So, getting past how to start this post was probably the hardest thing about it. I normally don’t and to be honest, I have never written about a serious current topic such as this. Now, why is this topic the hill I choose to die on? I think it is because it resonated with me very deeply. And the more I began to read about the most certain two sides to the debate, the more I wondered who was right and what stance benefits all parties. And what you see below is an attempt to outline the main points of the issue.
The Losses on Both Sides
Human-wildlife conflicts as almost all the articles will tell you, are as old as time itself. In Sri Lanka, these conflicts mainly exist between Humans and Elephants. The losses on both sides are great and no sustainable solution has come about as of yet. For example, 67% of Elephant deaths in Sri Lanka are due to man-made reasons and 20% of them being due to gunshots. And on the other hand, there have been a total of 716 human deaths from 2007 to 2017, 11 of whom were children. Another type of conflict that showed up again recently is non-target animal killings. A prime example being the Black Leopard that was caught in a snare on May 26 at the Lakshapana Estate in Hatton. These occur when farmers or locals set up snares to capture other wild animals such as Wild Boars or Samber Deer who are known to damage crops and plantations. Snares often end up killing the animals caught in it as the wire cords, typically from bikes, strangle the animal as they continue their desperate struggle to freedom.
Now to the question at hand that has troubled me: Can human-wildlife conflict be prevented? The thing I see a majority of people doing is considering this is strictly a wildlife issue and thus off the bat assuming that the only party harmed are the animals. However to truly understand the intentions and reasons behind the actions of the locals one must look into how their lives are being both directly and indirectly harmed by animals. There are numerous socio-economic problems that these agropastoralists face due to animal damages to their crop yields and properties. This doesn’t mean that you have to completely empathize with them and their motivations. But rather attempt to find the middle ground in this complex issue.
The Seeds of Conflict
So to start off: Why does the conflict occur in the first place? The general answer is simply put, Human Development. Growth in population constantly consumes one thing: land. In search of land, man invades the habitats that used to once be roamed by wild animals. Settling down, they build homes, farms, grow crops, and build their livelihood around this land.
In addition to this, Human Migration in search of food security and safety are common factors that lead to such conflict. Furthermore, local perceptions that are often legitimate may lead to proactive steps to kill or trap animals such as Leopards or Elephants.
Habitat Limiting Factors for animals may make them more likely to damage human villages. The causes of Habitat Limitation are both man-made and natural. Human factors include development into greenfield sites that were only habituated by animals and natural factors include droughts and wildfires that may push animals to search for newer territories.
Lastly, the most disgraceful and inhumane reason would be Poaching. Although it is widely illegal throughout the island, the lack of effective enforcement has caused it to continuously take animal lives for no reason at all. There are a plethora of other factors that contribute to conflict all over the world. However, the ones I have listed are the major ones that require proactive action the prevent and mitigate.
On this point, I would like to add that in Sri Lanka the perception of human-wildlife conflicts revolves around the acts of animals on human settlements. But, I think an important step forward would be understanding that this also includes all the human activities that directly impact animals that range from poaching and setting snares to using explosives to drive these animals from their habitats.
Animals: The Oppressors?
As I stated before, this issue is also a socio-economic issue, and looking at it as simply a wildlife issue won’t bring about a sustainable solution. Benefits to both parties are required for any long term solution. The most prevalent human-wildlife conflict in Sri Lanka occurs as Elephant-Human Conflict. Being a primarily agricultural economy, population increases have resulted in farms and agricultural lands expanding into forests and known Elephant habitat. Thus resulting in over 70% of Elephants’ range falling outside reserves and parks. This increases the chances of conflict simply due to the overlap of territory. It is important to remember, that the higher the densities of both populations, the higher the chance and frequency of conflict. Studies further address how rice being a staple in the Sri Lankan diet and thus leading to paddy being a crop that takes up a vast amount of land raises the chance of conflict. This would be because of the fact that Elephants find paddy rather enjoyable just before it is harvest-ready. Hence it isn’t a surprise that paddy is the principle crop damaged by Elephants.
Overall, the overlap between human and Elephant territories leads to one of the greatest threats posed by animals: economic losses. The exact monetary value of the loss is hard to calculate as it is hard to project how much crop would have grown given there was no interference. But, it can be safely said that damages to these crops have significant impacts farmers by reducing yield for that season and thus creating a direct impact on a whole family’s livelihood. To further prove the scale and magnitude of these damages, one must look no further than the farmer-suicides that take place in Sri Lanka. Other economic costs include property damages and damages to the water supply and irrigation infrastructure.
And of course, there is the loss of human life and injury that creates a cycle of fear leading to proactive measures to harm wildlife. Although on average about 1500 Sri Lankans are killed by poisonous snakes, the less common attacks by elephants gain more public traction and awareness. This may be due to the fact that these incidents evoke stronger emotions and thus cause a greater outcry. Nevertheless, each incident that concludes with the loss of life generates more fear and anger amongst locals leading to more animosity between the two parties. This is one reason that the matter requires immediate attention. In my opinion, insurance and compensation schemes that attempt to ‘payback’ these damages aren’t the long term or sustainable solution that we are looking for.
Humans: The Oppressors?
As mainstream media and other news networks often report, there is a substantial impact on animals such as elephants, wild boars, and even leopards as seen recently. The impacts on wildlife have been recently been a public hot topic due to the events that recently transpired in Kerala, India. However, in Sri Lanka itself, 2019 showed record-high Elephant deaths at around 386 elephant deaths of which only 37 were due to natural causes. There was a decline in the no. of deaths since 2011, but it began to increase after 2015. Other than the loss of life, Elephants also face a reduction in habitat due to the increasing use of their habitat for farming. This results in a fall in access to food and water.
Another, less talked about issue would be non-target animal killings. Although I briefly touched on this above, the main victims of these snare left for wild boars are leopards. The three specific incidents began with a rare Black Leopard being caught in a snare at the Lakshapana Estate in Hatton. After an attempted rescue the animal died three days later due to the injuries sustained from the snare. This further continued with the latest case of a dead leopard found caught in a snare on a cashew plantation on the edge of a forest reserve in Neluwa. Lastly, there was another leopard found caught in a snare but was thankfully returned to the wild safely. All these cases reflect on the issue of non-target animal killings. These are set up by farmers but often attack leopards as they also follow the same footpaths of wild boars. With regards to legality, in Sri Lanka it is legal to kill wild boar if they invade your property, however, the sale and use of their meat are prohibited. Nevertheless, this often does not stop poaching of these wild animals and the consumption of their flesh.
This brings me to my next major issue faced by animals. Poaching. This activity can be divided into two based on intent. The first of these being, Subsistence Poaching. This refers to poaching carried out on a small scale with the primary reason as a secondary income or food security. The second being commercial poaching in which animals are poached for parts such as skins, meats, and ivory tusks. In Sri Lanka, the greatest threat comes from Subsistence Poaching as the no. of deaths is greater. This is mainly due to a lack of enforcement in these regions and a growing need for DWC personal. Another side of this issue would be the impact of COVID-19 on poaching numbers. As many have expected, the lack of tourism and people in the parks have made it easier for poachers to go about their business during the quarantine. In addition to this, the fact that many do not have stable jobs has led to an increase in Subsistence Poaching. Although official numbers cannot be gathered as of now, personal reports from Wildlife parks and reserves indicate growing levels of poaching.
The Solutions at Hand
I think the government should attempt to create alternative sources of income for people in these rural areas where conflicts are high. The benefits of this can be two-fold. Now firstly, strengthening the eco-tourism in Sri Lanka could allow people who poach for sustenance an alternative. This would reduce the chance of going into wildlife poaching. The use of tourism after the lockdown should be carefully handled and the recruitment from local areas is essential. This would be because it is more likely for them to conduct poaching. In addition, the dissemination of information regarding available jobs at hotels and the DWC could help encourage community participation. Secondly, increased tourism sector activity may benefit during times of economic downfall. Now, its rather obvious that a majority of these solutions are gonna seem dreamy and far-fetched. And I believe that is the fundamental issue at hand. To tackle an issue certain changes need to be made to the status quo. It is rare to find solutions dropdown that has no effect on the status quo. So it’s up to the relevant authorities to enact and enforce meaningful change.
Comunal Education and Training
It is safe to say that a large no. of farmers rely on handed-down information to attempt to protect their crops. These attempted improvisations often do not lead to a peaceful solution. ( snares and such) Thus proper education on methods to combat the advances of animals must be made. As a first step, the generation in charge of conflict management should be educated but in the medium term, one must integrate such education to local schooling systems to ensure that future generations utilize these methods. The goal here is long term behavioral change. Now, what kind of content should be included? Although I am in no position to give any specifics, topics such as practical skills would help them deal with dangerous wild animal species and acquire and develop new tools for defending their crops and livestock. I also believe that attempting to teach them about wildlife conservation and its importance in maintaining healthy eco-systems that benefits us as well. Another important role of this may be to dispel any current myths and incorrect information that is circulating in the community.
If you are wondering if this actually works, look no further than Kakum National Park in Ghana, where 50 farmers were trained in crop protection and deterrent techniques. This led to an almost 70% drop in crop losses in the area. Furthermore, according to a study on Crop Protection by Finbarr G. Horgan and EnokaP. Kudavidanage, one of the main reasons for crop loss can be linked to the lack of farmer training.
Increasing Human Vigilance
Vigilance and crop guarding can play an important role in the protection of crops. Although the use of watchtowers and tree huts may not be anything new in Sri Lanka, making these more efficient and useful is vital. Creating local rosters and patrols are clear and easy methods of long term conflict management. However, the use of nonlethal alarm systems and deterrence through sound and smell is essential for there to be a point in watching over crops. No matter how long and well farmers may look over their crops, in the case of an attack, the lack of a proper method to harmlessly scare away the animal may be fatal. Thus the setting up and use of cheap alarm systems such as cowbells and tins can help scare animals. This whole process requires prolonged proactive action by the government in ensuring that locals have the necessary equipment and knowledge to protect their crops. Furthermore, short term involvement of the DWC to enforce this process would be necessary in order to make sure that locals fall into the system of patrolling and watching.
Concerning the use of fencing, I think it would be an essential deterrent. There various types of fencing options that can be pursued by locals. In Sri Lanka, the use of fencing ranges from the setting up of bata vata to electric fencing. The main factor to its utility would be how well these fences are maintained and repaired. I will touch on this a little later. But before that, I wanted to get the issue and controversy surrounding electric fencing out of the way. Electic fencing can be taken as a viable long term solution. However, factors such as set up costs, maintenance, technical know-how, and incorrect installments cause obstacles in their proper use. Firstly, the integration of locals into the process of setting up is vital. This would be to develop a need to protect and maintain it later. Furthermore, the DWC must ensure that before the setting up of such fencing proper approval and participation are enlisted by locals. They should also establish small local groups that are trained with the ability to maintain, operate, and repair these fences in the long run. In addition, the use of alternative fencing on top of these electric fences should also be pursued where possible. (such as vegetative fences) Lastly, this should also go hand in hand with other solutions such as habitat enrichment rather than being treated as a one-time, stand-alone solution.
Well, these 4 broader solutions are by no means the only. There are numerous other solutions that range from translocation to habitat planning to land use policy. However, it is my opinion that the above solutions are the basics of the mitigative action required. The issue itself has become rather normalized in Sri Lanka. It’s common to hear news stories about elephant attacks and stories of leopards in snares that create a sense of momentary grief within viewers. But crackdowns that are meant to follow (on poaching and hunting) never really occur. To add on, it’s not a lack of data either. While reading this I came across numerous studies and papers regarding the specific issues within the larger problem of Human-Wildlife Conflict done in Sri Lanka. I’m going, to be frank here, the only reason this is getting written is because I was bored at home, but reading into it you truly understand the scale of the issue and how fixing one side of it changes nothing. Only considering about either the animals’ or the humans’ distress doesn’t have a sustainable impact. So the least I can ask the 10 or (hopefully) 15 of yall who are reading this is to read about the issue and come to your own decisions. Don’t think that this post has enough information for you to get there but take it as a beginning to read about something that should be read about especially in Sri Lanka.