By Rahul Samantha Hettiarachchi
According to information obtained from the Department of Wildlife under the Right to Information Act, Rs.722 million worth of firecrackers (6,468,750 individual crackers) were distributed from 2014 to 2020 to stem the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s human-elephant conflict is mainly derived from habitat loss for wild elephants in protected areas and the scarcity of food for these herds. As wild elephants come to rural villages in search of food, they damage property and harm human lives. Beyond the construction of electric fences and the provision of firecrackers to villagers the state has not provided a scientific solution to the human-elephant conflict. Bewteen 2014 and 2020, the use of firecrackers has increased by 49%. The absence of a scientific solution to this prolonging social problem has cost a significant amount of human and elephant lives. In 2019, 407 elephants and 122 people were killed while, in 2020, 327 elephants and 205 humans lost their lives. The continuing high number of deaths indicates that firecrackers are not an effective solution to this crisis.
According to information obtained from the Wildlife Department, Sri Lanka is the habitat for an estimated number of 6,000 elephants. Taken as an average, this converts to 102 firecrackers used per elephant in 2014. By the statistics of 2020, firecrackers thus used stands at 205 per elephant. However, only 50% wild elephants encroach on village areas and, therefore, the actual number of firecrackers used per village-roaming elephant is higher than 205. Analysis by district or region where firecrackers were distributed indicate an annual increase in the use of firecrackers which suggest that there’s an escalation of the human-elephant conflict in those areas.
Firecrackers are a temporary measure given to farmers to chase away wild elephants. However, even those who use crackers are pessimistic of their effect. Sumanananda, a resident of Madunagala, Sooriyawewa, expressed his views as follows: “I have been a resident of Madunagala for many years. Back in the day, we had no trouble with elephants. But due to various development projects and illegal deforestation, elephants started roaming into our villages. The clearing of forest lands brought on a shortage of food for the elephants. After that, firecrackers were distributed to villages for many years to chase away elephants. But now, when we light firecrackers, elephants hide for a while and then return and eat the crop”. Sumanananda claimed that the elephants had adjusted to the firecrackers. “Spending so much on firecrackers is meaningless. The problem will be solved if the authorities protect the forest reserves,” he said.
Gunapala Vitharana, a resident of the Koggala area in Ambalantota said: “We have suffered from the human-elephant conflict for years. But now the situation has worsened. We have to keep chasing elephants from dusk to dawn. Firecrackers are used in our areas at night and the sound is like a war. But when we check in the morning, elephants have broken houses and destroyed crops. They are now used to firecrackers.”
Dr. Pruthuviraj Fernando, a researcher on wild elephants, claimed that it was impossible to find a solution to the human-elephant conflict by lighting crackers. “Giving people firecrackers leads the people into a human-elephant conflict. It is true that the elephant needs to be chased away. However, an increae in using firecrackers is a problem,” he observed. “People must not completely depend on firecrackers. The elephant is intelligent to learn that it is just noise that caused no harm. Someday the elephant may turn around and retaliate. Then you have to either run for your life or be trampled to death”. Pruthuviraj explained how people used firecrackers out of proportion. “The conflict escalates as long as we use firecrackers,” he added. “The best solution for this crisis is to invest on electric fencing. We don’t have to collide with elephants if we can build a good electric fence for our garden or plantation. It will keep the crops safe and the elephants out,” he concluded.