Sri Lanka Seeks Peace This Time With Elephants
ROTAWAWE, Sri Lanka Wild elephants and farmers are killing each other at an alarming rate in Sri Lanka, so hundreds of wildlife officers and villagers fanned out into forests this week to find ways to broker peace.
Hundreds of Sri Lanka's 3,500-strong elephant population are straying into human areas in search of food and water because of deforestation and drought, and farmers like P.M. Abegunawardana are desperate to keep them away from his remote village in northwest Sri Lanka.
Abegunawardana lost last year's bitter gourd crop to trampling elephants; then his brother was killed by a rogue elephant.
He spends every night in a treehouse watching over his land to scare off the animals with firecrackers and fears for the lives of his family.
"We want to protect our farmland from elephants. We want them moved away to another area," he whispered in his native Sinhala, nervously gripping his sarong as he watched a herd of elephants lumbering through a nearby patch of forest. Suddenly the elephants picked up the pace and ran.
The five-man team helping conduct the Indian Ocean island's first census of its elephant population distribution since 1993 ran too in the opposite direction.
"Be careful, it's very dangerous," cautioned wildlife ranger Sisira Kumara de Silva, noting down the size and characteristics of 35 elephants he had spotted. "It is hard to outrun them."
Park wardens even closed Sri Lanka's biggest wildlife reserve in the drought-hit southwest of the country for fear thirsty elephants could charge at tourists.
Deaths on the Rise
Each year between 150 and 160 elephants are shot dead or poisoned by farmers across Sri Lanka. Between 40 and 60 people are trampled to death, and the numbers are gradually rising.
"This is the area in Sri Lanka where the human-elephant conflict is most serious," said Manjula Amararathna, assistant director of the Wildlife Conservation Department in the district of Anuradhapura, 110 miles (180 km) northeast of Colombo.
A giant elephant skull sits by his office door, with red ink circling a bullet hole between the eyes.
"Using this survey, we can get an idea of how many elephants are in these villages, where the conflict areas are," he said. "Then we want to drive those elephants towards a forest area; we want to make barriers, use electric fences."
He thinks the elephant population is falling, but it is hard to tell. The last census 11 years ago was only partial, because Tamil Tiger rebels were waging a bloody war for autonomy that put swathes of the country off-limits.
But numbers have fallen sharply over the past century . There were about 12,000 elephants in Sri Lanka in 1900, and numbers plummeted because of the ivory trade under British rule.
Ivory poaching is rare now, and very few of Sri Lanka's Asian elephants who are smaller than their African cousins and have smaller ears have tusks.
"When I was younger, we did not have this problem. The elephants have moved here because of deforestation," said Abegunawardana, never turning his back to the elephants.
"I love elephants, but I get angry because our crops are damaged. If we can stop the deforestation, it will help stop this problem too."