Meanwhile, the settlements and harvests can be protected using well planned and well maintained village and agro- electric fences.

Mrs. Herath very correctly mentioned that relocating elephants to sanctuaries will not be the option to resolve the HEC because elephants always come back to their native grounds as they prefer to stay in their homeland just like humans. So the solution, whatever it may be, has to be a model that humans coexist with elephants, which is proposed and scientifically backed by local research. 

Way forward to mitigate HEC 

In our study we saw how HEC-affected cultivations make considerable low returns. Therefore, we suggest that farmers should practice better HEC mitigation methods for better agricultural returns.

CEJ also recommends that the Environmental impact assessments and cost-benefit analyses  related to large agricultural and development projects should include an analysis on projected cost of HEC in order to properly understand the benefit of establishing the particular project at the particular area.

“Environmental Impact Assessment or the EIA is the best tool brought in 1993 to ensure people’s participation in environmental decisions and access to information. This has been mismanaging during the last decade. The EIA and Environmental Protection License processes minimize development conflicts, social injustices and save the natural environment for future generations. In implementing projects in areas with HEC, the EIA should include the impact of the project on HEC and analyze if the project would benefit both the community and elephants”, Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director, CEJ.

Adding to that, the veterinarian and conservationist, Deepani Jayantha, who was also a member of the CEJ research team says, “Projected cost of the HEC should be considered in EIAs of proposed mega agriculture and development projects to be established in common human-elephant landscapes”. Proposing mere electric fence protection as a HEC mitigation measure in such mega projects is not enough anymore. The cost local communities, those who will be living alongside those projects, have to bear at the presence of projected (escalated) HEC should be seriously taken into account, she thinks.

“Sri Lanka needs to promote environmental literacy and respect for the environment in order to sustain this world. Because, we humans, those who represent only around 0.01% of life on earth cannot change this environment as we want.  If we continue to degrade the health of the environment we will be the first to get affected and swept off the earth, may it be due to conflict with wildlife or by natural disasters” says Mr. Dabare, Chairman of CEJ.

Chalani Rubesinghe1*, Madushani Sendanayaka1, Dilena Pathragoda1, Hemantha Withanage1 and Deepani Jayantha2

1 Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), Sri Lanka

2Elemotion Foundation, USA

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