Elemotion Foundation was delighted to spend three days with Dr. Deepani Jayantha, Born Free’s Sri Lanka Representative, as she showed us first hand the trials and tribulations of Sri Lanka’s wild and captive elephants.  Learn more about Human Elephant Conflict, Born Free’s work, the lives of captive elephants, and ways to watch wild elephants responsibly.  Interview, Oct, 2011

>What is Human Elephant Conflict, and why is it an important problem in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is an island of about 65,000 square kilometers with about 13-15% of the total land area cover declared as protected.  We have approximately 5,000 wild elephants.  And, we have about 21 million people who need places to live and space for agriculture and industrial work.  So, there is large amount of land pressure.  The land has to be shared between these two species.

As for the protected areas, only some are bordered by electric fences.  The majority of protected areas in Sri Lanka have been interconnected.  And in between, there are forest reserves in which you can find elephants.  It has been studied that the majority of the elephant population, more than 60%, live outside the protected areas, which means, they inhabit human settlements.  This is partly because the remaining wild habitats are poor in food sources.  While around the human settlements, they can find more palatable crops, such as paddy, corn fruits and vegetables.  So this is an incentive for them to come out of the protected areas.  Also, they need to move in between forests.  This information is in their genes, especially in the case of males.  They need to go to different areas finding females ready for breeding.  All of those facts make up the interface of Human Elephant Conflict.  The elephants are quite often coming in contact with humans.  And if they raid crops, the people take immediate measures to get rid of the elephants.  Elephants are quite adaptive, so when they are subjected to continuous harassment, they develop this dislike towards humans.  And, they may try to attack humans if they get a chance.

>What measures do the villagers take to try to get rid of the elephants?

They use shot guns and trap guns.  They put poison in the food the elephants eat.  Homemade explosive ‘Hakka Patas’ is sometimes mixed with vegetables in the field and cause extensive damage to the mouth of the affected animal.  There are other ways that elephants get injured too.  Sometimes traps are set for other bush species, but elephants are injured in these traps as well.  They can accidently fall into agricultural wells or abandoned gem mines.  So in those examples, you can’t say that people hurt the elephants deliberately, but it happens.

>What measures has Born Free taken to help with Human Elephant Conflict?

As a model, we work with Rathambalagama village which has been heavily affected by Human Elephant Conflict.  There we have two components of the conservation project:  A. We work with the school and the village children.  We want to make the village kids better farmers and more responsible adults in the future to live with this conflict.  So, our aim is to give them a better education all around, which includes teaching them about conservation issues, in particular, Human Elephant Conflict.  We also help the school with the education facilities, such as infrastructure, better farming models, etc. And, my argument is that these are the future farmers;   if you can educate the today’s kids for better livelihoods or alternate livelihoods, it will have a positive impact on the environment by reducing the number of future adults who will depend on their habitats around for farming.

B. We work with the farmers.  We promote Elephant Resistant Crop farming, the crops that are not being raided by elephants.  Most of them are spices that have aromatic tastes which the elephants don’t like.  Black pepper, ginger, saffron, betel leaves are such.  The farmers usually lose some of their harvest, whether paddy or corn or vegetables, when the elephants raid their crops.  But, if one farmer can dedicate a small plot of land for Elephant Resistant Crops, instead of planting the whole area with paddy, corn, or elephant susceptible crops, then the income the farmer can get from the Elephant Resistant Crops can buffer the loss from the elephant susceptible crops.  Our harvests will be sold to the local indigenous medicine department because these spices are used in local medicine. So, we see that the farmers have a better future.

>How long have you done this Elephant Resistant Crop project?

We have only completed one year.  So, we will be giving more seeds and saplings this year.   We hope that in another 5 years time, the farmers will have seen the results and adopted the practice.

>Every year, thousands of tourists take jeep safaris in national parks to see wildlife, including wild elephants.  What can tourists do to make sure that the elephants are not disturbed?

It is best to start with the jeep vehicle, the driver, and the guide.  A tourist can always have a good dialogue with their driver and guide to inform them that they do not want to disturb the elephants or hassle them in the wild.  Tourists can ask their jeep driver not to exceed the standard speed limit, which is about 25km/hour in a national park.  Ask him not to drive into the herd or raise the engine.  Ask him to be sure to keep a good distance (about 20-25m) from female herds with calves.  Females with calves are quite protective and defensive.  They can even become injurious to the vehicle and tourist as well.  So, tourists better keep that in mind.  Again, it is always good to maintain silence.  Silence is rewarding.  They can observe natural behaviors of the animals if silence is maintained.  And, they should not feed wild animals, in general.  As a responsible tourist, they can also ask the driver and guide not to disturb the animals for photo opportunities.  Continuous disturbances and harassment will be harmful to the visitors one day.  You never know when that day will come.  It is always good to take precautions.  Wild animals are wild, and they need to be respected.  It is our duty to give them their space because we are entering into their habitat.

To learn more about responsible elephant watching:  http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/elephants/campaign-action/sri-lanka-elephants/responsible-tourism/elephant-watching/

>What kind of behaviors can tourist enjoy observing in wild elephants compared to captive elephants?

The biggest difference between captive and wild elephants is in captivity, they are kept as single animals and they are always tethered to the same place.  Obviously, that restricts their normal behavior.  Normal behaviors are grazing, feed walking, or interacting with other animals such as touching, playing, smelling and mock fighting.  All those can be observed in the wild, but in captivity, perhaps only a few of those behaviors can be observed in Pinnewala animals.  However, it is very clear that captive elephants show signs of stress, agitation, and anxiety.  Because of that, they do not tolerate the presence of humans, especially during procession periods.  Today, we went to the temple of Tooth Relic and we learned how easily they try to hit the mahout or visitors.  Captive elephants don’t show normal wild elephant behaviors. Instead, they show a series of stereotypy; like swaying, swinging, rocking.  Naturally, elephants always move.  When you stop them from moving, they show these kinds of stereotypical behaviors.

>What is an elephant back safari?  Where do those elephants come from?

There are about 120 captive held or privately owned elephants in Sri Lanka.  They are mainly kept in temples and owned by politically strong people such as ministers and chief Buddhist monks.  These animals are the ones that are sent to ‘peraheras’, or religious processions, as well as to elephant back safaris.

That is the origin in general, but the real origin is something else.  The majority of the current population is coming from the wild.  Before 1970’s, the government allowed capturing elephants from the wild.  Today, wild capture is banned.  Those animals who came from the wild are still the captive population.  A few animals were recruited to the captive population from Pinnewala.  To add to that, several animals were given away from the Elephant Transit Home.  And we know for sure, about 10 juveniles are there in captivity who have been abducted from the wild during the last 8 years .

The captive elephants are shifted between places.  Different peraheras, or processions, take place in different areas of Sri Lanka.  So, it is the same animals that are shifted between places.  During the peak tourist season, these animals are sent to Habarana and Sigiri for safaris.

>Tell me about their daily living conditions.

Safari elephants are kept alone.  The majority of the time, if they are not giving a safari ride, they are kept tethered to the same post or tree.  Unfortunately, the rope or chain length is extremely short.  They cannot move much.  They just sway.  Their day would usually start from 8 – 8:30am and would go up to 5:30pm.  They make safari trips of one hour, or one and a half hours maximum.  At noon, they are usually sent to the water, but if tourists demand, they still have walk on tarmac.  They can carry a maximum of four people on their backs in a special cage.  I can’t say that the cage is the best structure to serve that purpose.  It doesn’t fit with the contours of the animal.  The cage is pulled tight to the animal with ropes and chords.  These animals are fed with limited food and water.  They do not have free access to water.  Food is basically palm leaves and fig branches which is not provided throughout the day.  Today, we observed how reluctant the animals are to go on the safari tour.  Some have foot lesions, wounds, and infections around the nail.  It looks like the mahouts extensively use the ankus, or the bull-hook, on the animals to control them.  We observed several jab wounds; we observed animals limping; we observed chain cut wounds. Apart from that, the safari elephants are being heavily controlled with chains.  Hobbles and other chains are used to control their stride.  The safari elephants stay at one particular place for 4-5 months.  It looks like they do not receive proper veterinary attention, partly because it is expensive.  The elephants do suffer in this industry.