Non-consumptive use of elephants in Sri Lanka

elepha.jpg (16159 bytes)Charles Santiapillai & Chaminda Wijesundara
Department of Zoology, University of Peradeniya
It is difficult to imagine Sri Lanka without its elephants. They are so much a part of our culture, history, religion, mythology, pageantry and even politics. No wonder then there are too many people and organizations interested in them for different reasons. While conservationists, radical animal rights activists and the urban rich love them, subsistence farmers who often bear the brunt of elephant depredations, human settlements that share the land with elephants, and the rural poor loathe them. Elephants have an image problem, and some aspects of their image threaten their continued survival.

As Dr. Tony Ferrar points out, it is a truism that at any but the lowest density, elephants and humans are fundamentally incompatible. As densities of both elephant and man increase, the incompatibility between the two also increases rapidly. In areas where the human population density is low, there is usually a greater acceptance of the wild surroundings by the people. But today, given the 5,430:1 ratio of humans to elephants in Sri Lanka, the relationship has deteriorated from acceptance to intolerance in many areas, despite the tolerant influence of Buddhism. Furthermore, given their intemperate appetite and sheer size, elephants cannot co-exist with people in areas where agriculture is the dominant form of land use, unless the damage they cause can be compensated.

Farmers toil hard during the day to till the land to grow their crops. But marauding elephants can easily wipe out their annual staple food crop in a single night. Given that the average daily food intake of an adult bull is about 150 kg, the economic loss that results from elephant depredations can be enormous indeed. In some instances, bull elephants have become rather aggressive and have even attacked and killed people. No wonder many farmers do not regret the disappearance of elephants from their neighbourhood. For those who live next to an elephant reserve, the presence of elephants is both a curse and a liability. The killing of an elephant therefore removes a serious pest.

Judging from the number of elephants that are being killed in the wild annually, there has been a progressive increase in rural people’s intolerance towards wild elephants. The problem lies in how various people perceive the worth of an elephant. As far as the rural poor who share their land with the elephants are concerned, the danger to elephants stems from the fact that they have no commercial value, and are a potential threat to human life and property. This is the principal cause for the disappearance of elephants from agricultural communities. Elephants in Sri Lanka are being killed simply because they come into conflict with man as they interfere with agriculture.

The human-elephant conflict appears to have replaced poaching as a major cause of elephant mortality in Sri Lanka. Elephant populations in the wild have been reduced substantially in the past 50 years, during which between 1500 - 3000 elephants may have been killed in the wild. In the year 2001 alone, more than a hundred animals, mostly bulls, perished. Elephants are not being killed in Sri Lanka for their tusks, as ivory poaching is a minor problem given the rarity of the tuskers.

Less than 7% of the bulls carry tusks. Elephants are not being killed for meat, since no one in Sri Lanka eats it. Elephants are not being killed for their hide, since there is no market for it in the island’s leather industry.

If elephants and humans are to co-exist in an area, the levels of conflict between the two must be reduced by decreasing the burden and increasing the benefit that come to the people from the presence of elephants. Unless we adopt creative measures to reduce the level of conflict and accommodate elephants and humans, the escalation in the conflict will lead in only one direction: the destruction and eventual elimination of elephants outside protected areas.

Several studies have been carried out on the human-elephant conflict both in Asia and Africa, but despite the lessons learnt, general solutions to the problem still remain rather elusive. Measures such as translocation of problem elephants, elephant drives (driving elephants en masse from conflict areas), establishment of physical barriers such as trenches, and psychological barriers such as electric fences, aerosol pepper sprays etc., have yielded limited success but the problem remains nevertheless.

It takes about 5 square km of land to support an elephant without upsetting the natural balance that exists between the elephant and the thorn-scrub habitat in which most of our wildlife occurs today. Therefore the present population of about 3,500 elephants would require about 17,500 square km or 27% of the total land area for its exclusive use. The system of protected areas covers only about 12.5% of the land area (or 8,200 square km). Thus national parks and nature reserves alone cannot ensure the long-term survival of the elephants.

Given that habitat loss contributes significantly to the decline of elephant numbers, it is essential to encourage coexistence between elephants and local communities outside protected areas. If elephants are to survive outside protected areas in significant numbers across a landscape dominated by man, then people need to be persuaded to share the resources of the land with elephants. Furthermore, the policy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation should also be designed to encourage people to change their attitudes, from intolerance to tolerance. This can happen only if the people are able to derive tangible benefits from the presence of elephants in their neighbourhood.

Today, many realistic conservationists are convinced that the only way in which elephants and people can successfully coexist in the same environment is by using the elephant as a sustainable economic resource. As the former Director of the Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management of Zimbabwe, Dr. Graham Child, puts it, "if wildlife is permitted to contribute meaningfully to their welfare, people will not be able to afford to lose it in their battle for survival. If wildlife does not contribute significantly to their well being, people will not be able to afford to preserve it, except as a tourist curiosity in a few protected areas".

The 9-ha Elephant orphanage at Pinnawala currently holds about 60 elephants. Although over crowded, it is very popular with both local people and foreign tourists, and as such, has become an economic success. The prosperity of many people in Pinnawala and its neighbourhood is linked to the success of the Elephant Orphanage. Local people recognize the elephant as an economic resource, and would not like to see it disappear from their area. This is in sharp contrast to the attitudes of the farmers who consider the elephant an intolerable imposition on their agriculture. The Orphanage has also become an important centre for ex-situ elephant conservation. During the past 20 years, the orphanage registered the births of 20 elephant calves. However, a closer examination of the reproductive behaviour of the elephants at the orphanage indicates that only two bulls seem to come into musth regularly, and are responsible for the birth of almost all the calves, and 50% of the calves were born to just 8 females. The more experienced and mature bulls are better at winning encounters with other males for access to females in heat.

The Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala, given its present size is clearly over-crowded with elephants. Unless replenished with captures from the wild, the domestic stock of elephants will eventually decline. One way of relieving the pressure at Pinnawala and at the same time, improving the genetic stock is by decanting some animals to establish a second ex-situ conservation centre by the side of a conservation area having elephants, as has been done in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamilnadu State, South India. Allowing the domesticated female elephants fitted with fetters to their legs to range freely within the conservation area at nights, will not only provide opportunities for them to feed on natural vegetation but also to mate with wild bulls. This will also help introduce new genes into the captive population, and thereby reduce or minimize inbreeding depression. In this way, Tamilnadu achieved remarkable success in captive breeding: within a period of 33 years, there were 74 calves born to 37 adult females.

The key to success in Sri Lanka lies in engaging the local people in the management of elephants in captivity. A pilot project could be initiated near a national park with 4 domesticated female elephants and their mahouts. Each of the domesticated elephants can then be entrusted to its mahout and his family. In this way, a number of mahout families would be involved in the maintenance of elephants in captivity in the buffer zone of the national park. This will ensure that the mahout transfers his skill to his son (or a male relative), and thereby help maintain the culture of elephant management. This is the way, elephants are managed in captivity in many parts of India and Myanmar (Burma). Mahouts develop an intimate relationship with their elephants.

Foreign tourists may actually prefer the experience of going into a national park on elephant back to travelling in dilapidated, noisy, polluting and often unreliable vehicles that many tour operators use today. The revenue from such elephant rides will help the Department of Wildlife Conservation maintain both elephants and their mahouts. A fully trained elephant is an investment for life. Of course, radical animal rights activists who operate on the principle that "squeaky wheel gets the oil", may oppose any scheme that makes use of elephants. But it is well known that their opposition is usually designed to raise funds from the emotional western communities. As Dr. Graham Child points out, the "animal rights" movement has gained prominence as a form of remote political coercion that escapes accountability for its effects.

The term "eco-tourism" is bandied about very much these days; next to biodiversity and buckyballs, it is the current buzzword. Although eco-tourism in general is an important non-consumptive use of wildlife, it is usually of little concern to local communities, unless it can deliver tangible benefits. In many instances it only raises expectations among the local communities that cannot be met because of problems related to civil strife in the country. Besides, such schemes are usually limited to more accessible areas having relatively developed infrastructure. Rural people lack the expertise to break into tourism market.

Furthermore, commercial tour operators, who do not care for the welfare of the local communities, usually snap up opportunities that exist. While tour operators benefit from the elephants, the people living among elephants and suffering from their presence are left with little or no economic stake in protecting them. The cost of protecting elephants in the wild is high and it involves not only money, but also material and trained manpower.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the annual cost of elephant management may range from US$ 150 to US$ 350 per square km. Sri Lanka being heavily in debt, does not have the means to invest large sums of money on elephant conservation and management. It needs to look to outside funding agencies. There are many International Donor Agencies interested in conservation. They usually operate in a carrot and stick manner. They are capable of providing huge sums of money (usually on loan), equipment and expertise. But as Dr. Tony Ferrar cautions, too much reliance on international support may send the wrong signals to local people that conservation is largely for outside interests.

Furthermore, the help they offer is not always the help that is needed, and the cure they suggest may be worse than the disease. The debate over elephants in Sri Lanka tends to be more emotional than rational. Sri Lanka is no longer the sparsely populated island it was about a century ago. Conservation of a megaherbivore such as the elephant in this overcrowded island is inextricably linked to the welfare of the people who share the land with it. As Cheri Sugar of the Worldwatch Institute points out, "the hard lesson is that in ecology as in economics, there are no free rides; in one way or another, everything pays its way".