Elephants Unlikely Foe for Sri Lanka's War-Displaced
KANNAPURAM EAST, Sri Lanka -- Tamil farmer Sabaratnam Somaratnam abandoned his home in east Sri Lanka fearing it might be shelled.
He returned after months in a refugee camp to find the house flattened, and stunned to find the destruction had nothing to do with the fighting between government forces and Tamil Tigers.
"Look," he said, gesturing at a large round depression in the dry earth. "There are elephant's footprints. There's dung all over the place.
"We had stored bags of rice in our house. The elephant has destroyed our house to get to it," he added, his sarong trailing in dusty, parched earth mixed with tell-tale rice grains.
Behind him, his house lies in a ruined jumble of baked earth bricks and buckled iron sheeting.
He, his wife and their five children must now live in a rudimentary shed covered with a tarpaulin, much like the one they have lived in for months after fleeing the war.
His neighbours suffered the same fate.
At least four houses nearby in this tiny hamlet in the eastern district of Batticaloa have been partially or entirely flattened by marauding elephants.
Officials say hundreds of homes have been damaged in this swathe of jungle and paddy fields 190 miles (310 km) northeast of the capital Colombo.
The military captured the land from the rebels as they seek to drive Tiger fighters from remaining landlocked pockets further north.
The government has plans to resettle around 110,000 people still displaced in Batticaloa after driving the Tigers from their eastern stronghold in recent months. Fighting is now focused in the north.
But troops are still clearing away landmines and unexploded shells and mortar bombs in some areas, and many are uncertain when they will be able to head home.
FIRST TIGERS, NOW ELEPHANTS
For families like Somaratnam's it has been a cruel homecoming.
"In terms of damage to houses, most have been damaged by natural disasters -- wild elephants, termites and heavy rains," said Uruthra Uthayasrither, assistant divisional secretary in the area.
Troops have resettled around 27,000 this month in the area as part of a drive to empty cramped refugee camps peppering Batticaloa.
"More than 500 houses have been damaged. The elephants have damaged houses as well as crops. Due to shelling, most of the wild elephants came to settlement areas," he added.
"We have informed the Wildlife Department and have asked them to come and chase off the wild elephants," he said.
The vast majority of the Sri Lanka's 3,500-4,000 elephants are wild, roaming in scrub jungle and wildlife parks.
But clashes between the giant beasts and people are frequent and deadly.
Farmers shoot elephants to protect their crops, while elephants attack villagers, trampling them.
In 2006, about 150 elephants and 50 people were killed as the animals strayed into villages scavenging for food, Sri Lanka's Wildlife Department says.
Mother-of-seven Kanagi Pullaithangavelu and her husband looked on helplessly as elephants trampled their house the very same day they resettled in the area near Batticaloa.
"Three or four elephants destroyed our house. We stood watching," she said, her 18-month-old son balanced on her hip, standing next to a stiflingly hot tent where they must now live until they rebuild their home -- a tall order for many in this poor, rural area.
"It was a similar shelter they gave us in the camp. There also the heat was tremendous. Our children have suffered a lot," she added.
"What else can we do? We'll have to stay here. If they can chase away the elephants, we'll be happy."