Sep 20

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has been concerned for some time by the continuing loss of crops, damage to houses and movable property, and the deaths of wild elephants and people living in remote areas with a high density of these animals. Although there are no wildlife experts in our organisation, some of us do have a nodding acquaintance with the subject, both from personal knowledge and by learning from the experience of those in other countries. As the protection of people, elephants, crops and property is a responsibility of the government, we call upon the relevant Ministries to direct the Wildlife Department and the Ministry of Agriculture’s extension services to look into the suggestions that are given below. It is expected that, quite apart from the sad loss of life that is reported from time to time and the suffering of family members, the economic costs of elephant-man conflicts could be greatly reduced by adopting our suggestions, subject to testing them out in Sri Lankan conditions and making any necessary modifications. Fundamentally, there are two principal motivations for elephants to approach human habitations. The first is, of course, the attraction of easily accessed, nutritious food that is temptingly on display in cultivated areas. The other less often mentioned lure is the craving elephants have for salt, which is most readily found in the kitchens of the farmers’ huts. Whatever solution is adopted to counter these inducements would have to be reasonably economical and not-too-sophisticated for the farmer to apply. Whereas man-elephant conflicts are not uncommon in Sri Lanka, one can readily appreciate the scale of the challenge in Africa, which has about 600,000 elephants as compared to our population of about 6,000. Hence, measures which are reported to have had reasonable success there may well be expected to be more effective here on account of the more refined application that can be implemented in the small areas of elephant country that we have, in comparison with the vastness of Africa’s forests and open plains. The experience gained in Assam, Cambodia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Thailand and Zimbabwe, troubled by devastation of crops by elephants, is noteworthy and technically simple to apply. Based on the abhorrence felt by elephants to the odour of capsaicin, which is the key chemical found in chillies, the following methods of employing chillies to discourage elephant visitations have been adopted in the countries mentioned, with more than encouraging results – a) Strands of rope or strips of jute soaked in a mixture of used engine oil and chilli powder are substituted for barbed wire and electric conductors in the stringing of fences along the boundaries between farm plots and the jungle. The mixture will have to be reapplied from time to time, the intervals depending on the weather and the state of growth of the crops in question. b) Chillies are mixed with elephant or cow dung to form flat cakes, which are dried in the sun and burned, releasing the pungent smell of capsaicin. Alternatively, small straw baskets may be filled with chillies and set on fire. c) A border, consisting of four or five rows of chilli plants, is grown around the farmer’s house and also along his property boundaries, discouraging the entry of elephants and providing a profitable cash crop at the same time. d) During the harvesting season, it would be prudent to hang bells on the fence strands to provide warning of the proximity of elephants so that the farmers may supplement the deterrent effect of the capsaicin by lighting crackers.. Several farmers in contiguous allotments should get together to help reduce the amount of fencing and chilli borders required, by planting these on the outermost boundaries of the combined plots. Agricultural Extension Officers should help the farmers to come to an agreed pattern of implementation. It has been reported that some farmers have doubled their income by harvesting the chillies and marketing them or turning them into sauces and other end products. A further measure that strikes us as a means of giving elephants less reason to approach human habitations might be for the government to have a programme to deposit, on a regular basis, sufficient quantities of salt in areas of the jungle which are as far away as possible from the nearest homesteads. This would give the elephants less reason to enter settled areas, wreaking havoc, destruction and death in their search for salt. The proposed methods should not be so extensively and intensively applied as to restrict excessively the movement of elephants from one area of the forest to other areas. In simple terms, the elephants should not be driven to a degree of desperation that would overcome their allergy to capsaicin. Adoption of the aforesaid proposals will obviate the need for the construction, powering and maintenance of expensive electric fences or capturing and transporting elephant herds. The money that the government would save by restricting crop losses, destruction of houses and their contents, hospitalisation of injured persons, and the payment of compensation for injuries or death sustained, may be channelled to provide subsidies to farmers to implement the measures recommended here to divert elephants away from human settlements. Another related development that has been observed by our members is the utterly irresponsible behaviour of local “tourists” who frequently ignore the prominent notices displayed near electric fences which call upon the public not to feed the elephants which come up to the fence. With the occasional failures of the fences themselves and the not so infrequent power failures in rural areas, elephants could break through these fences in “favourable”:circumstances, looking for food. What dreadful consequences would flow from such breakouts can hardly be estimated. Just as this contribution was being completed, a TV news item reported the death of yet another person – this time, a boy in his early teens – who had been attacked by a wild elephant. The need to take urgent action to keep man and beast apart was poignantly highlighted by this terrible event. Those with more specialised knowledge and influence in the corridors of power are, therefore, invited to put forward improvements to our suggestions and join us in this endeavour.