How can we better mitigate the human-elephant-conflict? In Sri Lanka it causes the annual death of over 200 elephants and 70 humans. Through our research we learned a lot on how elephants respond to the currently used managment strategies. With an awareness program we want to explain our findings to the people. They are the ones who are asking for action!
Conservation of Asian elephants and mitigation of human-elephant conflict (HEC) has been based on limiting elephants to protected areas, both in Sri Lanka and the rest of Asian elephant range. Research done by us has shown that activities conducted to achieve this objective such as capture-translocation, elephant drives and constructing electric fences on protected area boundaries are detrimental to elephant conservation, and are ineffective in mitigating HEC.
HEC occurs outside conservation areas where people and elephants share habitat. Paradoxically, such areas especially in Sri Lanka are also better elephant habitats, than most protected areas. This is because elephants are an ‘edge-species’ and there is much more food for them in somewhat disturbed habitat than in pristine forests. Consequently very high densities of elephants are found outside protected areas.
Driving elephants into protected areas and confining them there, overload the carrying capacity of protected areas and consequent death of elephants by starvation (see the tragedy of Yala). The ability of elephants to remain outside conservation areas is critical for the survival of the species. Continuing to limit elephants to Department of Wildlife Conservation protected areas will result in the loss of over two thirds of the elephants in Sri Lanka.
The problem in keeping elephants outside the protected areas is conflict with farmers. Most crop protection methods currently in use are confrontational and conflictive. These as well as elephant drives and translocation cause increased aggression by elephants, leading to HEC escalation. Almost the entire responsibility for mitigating HEC has been placed on the Department of Wildlife Conservation, which continues to rely on attempting to limit elephants to protected areas to mitigate HEC.
Because drives and translocations also kills off some elephants, together with elephant deaths from HEC, it will ultimately cause the extinction of elephants outside protected areas hence solve HEC. However this will not happen easily or quickly and will take many decades, during which time it will cause extensive economic losses, social upheaval and great suffering for both humans and elephants.
Based on our research, we have developed an alternative approach. The new approach is based on developing landscapes where elephants will be conserved, integrating both current non-conservation areas and protected areas. Successful HEC mitigation and elephant conservation depends on the implementation of a comprehensive program to:
- Decrease the potential for HEC through land use planning and implementation.
- Preventing land encroachment in elephant habitats.
- Integrating HEC prevention and mitigation activities in all plans of projects conducted in areas with elephants.
- Taking adequate precautions by those effected, to safeguard their lives, crops and property from elephants.
- Adopting non-conflictive and non-confrontational crop protection methods (eg. electric fences).
- Mitigating HEC where it occurs, through improved protection methods, removal of problem animals, and compensation and insurance schemes.
A critical factor in the success of the above approach is the acceptance of responsibility for HEC mitigation by all stakeholders.
Such an approach requires buy in from all stakeholders ranging from residents in areas with elephants, politicians, regulatory and administrative authorities, and conservation agencies to developers and funding agencies. The key to development and implementation of such a holistic program is awareness.
We have currently launched a pilot awareness program in the South where we have identified target groups in different sectors of society and conduct presentations tailor made for each group.