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.


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

Social Structure in South Indian Elephants

Guest post by Nandini Shetty

A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project

India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.

I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading

The Secret Life of Elephants

We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:

But all is not paradise. Continue reading

The Buzz about Elephants and Bees

An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.

by SdS

In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees.  I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?” Continue reading

Sumedha’s Epic Musth

Sumedha shows all signs of musth as he consorts with Indika (Sandamali) in 2011, which include secretions from the temporal glands on the sides of his head and urine dribbling.

Of all the iconic tuskers that have passed through Udawalawe over the years, Sumedha is the one I’ve known longest. All tuskers are distinctive, because they’re so rare in Udawalawe, but Sumedha additionally had a nice big hole in his left ear and an awkward  tail with no hair. He wasn’t as regal as my beloved Raja, nor as old and wise as the Kalthota tusker, both of whom would have been easily dominant over him in the early years. But he was younger than either of them, and built like a tank. So if he survived, eventually his time would come. Continue reading

Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods. Continue reading