Sri Lanka given its small size and high human population of 21.3 million is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Categorized as a biodiversity hotspot, the island is home to 10% of Asia’s elephant population. However, the elephants are confined to 2% of the country’s land area as stated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and that area too is shrinking at an alarming rate. This loss of habitat is a main reason behind the intensification of the Human-Elephant Conflict.
The recently presented First Island Wide National Survey of Elephants conducted by the DWC recorded 5879 animals on just one day, with 3285 (55.9%) being adults of both sexes, 1487 (25.3%) being sub-adults, 731 (12.4%) being juveniles and the remaining 376 (6.4%) being calves. Of these 5789 wild elephants in Sri Lanka 67.19% live within Protected Area’s of the DWC, 29.78% range among Forest Reserve’s managed by the Forest Department and the remaining 4% or so roam around patches of adjacent forest patches that are located around villages.
However, as development spreads around the country the elephant’s habitat is shrinking. In the Hambantota District alone during the last few months 10 elephants and 7 farmers have been killed. It is also estimated that a further 450 elephants have been displaced from their home ranges as the destruction of 5000 acres of forest land to make way for large scale developmental projects has occurred in the area. Due to the loss of land elephants that were once confined to the jungles are now entering and ravaging villages in Pahala Andaragaswewa, Dimuthugama, Elalla, Pahala Mattala, Udaha Mattala, Bandagiriya and a number of villages that were established as part of the Lunugamvehera Irrigation Scheme.
The situation in that area has aggravated over the last few months, since the “Hambantota Wild Elephant Management Reserve” as proposed by the DWC has not been established. This reserve was proposed when the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s) for the Hambantota Port and Mattala Airport were conducted. However, to this day this reserve has not been established and two years have passed. This proposed reserve would have served as a migratory path between Bundala, Lunugamvehera and Udawalawe, thereby keeping the elephants away from villages.
The establishment of new villages and resettlement of people has lead to more areas of land being cleared for chena cultivations. It is due to the lack of forest cover and these settlements being established on migratory paths, that elephants constantly ravage the chena’s as they search for food or simply migrate along their established paths.
As development is pushed in these areas, it is important to realize that this conflict will only grow in time. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that this issue is addressed and that the Human-Elephant Conflict is mitigated in the best ways possible. Educating the newly resettled villagers, empowering them with flares and the tools to drive elephants away in the most peaceful way possible needs to be done, while also providing the elephants with the necessary reserves to survive in their home ranges.