The Folly of Fences

Electric fences that split forested habitat are all too common. As a result, occurrences like this are frequent.

Sri Lanka is part of the ancestral home of Asian elephants and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers colonized and cultivated, before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonizers and governments. This was their land long before humankind set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else. Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbors an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: do we want elephants (and their bretheren) to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question on World Elephant day because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome.

Leaving aside the insults of landscape conversion and persecution elephants suffered during the colonial era, the greatest threat to elephants today continue to be our land and water use policies. These policies serve economic and agricultural interests. Their by-product, we term “human-elephant conflict”. But HEC is only a convenient label for problems that originate with the willful ignorance of how nature behaves, an open disregard for science, and an unwillingness to face the really difficult question of how a population 5000 elephants can manage to survive among over 20 million people. Because let’s face it, our lives would be easier without elephants. People would feel safer, wildlife managers would be under less pressure, development schemes would proceed unhindered, and many conservationists could turn to careers that actually pay a decent wage. Elephants present a problem. So why don’t we simply round them up, put them where they belong (the designated sanctuaries) and forget about them, as called for by the latest plan by the Ministry of Wildlife?

For one, the very process of driving elephants from one place to another is traumatic. Innocent herds of females and calves, which are largely not responsible for conflict or human fatalities, will be shot at and hassled until they are cornered like cattle. They will wander around in unfamiliar territory, which likely already contains its own belligerent population of elephants, until they eventually die. We have seen all this before. If death is the outcome, they are better off shot than enduring such suffering. The bulls meanwhile, which are of actual concern, will not stay put.

Calves die when their mothers don’t have sufficient nutrition to provide milk. This one born in 2015 (top photo) lasted only three months (bottom photo). For full story see links in the text.

Udawalawe National Park presents an informative case study. For over thirteen years my team and I have had the privilege of following the lives of the elephants here. Our earliest findings were that this tiny scrap of protected space of barely 300 square km hosts a seasonal population of 800-1000 elephants, which is 2-3 times higher than the officially acknowledged figure. Just how many of these go in and out of park is unknown, but they regularly pass through the Dahaiyagala and Wetahirakanda “corridors”. These electric-fenced passages are really just fragments of the greater landscape elephants use outside the protected area system. But all is not well even for these elephants. Though the public will show righteous outrage at the occasional death of a tusker, it barely notices the bony females and thin calves that will eventually vanish, let alone the ones that are never born at all. The Udawalawe elephant population may linger for a while, but it would quietly collapse without access to habitat outside the park, just as the population in Yala already has.

Jane’s family regularly crosses into the Wetahirakanda sanctuary, across a major road through the gap in the electric fence surrounding Udawalawe National park and the corridor. Of course, such gaps also allow elephants to pass entirely outside the fenced areas. National Parks alone are not sufficient to support even the elephant populations that regularly use them, so without the ability to move outside, these elephants would die.

The electric fence on the southern boundary of UWNP, along the Thanamalwila road, was perhaps the most famous and (at one time) functional one in the country. It is regularly broken by elephants now, ever since the over-abundance of electric fences inside the park itself taught elephants how easy they were to knock over. An internal review by the Department of Wildlife Conservation found that only 20% of the fences in and around Udawalawe were actually functional. Sri Lanka already has over 4000 km of electric fencing (not including the home-made ones), and the plans call for at least 2000 km more. Yet there is no such thing as an elephant-proof fence, no matter what their design, nor how much money is thrown at them.

A young bull breaks an electric fence. Their overuse leads to habituation. For full story and videos, see links in text.

Then there is the matter of the holding grounds. Prior monitoring by the Center for Conservation Research and the Department of Wildlife Conservation had shown that translocated elephants rarely stayed put, and were likely to leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they blundered their way back from whence they came. So the holding grounds were intended as a final solution for just those regularly “problem” animals who could not be dealt with any other way. Except that if every crop-raiding elephant is deemed a problem, the facilities will fill up fast. We actually have no idea how many individuals are actually responsible for conflict incidents – 100? 1000? How many holding grounds and how much resources would it take to contain all of them for the rest of their lives, nevermind those new troublemakers that are born every day? These questions are unanswered yet a second one is slated for construction at Lunugamwehera, with anticipated funding from the World Bank under ESCAMP, to follow the failed attempt at Horowpathana. This one will be bigger and better. However the consultative process, both  with the local people or the community at large, leaves a lot to be desired. There are houses next door, with children playing in their gardens. When an elephant breaks out, which it invariably will, who will take responsibility for the deaths that will result? This colossal waste will not serve elephants, nor will it serve people. What saddens me most is that the outcome can be predicted, yet we choose to repeat these mistakes.

It is too easy to blame wildlife managers, and they are not blameless. But they are merely struggling to do the impossible, carrying out the whims of politicians who come and go like children on a merry-go-round. Nine times out of ten these officers are not responsible for the policies that bring elephants and people into conflict in the first place, but expected to manage the mess. Policies such as the irrational and uneconomical pursuit of ever-increasing paddy cultivation despite the fact that we are rice self-sufficient. To support this pursuit we built irrigation infrastructure that further encourages water-demanding crops in drought prone areas, which may ultimately prove useless in the coming era of climate change. The architects of these schemes evade accountability for the consequences, as they are supposed to be acting in the name of the farmers. Yet will the next generation be willing to spend as much time in the mud?

The lower section of the Uma Oya irrigation project passes by the Wetahirakanda sanctuary. One needs little imagination to foresee the consequences.

We cannot forget about the people. Those who stand to benefit the most from elephants are the already wealthy urban elites who profit from tourism revenue or enjoy the occasional holiday jaunt to a national park. Then there are all the local operators, and those who sustain the sector through their labors. This segment of the population bears none of the cost of elephants. Those who benefit least are the farming families, who also bear the entire cost. Would I want risk raising a child in a place where she might run into an elephant outside? No. Would I be content to pursue a livelihood that could any day be upended by the mere passing of a single animal? No. So how can I expect another to?

Surveying households in the communities adjacent to UWNP, we found the poorest among them survive on an annual income of less than rs. 200,000. The cost of living in Sri Lanka has soared thanks to a falling currency, inflation, taxation, and a glut of local and foreign post-war investment. In a just world, those who benefit from elephants in any capacity need to subsidize and support the welfare of those who suffer the most, speak up for the interests of all, and invest in building sustainable rural enterprise. It is useless ranting online from the comfort of an armchair while happily profiting from the status quo. Moreover, the money being wasted on elephant management would be better spent on education that anticipates the needs of the future and developing an economy based on ecologically appropriate agriculture and industries. This would be the compassionate and practical means to help those who are truly in need. But of course it is not as simple as erecting a fence. And once it is up, the land beyond can be up for grabs.

Growing up, I took our elephants for granted as many still do. The living animal seemed as commonplace as its iconography. If we let them die out here, we should also wipe their image from our artifacts and objects of enterprise, lest future generations notice our exploitative hypocrisy. Elephants were once free to roam every square kilometer of this land, from seashore to cloud forest and grassland. Yet today they are globally restricted to lowlands. Whereas their ancestors traversed the length and breadth of continents, evolving with the changing seasons and climates, we now haggle over whether they should be entitled to cross the few kilometers between restricted fragments of habitat. Yet our most recent work in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation using camera traps shows that in fact elephants are remarkably good at avoiding people, day or night, even on busy paths that both use. It is surprising just how frequently this occurs. Coexistence seems not only possible, it is already the norm. We need to overcome the barrier-mentality and work toward most lasting solutions.

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Envisioning The Future

As we wrote earlier, our newly launched Coexistence Project seeks to find ways that people and elephants can continue to share space while meeting the needs for security on both sides. For people, this means economic as well as physical safety.

Back in January, we asked our focal communities in 5 villages to engage in a visioning exercise with us. Gathering at their local meeting house or at the home of a community leader, we first shared some of the results from our survey last year.

We then asked: What circumstances do you face? What are your hopes for the community for the next 10 years? And where can we help as a conservation-oriented organization? We were also curious about how people in each community responded to the presence of elephants – did they warn each other? If so how?

In larger gatherings, we broke up into small groups of 5 and had them discuss amongst themselves. We then wrote up a list of aspirations, and discussed where we might fit in.

Deepani explains what we’re here to do to a curious audience. We found that the attendance rate was much higher among communities that we had surveyed last year.

Women tended to be particularly forward-thinking in the visioning exercise. It was also interesting that although cell-phones are widespread, there was a lot of variation from place to place in their use.

A comprehensive list of these outputs will be provided in our final report, however some of the major themes that emerged were that:

  • People felt their cultivation lands were being grabbed by outside interests and they felt pressure from reduced access to forest resources.
  • Participants at around half the locations had grievances having to do with water rights and ownership of small reservoirs owing to activities of either the Wildlife or Forest department, whereas the other half didn’t.
  • All locations were affected by elephant conflict, and one location had three human fatalities in April 2017, after which the elephant had been transferred to the holding ground at Horowpathana.
  • The relationship between communities and wildlife authorities was strained. One role we could play was in helping to improve the communication between them, but we’d have to be careful not to get in the middle of disputes.
  • Each community differed in the availability and use of technology such as computers, internet, phones, and social media. Clearly no single solution or safety mechanism would work everywhere.
  • All participants nevertheless had high hopes that electric fences of some form were their best hope. In some locations we discussed the reality that even existing fences do not work once elephants habituate to breaking them, and that there was no such thing as an elephant-proof fence anywhere in the world, no matter what the design. This matter has to be further discussed and gradually understood given what we’ve seen on the camera traps.
  • Despite all this, people were not unwilling to live with elephants. Although they saw no direct benefit from their presence, they seemed to simply accept it as a fact of life and that elephants had their place.
  • Some participants, especially women, expressed the lack of after-school enrichment and need for more opportunities for their youth and children.

The last two points are promising for our future work but also moving. Did it have to be this way? It felt only fair to us that these communities, which bear the heaviest burden from elephants, should also receive some benefits from sharing their land with these powerful and emotion-provoking creatures. This is the spirit in which we launched The Coexistence Project, and part of the drive to begin with helping six pre-schools, one per village bordering Udawalawe National Park. Learn more about the schools >

We hope you’ll stay with us, as we work toward a shared vision of peaceful coexistence. If you’d like to help, please consider supporting us.

The Coexistence Project

Update June 20th: We are halfway through the campaign & on track with reaching halfway to our goals of raising $5000 from at least 40 people! Help us close the gap by multiplying your impact on Bonus Day, June 20th – the top 5% of fundraisers within that 24 hour period will be eligible for matching support from Global Giving! Donate now >

Elephant and people observe each other across an electric fence.

The Udawalawe Elephant Research Project (UWERP) started as an attempt to understand the behavior and ecology of elephants, and yield information useful for conservation of this elephant population, and perhaps even the species. But it was always evident to us that understanding the elephants’ side of the story was important, but only half the picture.

It has become fashionable in conservation to speak about the need for “coexistence” with wildlife, as opposed to conflict. Elephants are a prime example, being a conflict-prone species, with large area requirements. Because elephants can never survive purely within the confines of national parks and protected areas, this means finding ways that people and elephants can share their space. But you may wonder – elephants and people have been living on the same landscapes for thousands (if not millions) of years, how was this possible? Weren’t they already coexisting? Continue reading

Mind Over Matter

Those sneaky sneaks!

It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again. Continue reading

Save Our Skins

“The use of elephant skin in Asia is not new. Surveys by the nongovernmental organization Traffic found elephant skin openly on sale in Mayanmar’s Mong La market in 2006,2009, and 2014, with ever larger quantities on show each year. Yet these findings, and their implications for Asian elephant conservation, were overshadowed by the conservation world’s focus on the poaching of elephants for ivory and, as a result, solely on efforts to save African elephants.”

Skinned: The growing appetite for Asian elephants. Report by Elephant Family, April 2018

If you ask people what the leading threat to elephants is, most will likely respond: “ivory poaching”.  But if you take a look at the pictures posted throughout this blog, you will see that this does not pose a risk to the majority of Asian elephants, which have no tusks.  All females and most calves are tuskless, and some males as well. Instead, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflicts with people, smuggling of live babies and now lately – poaching for skin.

Warning: this post contains graphic content. Continue reading

Elephant Gardens

Guest post by Jessie Panazzolo

A camera trap photo shows Sumatran elephants trekking through lush regenerating forest.

I had always been told the same thing over and over again from my schooling, the scientific papers I read, and people I met growing up. This was that once primary rainforest was gone and removed from the Earth, it could not grow again. I was told that the forest needed a constant cycling of nutrients to flourish. That without the trees blanketing the ground in leaf litter the soil would be devoid of any nutrients needed to create such rich life again.

I had also been told that important forest dwellers such as the Sumatran Orangutan would only find a home in thick established forests. I had read in many different papers that Sumatran Orangutans, unlike their Bornean cousins, never spent any time walking on the forest floor in fear of the predatory Sumatran Tiger.

Considering all this, you could imagine my surprise and awe when I found myself in the middle of a brand new Sumatran rainforest, barely five years old, seeing orangutans walk the ground in front of my very eyes. It was then that I knew that anything was possible. Continue reading

News that caught our attention

Before we start, a disclaimer: there’s a lot of bad news out there. We’re not going to amplify it by reposting here. But we thought it would be nice to highlight interesting news every now and then. Things that give us hope (#ElephantOptimism) and/or make us think.

Here are a couple.

  1.  To bee (hive-fence) or not to bee (hive-fence)

Image: Bangkok Post

We recently published the results of a study done back in 2014 with Dr. Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees Project showing that Asian elephants are not very keen on bees (read the blog post here).  But of course, plenty of people had heard about the earlier studies with African elephants and had already jumped to the final step – beehive fences as a means of deterring crop raiding. Continue reading