Feeding Our Waste to Wildlife

By DJ, USW, and SdS

Baby_at_garbage

A two day old baby, with its mother and companions spotted at a dump near Minneriya National Park.

A study conducted in 2012 revealed that Sri Lankans dispose of 15 million polythene lunch sheets a day and 20 million plastic shopping bags a month. Part of this, along with other household wastes, goes to landfills. The majority is piled up in urban and remote areas at garbage dumps as identified by the Central and Local Governments. Sometimes, local residents decide the ‘best’ places to start a garbage dump. It usually starts with a single person or a one family and a small bag of waste and then the rest of the community gradually follows.

Garbage

Tourist groups also carelessly to throw garbage in bush thickets along the roads associating national parks and forest reserves. Naturally, a small collection of garbage grows into a pile of waste unless responsible authorities or concerned individuals take actions to remove them. Such accumulated waste attracts wildlife. It could be birds, reptiles or mammals, big or small, native or endemic, or even endangered.

Our team found elephants feeding at garbage dumps along Habarana-Minneriya main road in north-central Sri Lanka. The area is good elephant country, so they move through the frequently, particularly in the dry season (June-September). Elephants try to find food waste in garbage piles along the roads running between protected areas like Hurulu Wewa Forest Reserve – Kawudulla National Park, Kawudulla – Minneriya  National Park.

Garbage_bull

A hefty bull bulks up on garbage.

Garbage_female

A female with polythene dangling from her derriere…note the tiny baby beneath the second female.

There's ample evidence of garbage being eaten right in the dung.

There’s ample evidence of garbage being eaten right in the dung.

Accidental ingestion of polythene doesn’t bring pleasant outcomes in elephants. Undigested, obviously, polythene is passed along with feces and ‘decorate’ dung piles. The parts which are difficult to pass through the rectum can be seen hanging causing visible irritation to the animals. Worse, polythene can obstruct mammalian gut leading to fatal results following impaction and constipation. Nursing calves will be in danger when female groups make it a habit to feed at garbage sites. Our team pictured a 2-3 days old elephant calf in Minneriya hanging around a garbage dump with its natal herd and its mother who had visible evidence of having ingested polythene. We all know babies like to put things into their mouths – how many little calves may have eaten plastic or toxics out of these dumps?

Feeding at garbage may also be an excellent way to spread disease from humans to wildlife, wildlife to one another, and eventually back to humans. In some especially sensitive areas, such as Horton Plains National Park, efforts by authorities to eliminate waste pollution has been a resounding success. If only we could scale this up everywhere, and not just in parks. This is only a single story from the field. There are many such yet untold tales; as you read this post wild animals around the country are feeding at garbage sites with unknown the consequences. If you see friends or family dumping waste in anything but a bin, please speak up. Along with calling for revising the policy of solid waste management in the country, you can make sure your personal actions don’t add to the problem and together we can clean up our beautiful surroundings.

 

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About asianelephant

Promoting understanding of Asian elephant behavior, evidence-based conservation, and the coexistence of people with wildlife and wilderness.
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