Last week, in Gomarakandawala, a tiny village in the North-Eastern province of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, we sat in a tiny house, enjoying a meal from very hospitable, generous people. Even as we ate, we heard firecrackers go off not very far away from us.
“Elephants”, they said.
Elephants were entering someone’s farm and the result would be absolute wreckage and destruction of crops. This would mean loss of harvest that would constitute a significant chunk of that farmer’s income. Only a few hours prior to this, I’d visited a farm and seen something that looked like a tree-house. Excited, I climbed on it and later learnt its purpose – it was meant for the farmer to stay up all night and ward away wild animals from destroying his crop.
The complexities involved in these issues never fail to perplex me. What a tough life for that farmer – to have to work hard on the farm all day, and then stay up all night watching over the farm, come hail or shine, getting bitten by mosquitos, having to be up there on a shaky tree house.
On the other hand, elephants are animals that require extensive territories. They are known to travel upto 40kms a day in search of food. With ever shrinking habitats and fragmented forests, it is only logical that they will stray. They will stray looking for food. Nature does not know boundaries, and the reason for the elephant straying into fields is nothing but to fulfil the natural function of searching for food.
In this situation, how does one ensure that the crops and the elephants are kept safe?
Nobody knows the answer to this question. There are only theories and possible measures that one can undertake to minimize conflict. The long-term solution would be to ensure that forests are not fragmented and are well connected for elephants to have uninterrupted right of way, without straying into farms. Also, crop insurance policies that are being adopted in various countries must cover raids by wildlife. In the short term, solutions such as bursting of firecrackers to scare away the elephants with the help of a proactive Forest Department and setting up of electric fences have been adopted and have been largely debated by wildlife biologists as feasible solutions to this growing issue.
What is clear, however, is that the issue is an extremely sensitive one and the best interests of both, the people and the wildlife, have to be taken into consideration and a balance must be struck carefully between the two. It is commendable that in South Asian countries, particularly in India and Sri Lanka, the farmers have been extremely tolerant of the losses faced by them due to this magnificent beast and have taken it in their stride. One cannot expect this to sustain too long. Examples of conflict involving large cats in India are spine chilling. There have been multiple instances when tigers are poisoned when they kill livestock or where leopards have been burnt alive in cages after entering a village, even before they could be released back into the wild. Before the situation escalates to people taking such extreme measures, it is for the governments to step in and put a plan in place to prevent such instances of man-animal conflict.
With these thoughts, we left Gomarakandawala, in the hope for a safer life for not only the farmers and their livelihood, but also for the elephants.