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The Human-Elephant Conflict, Sri Lanka

You know what I realised on our recent trip to Sri Lanka? Elephants. I realised a whole lot about elephants.

I’ve always loved this creature. They’re majestic and grand and just unlike anything else. On my first visit to India at age 19, I bought countless small elephant statues and figurines. I cringe to think how heavy my bag was back then with all of this stuff, but nevertheless you get the idea. I really like elephants.

I guess I’ve always considered them as being synonymous with travel. They were to be found in exotic Asia or commanding the plains on the African savannah. Having animals roam free is often seen as the ultimate goal when discussing issues of responsible travel and animal tourism (and believe me I’m not opposing it).

But what I had never thought about before going to Sri Lanka was how societies cope with wild animals left to their own devices. I guess when we think of the “wild”, we often think of it as a forest away from civilization or the depths of the ocean. But Sri Lanka is a small island and what happens when that “wild” is your own backyard? How can animals and humans co-exist together? We’re not talking fluffy kittens here, wild elephants are very territorial and getting caught up together can be dangerous as heck.

We encountered wild elephants on countless occasions during our one-month trip in Sri Lanka. Sometimes we were looking for them, other times we were not. Locals are adept at knowing their favourite hang out spots, but the thing about being wild, well, they can just go anywhere at anytime. Plus loss of natural habitat and therefore sources of food also play a role in bringing these creatures closer to human settlements (a global problem that certainly demands more attention).

One of the fascinating things about heading into Hiriwadunna village near Habarana with Cinnamon Nature Trails was learning about how locals deal with what they term the ‘Human-Elephant Conflict’. It wasn’t a tour specifically designed to talk about the topic (we learned about lots of other things too), but the theme kept reappearing and I found the whole concept to be extremely fascinating.

Here’s a short rundown on how they do it.

1. Fencing

We did see electric fencing used on the outskirts of Yala National Park, but in this small village, locals had just strung ropes between trees with bunches of beer cans attached. It doesn’t keep the elephants out, but the rattling of the beer cans when they approach alerts villagers of an elephant’s presence.

2. Screaming its name

The word for elephant in Sinhalese is aliya and apparently they don’t like it very much. Our guide said they have heard it many times before and know they are being scolded, so they usually leave. One of the villagers also performed the call he likes to use. He said they often try to get into his home to take salt!

3. Sleep in a tree house

The same villager showed us his tree house that he uses to escape elephants. When we asked how often elephants come to his property, he assuredly said “every night”. So after dark, he’s always up in his tree house ready for whenever one or more arrives.

4. Thunder crackers

Even if you are up in your tree house, that doesn’t stop the elephants from raiding your regular house or eating all your crops. So he showed us the thunder or fire crackers he uses to scare them off. We knew the bang was coming and yet we still jumped!

Of course, Sri Lanka is not alone in this issue, and there are a variety of methods being trialled and implemented around the world. This BBC article talks about the use of beehive fences, recordings of tiger growls and the planting of chili plants around farms (even smearing chili paste on fences), all of which seem to be working in some capacity to keep elephants off crops and limiting confrontation with people. In addition, there are a number of more advanced warning systems being developed using mobile technologies that have already significantly reduced the death toll related to such incidents.

We may be from Australia where many people claim they would never go because we have so many “deadly” animals, but we don’t deal with issues like this, at least not from the part of Australia we’re from!

So we’d love to know your thoughts on this topic. Do you live in a place with a human-animal conflict? Or have you visited one? What methods do you use/are used there? Thanks for sharing your experiences.

You can stay and book this tour at Cinnamon’s nearby Chaaya Village or Cinnamon Lodge properties.

We were guests of Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts during our stay and Cinnamon Nature Trails for this tour. As always, we keep it real and tell it like it is. 

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Britt Skrabanek

Tuesday 24th of March 2015

Fascinating! I've always loved elephants as well but I never thought about this side of it. I imagine that would be a bit terrifying to wake up to an elephant in your face.

Jessica - Notes of Nomads

Wednesday 1st of April 2015

Right?!?! I can only imagine! Did you ever read that book 'There's an Elephant on My Roof Eating Cake' as a kid? Now I definitely know that was fiction. You don't sit and write a book when there's an elephant on your roof. ;)

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