Human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka – Featured on The Guardian

Posted by on Mar 4, 2016 in News, published work | No Comments

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The Guardian

“Habitat loss is forcing Sri Lanka’s endangered elephants into increased opposition with humans. New work from photographer Sean Gallagher shows how the animals, long revered in the country’s culture and religion, are now becoming a symbol of conflict.” — The Guardian

My new work on human-elephant conflict if featured on The Guardian‘s website this week in an extended gallery of images.

For the full story, scroll down to read the story introduction and see the full gallery.

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and it is believed only between 2500-4000 remain in the wild, a population drop of approx. 50% in the past 60-75 years.

“The species was once found throughout Sri Lanka, but today elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone…the species continues to lose range to development activities throughout the island.”

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most threatened biodiversity hotspots and is an important example of the struggle developing nations have with exploitation of their natural resources, at the cost of precious endemic fauna and flora.

The clearest example of this is in the increase of human-elephant conflict which is claiming the lives of approximately 50 people and 100 elephants each year across the country.

Human-elephant conflict is increasingly becoming an issue in Sri Lanka, as habitat fragmentation forces elephants into human settlements, often in search for food. At the Pinewalla elephant orphanage however, locals are are able to get up close and view the animals. A number of the larger elephants, such as the one pictured, are chained up to prevent them getting near people.
Human-elephant conflict is increasingly becoming an issue in Sri Lanka, as habitat fragmentation forces elephants into human settlements, often in search for food. At the Pinewalla elephant orphanage however, locals are are able to get up close and view the animals. A number of the larger elephants, such as the one pictured, are chained up to prevent them getting near people.

A mahout (a person who cares for elephants) beats an elephant as he tries to round up a stray herd at the Pinewalla orphanage in Sri Lanka. The government run center was set up to care for young elephants whose parents had died, often as a result of human-elephant conflict. Centres like this remain controversial however and are questioned as viable long term solutions for helping the threatened species.
A mahout (a person who cares for elephants) beats an elephant as he tries to round up a stray herd at the Pinewalla orphanage in Sri Lanka. The government run center was set up to care for young elephants whose parents had died, often as a result of human-elephant conflict. Centres like this remain controversial however and are questioned as viable long term solutions for helping the threatened species.

Wild Sri Lankan elephants search for food in a dumpsite on the outskirts of a small town bordering the Wasgamuwa National Park. As their habitats become more fragmented, wild elephants are increasingly forced to venture into areas where people live. This has dramatically increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict, which results in dangerous and often fatal encounters.
Wild Sri Lankan elephants search for food in a dumpsite on the outskirts of a small town bordering the Wasgamuwa National Park. As their habitats become more fragmented, wild elephants are increasingly forced to venture into areas where people live. This has dramatically increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict, which results in dangerous and often fatal encounters.

A security guard stands watch over an array of elephant tusks in the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. One of Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist sites, large amounts of ivory are on display, signifying the historical importance of decorative ivory for religion in the country.
A security guard stands watch over an array of elephant tusks in the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. One of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist sites, large amounts of ivory are on display, signifying the historical importance of decorative ivory for religion in the country.

Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo, home to a thriving art market with pieces depicting important cultural icons, such as the Sri Lankan elephant.
Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo, home to a thriving art market with pieces depicting important cultural icons, such as the Sri Lankan elephant.

A forest fire burns near a road running through the forests of central Sri Lanka. Small scale forest clearance by farmers contributes to the slow disappearance of the country's forests, as trees are often cleared to make way for farmland.
A forest fire burns near a road running through the forests of central Sri Lanka. Small scale forest clearance by farmers contributes to the slow disappearance of the country’s forests, as trees are often cleared to make way for farmland.

Slash and burn agriculture is still found across Sri Lanka, where forest is often cleared and set alight to make way for agriculture. Near the town of Polonuwara, a bus passes through clouds of smoke generated by the burning of fields by local farmers.
Slash and burn agriculture is still found across Sri Lanka, where forest is often cleared and set alight to make way for agriculture. Near the town of Polonuwara, a bus passes through clouds of smoke generated by the burning of fields by local farmers.

Small scale forest clearance has contributed significantly to the disappearance of vegetation in the central highlands of Sri Lanka.
Small scale forest clearance has contributed significantly to the disappearance of vegetation in the central highlands of Sri Lanka.

During British colonial rule, vast swathes of mountainous forests were cleared to make way for tea growing plantations. This decrease in habitat contributed significantly to wild elephant populations being pushed into ever decreasing habitats.
During British colonial rule, vast swathes of mountainous forests were cleared to make way for tea growing plantations. This decrease in habitat contributed significantly to wild elephant populations being pushed into ever decreasing habitats.

During British colonial rule, vast swathes of mountainous forests were cleared to make way for tea growing plantations. This decrease in habitat contributed significantly to wild elephant populations being pushed into ever decreasing habitats.
During British colonial rule, vast swathes of mountainous forests were cleared to make way for tea growing plantations. This decrease in habitat contributed significantly to wild elephant populations being pushed into ever decreasing habitats.

A villager cutting trees for firewood. This activity is legal, as long as wood is only being used for this purpose. It is a pressure on the forest however and local villagers know that every time they go into the forest, there is a chance they will run into a wild elephant. As the Sri Lankan elephant's habitat has been slowly eroded, potential human-elephant conflicts have increased markedly across the country.
A villager cutting trees for firewood. This activity is legal, as long as wood is only being used for this purpose. It is a pressure on the forest however and local villagers know that every time they go into the forest, there is a chance they will run into a wild elephant. As the Sri Lankan elephant’s habitat has been slowly eroded, potential human-elephant conflicts have increased markedly across the country.

A sea of logs lie in a clearing in a forest in central Sri Lanka. Historically, deforestation has been one of the country's major environmental challenges. Rates have decreased in recent years and illegal logging is rare, however the legal use of forest resources still puts pressure on the remaining pockets in this major biodiversity hotspot which is home to some of the world's most unique animal and plant species.
A sea of logs lie in a clearing in a forest in central Sri Lanka. Historically, deforestation has been one of the country’s major environmental challenges. Rates have decreased in recent years and illegal logging is rare, however the legal use of forest resources still puts pressure on the remaining pockets in this major biodiversity hotspot which is home to some of the world’s most unique animal and plant species.

The Horton Plains National Park, in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, was once populated by wild elephants until they were hunted by the British during colonial rule until all individuals disappeared from the area.
The Horton Plains National Park, in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, was once populated by wild elephants until they were hunted by the British during colonial rule until all individuals disappeared from the area.

Deforestation is most evident in the patchwork of forests that can be found over many of the mountains. Habitat fragmentation has been one of the main challenges to the dwindling wild elephant populations across the island.
Deforestation is most evident in the patchwork of forests that can be found over many of the mountains. Habitat fragmentation has been one of the main challenges to the dwindling wild elephant populations across the island.

The Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, famed for its wild Asian elephant populations.
The Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, famed for its wild Asian elephant populations.

A member of the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society in their field station near the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, famed for its wild Asian elephant populations.
A member of the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society in their field station near the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, famed for its wild Asian elephant populations.

Wild elephant footprints in the Wasgamuwa National Park, spotted by park rangers monitoring and tracking the roaming populations.
Wild elephant footprints in the Wasgamuwa National Park, spotted by park rangers monitoring and tracking the roaming populations.

Wild elephant footprints in the Wasgamuwa National Park, spotted by park rangers monitoring and tracking the roaming populations.
Wild elephant footprints in the Wasgamuwa National Park, spotted by park rangers monitoring and tracking the roaming populations.

Park wardens sit in a tree house in the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, looking for its famed wild Asian elephant populations.
Park wardens sit in a tree house in the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, looking for its famed wild Asian elephant populations.

A ranger from the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society watches for elephants from a treehouse near the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, famed for its wild Asian elephant populations.
A ranger from the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society watches for elephants from a treehouse near the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka, famed for its wild Asian elephant populations.

A wild Asian elephant is seen from a treehouse in the forests near the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka.
A wild Asian elephant is seen from a treehouse in the forests near the Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka.

People watch elephants in a river at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.
People watch elephants in a river at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

Sugathapala, of Rudunnawawa village, stands amongst orange trees outside of his home near the Wasgamuwa National Park. Conservationists have discovered that citrus trees act as a natural deterrent to elephants, who reportedly dislike the odour given off by the trees. This provides a natural defence that villagers can use to protect their land from elephants that often travel nearby. Habitat fragmentation has increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict, resulting in new methods to hopefully prevent deadly encounters in the area.
Sugathapala, of Rudunnawawa village, stands amongst orange trees outside of his home near the Wasgamuwa National Park. Conservationists have discovered that citrus trees act as a natural deterrent to elephants, who reportedly dislike the odour given off by the trees. This provides a natural defence that villagers can use to protect their land from elephants that often travel nearby. Habitat fragmentation has increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict, resulting in new methods to hopefully prevent deadly encounters in the area.

EM Podimaneke, 49, stands outside her home next to the porch where her husband was killed by an elephant while he slept outside, on a hot night in June, 2013. Human-elephant encounters have increased dramatically in recent years as habitat fragmentation encourages elephants to venture into human settlements where conflict inevitably occurs. Each year around 50 people are killed in confrontations with elephants. On the other side of the conflict, approx. 100 elephants are killed each year, mostly as a result of farmers defending their land.
EM Podimaneke, 49, stands outside her home next to the porch where her husband was killed by an elephant while he slept outside, on a hot night in June, 2013. Human-elephant encounters have increased dramatically in recent years as habitat fragmentation encourages elephants to venture into human settlements where conflict inevitably occurs. Each year around 50 people are killed in confrontations with elephants. On the other side of the conflict, approx. 100 elephants are killed each year, mostly as a result of farmers defending their land.

In the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnawura, built in the 12th Century as Sri Lanka's second official capital, a nearly 1000 year old sculpture of an elephant serves as part of an elaborate staircase. The Sri Lankan elephant has been an important part of the island's culture and religions for thousands of years and continues to be so in modern times.
In the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnawura, built in the 12th Century as Sri Lanka’s second official capital, a nearly 1000 year old sculpture of an elephant serves as part of an elaborate staircase. The Sri Lankan elephant has been an important part of the island’s culture and religions for thousands of years and continues to be so in modern times.

Elephants are made to perform tricks during a show at Colombo Zoo, in Sri Lanka. There is a long history of elephants being a part of cultural traditions in the country, however one modern manifestation is in the performances that are laid on for hundred of visitors in the capital's zoo. A small herd is cajoled and clapped on by the enthusiastic crowds to perform various tricks for their entertainment.
Elephants are made to perform tricks during a show at Colombo Zoo, in Sri Lanka. There is a long history of elephants being a part of cultural traditions in the country, however one modern manifestation is in the performances that are laid on for hundred of visitors in the capital’s zoo. A small herd is cajoled and clapped on by the enthusiastic crowds to perform various tricks for their entertainment.

A mahout cleans elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.
A mahout cleans elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

A malnourished elephant at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.
A malnourished elephant at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

Wild Sri Lankan elephants search for food in a dumpsite on the outskirts of a small town bordering the Wasgamuwa National Park. As their habitats become more fragmented, wild elephants are increasingly forced to venture into areas where people live. This has dramatically increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict, which results in dangerous and often fatal encounters.
Wild Sri Lankan elephants search for food in a dumpsite on the outskirts of a small town bordering the Wasgamuwa National Park. As their habitats become more fragmented, wild elephants are increasingly forced to venture into areas where people live. This has dramatically increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict, which results in dangerous and often fatal encounters.

As the elephants search for food amongst the rubbish, they inadvertently eat the rubbish. Here, a plastic has become intwined in an elephant's dung having passed through its digestive system after accidental consumption. This poses severe threats to the animal's health.
As the elephants search for food amongst the rubbish, they inadvertently eat the rubbish. Here, a plastic has become intwined in an elephant’s dung having passed through its digestive system after accidental consumption. This poses severe threats to the animal’s health.

Tourists stand in the back of a 4x4 vehicle and watch a wild elephant in the Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka. Billed as an 'Eco-tourism' destination, visitors are whisked around the park in packs of vehicles, chasing the elephants that dare to come out of the forest to feed and drink from the central reservoir. There is little regard for quiet observation in an area that has become a large commercial operation for local tour operators.
Tourists stand in the back of a 4×4 vehicle and watch a wild elephant in the Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka. Billed as an ‘Eco-tourism’ destination, visitors are whisked around the park in packs of vehicles, chasing the elephants that dare to come out of the forest to feed and drink from the central reservoir. There is little regard for quiet observation in an area that has become a large commercial operation for local tour operators.

A young elephant raises its trunk as it walks with its herd in the Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka. The park is famed for the large migration of elephants who descend on its large central reservoir (named 'a tank') each year during the dry season. "The Gathering" at Minneriya's tank is reputed to be on of Asia's great natural sights and one of the best places to see the country's wild populations.
A young elephant raises its trunk as it walks with its herd in the Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka. The park is famed for the large migration of elephants who descend on its large central reservoir (named ‘a tank’) each year during the dry season. “The Gathering” at Minneriya’s tank is reputed to be on of Asia’s great natural sights and one of the best places to see the country’s wild populations.

An adult elephant roams the Minneriya National Park, in central Sri Lanka. The park is famed for the large migration of elephants who descend on its large central reservoir (named 'a tank') each year during the dry season. "The Gathering" at Minneriya's tank is reputed to be on of Asia's great natural sights and one of the best places to see the country's wild populations.
An adult elephant roams the Minneriya National Park, in central Sri Lanka. The park is famed for the large migration of elephants who descend on its large central reservoir (named ‘a tank’) each year during the dry season. “The Gathering” at Minneriya’s tank is reputed to be on of Asia’s great natural sights and one of the best places to see the country’s wild populations.

As habitat fragmentation occurs, due to deforestation for tea plantations, agriculture, new development projects, small-scale farming etc., wild elephant herds are increasingly venturing into human settlements to find food. In these situations, conflict inevitably occurs and as elephants contribute in destroying local people’s crops, they are often killed as pests, or hunted in revenge and killed.

Deforestation and habitat fragmentation over many decades, during and since colonial rule, have pushed the two groups closer together, increasing conflict dramatically.

Historically, Sri Lanka has had a deep connection with the elephant. It is an animal that is both revered in culture and religion, but is now becoming a symbol of conflict in this fast-changing post-war developing nation.

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