Elephants kill more farmers in fightback for land (Sri Lanka)
Wasantha Ramanayake, The Sunday Times Sri Lanka
May 2, 2021
for photos & graphic.
Pemadasa, a farmer in Gongangara, Buttala, was on his way to stand guard
over his plot on Wednesday evening when he was suddenly attacked by a wild
elephant on the Waguruwela Temple road.
The father of three was rushed to the local hospital and then to the
Moneragala District General Hospital but died of his injuries the following
Some two weeks earlier, 61-year-old Anura Gunaratne and a fellow farmer
were trying to chase an elephant away from a night-time incursion into a
chena farm near Okkampitiya in Moneragala when the animal struck back,
killing him on the spot.
The two incidents bring to 44 the number of human lives lost in the
unending conflict with elephants since the start of this year – and the
cost to elephants is much greater, with possibly 100 killed by humans,
partly due to an alarming increase in illegal cultivation in forests.
“This week’s news could be mundane to many of us who have been so
conditioned to such deaths over decades but for rural villagers who live
close to the jungles it is a living death,” conservationist Hemantha
He mourned the loss of elephant life in the daily struggle for access to
food and water as humans encroach into wilderness. “The number of elephant
deaths this year is sure to hit record levels as a result of illegal
land-grabbing and habitat destruction,” Mr. Vithanage predicted.
“Decades of illegal clearing of thousands of acres of forest land, and
erecting fences to deter elephants from using their age-old routes, has
culminated in the human-elephant conflict the country sees today,” he
Mr. Vithanage believes 60,000-80,000 hectares of forest have been razed for
chena cultivation in the Monaragala District alone since the 1980s.
The extent of electrified fences in illegally-acquired forest lands had
caused wild elephants seek alternative routes to migrate between Gal Oya,
Yala, Kumana, Udawalawa and Lunugamwehera National Parks. “Politicians
encouraged poor farmers to live closer to the jungle. Some built houses for
them inside reserves without any proper assessment of the suitability for
such purpose, endangering both human and animal lives,” Mr. Vithanage said.
According to the Wildlife and Forest Conservation Ministry Secretary
Somaratne Vidanapathirana, there have been 117 wild elephant deaths so far
this year, only three of them natural deaths and seven others due to
fighting between elephants.
Of the remaining 107 deaths, 39 are being investigated to determine causes
but the rest – the bulk – were due to crimes by humans. “The majority of
the deaths are caused by human activities: shooting, electrocuting and
‘hakkapatas’ or explosive baits that blow up inside elephants’ mouths,” Mr.
Most of the elephant deaths were reported from the Anuradhapura and
Polonnaruwa districts and the Eastern Province.
“The main reason for the conflict is the limited amount of land for
agriculture and consequent encroachment into elephant habitat,” Mr.
Vidanapathirana noted. “We have an action plan, with priority given to
construction for electric fences around villages that are highly vulnerable
to elephant attacks.”
The work involved reconstruction of about 1.500km of existing permanent
fences. “We have had some setbacks due to the pandemic but will complete it
before next year,” Mr. Vidanapathirana said confidently.
He said the ministry had implemented alternative projects such as planting
of thorn-bushes around settlements and encouraging farmers to take up less
invasive projects such as bee-keeping but these did not show a successful
result as quickly as building electric fences did. “That is why the
villagers are happy with these fences,” he said.
Conservationist Vithanage contends electric fences are the least effective
mitigator of conflict as they are not based on scientific observations of
“There are virtually hundreds of kilometers of ad hoc electric fences
erected by private individuals, sans any study, right across paths trod by
elephants in the middle of jungles. These are illegal and aggravates the
conflict,” he pointed out.
“In the Somawathiya and flood plains national parks there are a large
number of enclosures, some for cattle.”
He said there was an alarming increase in illegal squatting inside national
parks, sanctuaries and reservations, with the clear backing of politicians.
“Traditional elephant habitats are clearly disturbed, compelling these
animals to come out into villages and into open conflict with farmers more
often, even in broad daylight,” Mr. Vithanage pointed out.
“The villages inside parks should be removed and the people should be
settled elsewhere if a lasting solution to be found,” he emphasised. He
also called for more wildlife officers to be recruited, saying the need to
deploy large numbers on elephant management caused the neglect of other
In 2019, 405 elephants were killed in Sri Lanka – the world’s highest toll
that year – while 121 people were killed by elephants that year – the
second-highest toll in the world.