A New Strategy for Elephant Management

The human elephant conflict (HEC) is the primary issue for elephant conservation in Sri Lanka, and over much of Asia. Rapidly expanding human populations convert ever greater extents of land for development and agriculture, increasing the interaction between people and elephants, leading to a high level of HEC. Currently in Sri Lanka, HEC causes the death of around 160 elephants and 50 humans annually.

However, conservation efforts have not been very successful in mitigating the conflicts and effectively installing a long-term solution to conserve elephants. In Sri Lanka the main strategy for conserving elephants has been to translocate them into protected areas and to restrict them there by the erection of electric fences. The rationale for such management is that elephants living outside protected areas will be at risk from HEC, hence they should be moved to protected areas, where they will not come into conflict with humans. The traditional management of these protected areas has been on a 'hands off' basis, with little habitat management within them other than the rehabilitation of water bodies. A system of such protected areas linked by 'corridors' to which elephants could be limited, has been previously envisaged as the basis for elephant conservation.

This strategy was developed a few decades ago and was based on information that was then available. However, as little information on the ranging, resource use, ecological requirements of elephants, and interactions between elephants and the environment were available at the time, this previous management strategy had many shortcomings and is not viable over the long term.

Recent research has provided much new information that can now be used to develop a better management and conservation plan, taking into account the ecological and biological needs of elephants.

Research conducted by us over past decade that has shown that:

  • Elephants in Sri Lanka do not migrate long distances, seasonally or annually, as the habitats in which they range in Sri Lanka can support them over the entire year. 
  • Elephants have well delineated, comparatively small home ranges of 50-150 km2 to which they show high fidelity. 
  • This pattern of ranging is not of recent onset due to restriction of movements but has been the natural pattern in Sri Lanka from the past. 
  • Elephant home ranges are not in accordance with protected area boundaries. Some elephants have ranges entirely outside protected areas, some entirely inside and some have ranges that lie partly in and out of protected areas. 
  • The preferred habitat for elephants is successional vegetation in secondary forest. Such habitat is created by traditional chena (slash-and-burn) agriculture
  • Chena is done entirely outside protected areas and being entirely rain dependant, the cultivation period is limited to four months of the year. 
  • Chena agriculture is compatible with elephant presence and allows temporal resource partitioning between humans and elephants. 
  • Chena lands support very high densities of elephants, and provide critical dry season forage. 
  • Chena farming receives little if any recognition and support from the government and agricultural sectors. In general, the move has been towards promoting irrigated agriculture as an alternative to chena cultivation. 
  • Chena farmers do a conservation service by 'habitat management', and bear a cost through conflict with elephants, but receive zero benefit from elephant conservation. 
  • Irrigated agriculture and other forms of permanent cultivation, and permanent settlements are incompatible with the presence of elephants.

These findings lead to the following conclusions regarding the implications of elephant ecology for management and conservation:

  • Protected areas can support only a certain number of elephants (the carrying capacity) - which is determined by the amount of resources such as food and water available for elephants in such areas, and density dependant factors such as aggressive interactions between elephants and tolerance of neighbors, disease outbreaks, parasite loads etc. 
  • The current management of protected areas on a 'hands off' basis, makes them sub-optimal elephant habitat. Over the next few decades, through natural succession, habitat in many of the protected areas will become progressively less able to support high densities of elephants. 
  • Therefore, an approach of attempting to limit elephants to protected areas is unlikely to succeed and will be detrimental to elephant conservation, over the long term. 
  • HEC occurs entirely outside protected areas. A significant segment of the elephant population, range entirely inside the protected areas, hence is not subject to HEC, and consequently has an assured conservation future. 
  • Translocating a large number of elephants that normally range outside protected areas (and use the resources there) into protected areas, without large scale habitat alteration, will result in a severe competition for resources, within protected areas and jeopardize the future of those elephants that had a secure conservation future, but for our interference. 
  • A single wild elephant consumes approximately 150 kg of food per day. Therefore a hundred elephants would require 15,000 kg of food per day, every day. Habitat management within protected areas to provide food for elephants at this scale would require a vast amount of funds and resources that would have to be expended indefinitely. It would also result in a massive loss of biodiversity, as a large number of fauna and flora, many of them endemics, require relatively undisturbed forest.

New strategy
Considering the above, the following strategy is proposed:

  • Manage the protected areas and their elephant populations in their current context, as the core of future elephant conservation. 
  • Manage areas outside protected areas so that together with the protected areas, they form a contiguous landscape for elephants.

Management of outside areas can be achieved by regulating chena cultivation, so that:

  • Traditional cycling regimes are preserved and conversion to permanent cultivation is prevented. 
  • Providing facilities to chena farmers, so that they derive a direct conservation benefit from elephants being outside protected areas, and costs of having elephants in their area, such as crop depredation, are offset.

Such a conservation strategy, incorporating protected areas and areas outside protected areas, will benefit both elephants and humans, and will ensure the sustenance of a healthy elephant population in Sri Lanka, for the future. In collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, we are currently developing two pilot projects to try out this strategy.

Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka