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Increasing elephants and escalating conflicts?

THERE is a popular billboard that greets visitors entering Colombo from its northern flank, on the bridge across Kelani River. A boy holds small picture of an elephant. The father says: "No son, the elephant was much bigger than that.'

Whatever the advertisement sold I cannot remember, but the billboard's message was more powerful than the product. Will there be a day that we don't see elephants in the wild? Will future generations have only faded photographs to recall the majesty of these animals we love and enjoy?

Are we looking at a floundering elephant population? Are our elephant numbers falling because of deforestation and human-elephant conflict?

The popular sentiment and viewpoint would lead to an affirmative reply. The concern for the elephant's survival, its endangered status, the threats to its habitat and the protection bestowed upon it by the State all lead us to think that the population is indeed in decline and there would be a time in the future that we would face a crunch - a time when wild elephants would be a rare sight.

Ask the man-on-the-street and many would nod in agreement-elephants are threatened and in decline.

Even researchers and scientists stand in general agreement that there is a declining trend in population numbers of elephants- due to the many stress factors created by human interference in their habitat.

Not everyone, however, subscribes to this viewpoint. Dr. Sarath Kotagama, one of Sri Lanka's best-known ecologists former Director of Wildlife and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Colombo believes that elephant numbers are on a gaining trend and that elephant populations are not in any danger of dwindling out in the near future.

That much is positive news for elephant lovers who may have harboured doubts of their grandchildren being able to enjoy the sight of wild elephants. But an increasing population of pachyderms living alongside an increasing population of humans, competing for the same land resource does not necessarily spell good news either.

It has led to escalated conflict between the people and elephants in agricultural areas where demand for land is forcing them to co-exist.

"There is a clearly an increase in the number of elephants from the 1950s to today and the reasons are also quite clear," Dr. Kotagama said (see Box). "We have been converting forests into agriculture land, and there has been a heavy bias towards irrigated paddy cultivation.

In effect, we have been providing the elephant with a better habitat by cutting down dense forests and planting crops, especially paddy, which are palatable to the animal.

In retrospect, although deforestation had an adverse effect overall, for the elephants the landscape that replaced the forests was even better than the forest itself."

The elephant is known as an 'edge' species due to its preference for a landscape for a landscape that has grasses, scrub, water and sufficient shade to the dense interior of forests. Through their agricultural practices, humans create this 'edge'.

Living alongside human habitation, the elephant is drawn to nearby villages and fields for its dietary requirements - for one, there is easy access and secondly, it is of high nutritive value. The change in landscape across the elephant's habitat actually favoured the animal, and created conditions for it to breed well.

But, Dr. Kotagama reiterates, the change of landscape beyond a certain point would become unfavourable for elephants. When settlements become dense and townships come up (Embilipitiya for example) the elephants move out of such places as the environment becomes lees hospitable to them.

Breeding well

Regular visitors to sanctuaries and national parks that have elephants will swear by the high number of babies, juveniles and young adults in the population. "Random counts have shown that one third of the population consists of young. This is a very healthy situation, and there are no immediate concerns of population decrease.

The high number of young can be clearly noticed in good elephant viewing locations like Uda Walawe or Minneriya tank during dry season. Across the country, elephants are breeding well and have a healthy number of young and sub-adult animals.

This is true not only of elephants enjoying an enhanced state of protection within National Parks and Sanctuaries but of may herds roaming outside 'protected areas' and subject to harassment and ill-treatment by the human population sharing their habitat.

"In fact, in the areas with high levels of human-elephant conflict, elephants appear to be breeding quite virulently, "Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando said.

We consider the human elephant conflict as being one of the two key factors that drive down the elephant numbers. But empirical evidence points to a different scenario.

Although many elephants are killed each year as farmers take guns to protect their crops and homes from raiding elephants, the herds also breed well-very well-in areas that are rife with such conflict. Therefore, overall effect on the population could likely be positive instead of negative.

"When the elephant's requirements of food and water are provided, animal numbers will increase, even in a limited space" Dr. Kotagama explains. "The best example for this is Pinnawela where all the requirements are met and the animals are breeding very well."

Deforestation and loss of habitat is the other main reason put forward as causing the decline of the elephant population. Deforestation is a very real problem in Sri Lanka.- our forest cover today is down to 20% according to official statistics.

At the turn of the century forest cover was over 70% and especially high in the dry zone which was largely left neglected by colonial powers. Wet zone elephant habitats were almost totally converted to profitable plantations and remaining elephants hunted for sport or as pests.

In the years after independence, deforestation increased in the dry zone where large irrigation projects and new settlement schemes were being carved in to the previously neglected landscape.

More and more dry zone jungle came down with the axe to make way for fields and people. But even as forests declined, the effect on the elephant population was not altogether negative.

For one, they were no longer being hunted for sport or as agricultural pests. Secondly, the cleared forests, the chena scrub and the new paddy cultivations allowed the elephant to expand its habitat to human areas and increased food availability.

Basically, the pattern of land use that was adopted and heavily promoted by the state since independence became a boon to the elephants population, which by the 1950 had been severely depleted due to colonial attitudes and practises.

As the country ventured more and more into irrigated agriculture, opening up dry zone areas for settlement and habitation the incidence of human-elephant conflict also increased since both parties vie for the same space.

Every week, at least two elephants are killed by farmers defending their crop. The number of human deaths due to the conflict is not even on record but believed be over 50 every year. The Department estimates crop damage to be an astounding Rs. 1.2 billion annually.

"The country's policies and programmes for elephant conservation are based on the faulty premise that there is a population decline. Meanwhile, the measures adopted to combat the human-elephant conflict are ad-hoc and short term," said Dr. Sarath Kotagama.

"There is, therefore a clear need to re-think our strategies for elephant conservation and also build up a long-term plan to manage the human-elephant conflict, taking into consideration the outcomes current research."

Elephant population trends

We believe that at the turn of the last century- in 190- there were around 10,000 elephants in Sri Lanka. However, this figure is hypothetical and based on an estimate done by C. W. Nicholas in 1953.

The official record keeping of the Department of wild Life began in the 1950s and at this time, there appears to have been a very steep decline in numbers.

The 1951 estimate is 100-1500 animals in the island. By 1956 this figure drops even lower to 750-800 animals as reported in the department of Wildlife Conservation administrative reports.

During this period, the government still encouraged the killing of elephants as pests.

But despite this population collapse, by the 1960s the elephant numbers were on the rise again. C. E. Norris of the then Wild Life Protection Society in a 1967 report shows that population growth was favourable.

By the late 1960s, estimates point to populations over 1500 and some even top 2000. Since then there have been many studies by various experts and institutions. But newer estimates done during the last two decades point to population of 3000 and over. The latest estimate by the DWLC puts the figure at an all- time high of 5000.

This trend challenges the popular notion of elephant population decline. Although we are far from the assumed population of 10,000 animals of 1900, elephant numbers have shown a trend of increase from the 1950s not a decline as popularly believed.

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