A decorated elephant walks through the streets of Piliyandala, a suburb of Sri Lankan capital Colombo, during the Esala Perahera festival on Aug. 29. (Photo: AFP)
Sri Lanka is seeing escalating conflict between wild elephants and humans. Environmentalists point out that the number of human casualties, property damage and elephant deaths due to such clashes is increasing every year and the situation is getting worse.
According to leading environmentalist Aruni Niroshani Peiris, the main reason for the conflict is rapid agricultural and industrial development in the areas where the elephants live.
Peiris, who writes articles on environmental issues, said the human-elephant conflict continues throughout the year and has led to the loss of many lives.
More than 800 people have died and around 580 have been injured in recent years, while over 2,630 elephants have died, 361 in 2019 alone. More than 10,500 incidents of property damage have been reported.
Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 7,500 elephants. It is illegal to kill them.
Peiris said villagers chase away elephants into huge forests, torturing them and driving them into wildlife reserves.
Ravi Fernando, a Sunday school teacher and environmentalist from Kurunegala, said 85 percent of all elephant deaths are attributed to human activity.
"An elephant needs about 20 kilograms of food and 60 gallons of water per day. In order to meet those needs, an elephant travels 20 kilometers per day through the jungle," said Fernando.
With humans increasingly encroaching on their habitats, inevitably the elephants seek food in villages. Some villagers have erected electrical fences to deter the animals as well as hiding poison and explosives in food left out for the elephants. Others shoot the pachyderms.
"What needs to be done now to prevent human-elephant conflict is to confine as many elephants as possible to the wildlife areas that make up about 13 percent of the country," said Fernando.
"Constructing electrical fences around elephant habitats, planting limes and oranges at the borders of elephant-infested gardens and setting up bee colonies are among the most appropriate measures to prevent elephant poaching."
According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka has 20 to 30 garbage dumps where elephants roam.
"Once an elephant gets used to something, it is difficult to get rid of it. Just as elephants that used to eat chena crops are difficult to get rid of, elephants that are used to eating garbage find such things again," said Fernando.
The department has set up a 24-hour call line, 1992, to report human-elephant conflict.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has instructed wildlife officials to find a permanent solution to the problem within two years.
On the broader subject of conservation, Wathikana Sulaga, a Catholic news site in Sri Lanka, reports that Pope Francis has given environment lovers a couple of weapons. One is his environmental encyclical Laudato Si' and the other is his post-Amazon-Synod exhortation.
"The pope strengthens and empowers Catholics to fight and take action to protect the environment," said Wathikana Sulaga.
Pope Francis emphasized that man and the environment are not two entities but one in his post-synod apostolic message.
"Just as it is impossible to protect human beings without protecting the environment, it is also impossible to protect the environment without protecting human beings," said Wathikana Sulaga.
Christian newspaper Kithusara and Christian website Jesus Today jointly launched an awareness campaign to respect creation and care for the environment from May 16-24.
Meanwhile, Caritas recently launched a tree-planting campaign at St. Joseph Vaz Shrine in Mahagalgamuwa.
Father Mahendra Gunatilleke, national director of Caritas, said a huge variety of trees must be protected and conserved for posterity due to their medicinal value as well as the fruit they bear to feed both humans and animals.