PIMBURELLEGAMA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Shaking his head at an elephant carcass rotting by a lush paddy field in north Sri Lanka, park warden J.A. Weerasingha counts the cost of a state initiative to arm villagers against Tamil Tiger rebels.
While Sri Lanka has long wrestled with a human-elephant conflict that kills dozens of animals and people annually, elephant deaths are up sharply — and it’s clear why.
In what the military says is a bid to protect villages in the far north as the government and its Tiger foes wage a new phase of a 25-year civil war, farmers have been given shotguns and a civil defense force semi-automatic weapons for protection.
But the plan has backfired. The recipients are turning them increasingly on pachyderms who stray onto their crops or damage their homes in search of food — with elephant deaths up 13 percent in 2007 from a year earlier.
“They are shooting my animals,” Weerasingha lamented on a visit to this remote village on the periphery of Wilpattu National Park in the island’s northwest. “They had the chance to just scare the elephant away. It had only come to the boundary of the paddy field. Instead they shot it.”
“It was an automatic round. Definitely it was shot by a homeguard,” he added, referring to village residents, some of them also farmers, who are given T-56 assault rifles by the state and act as a rural defense force.
In 2007, 193 elephants died in Sri Lanka, the vast majority shot, poisoned or electrocuted. Some were run over by trains, others fell down wells. Only a few died of disease.
That compares to a total population estimated at around 3,000-4,000 elephants, and is up from 171 deaths in 2006.
In Sri Lanka’s northern and northwestern districts alone, home to an estimated 1,500 elephants, 63 elephants were killed — 27 of those directly by gunfire.
Others died of septicemia from gunshot wounds, some were poisoned with chemical-laced pumpkins and a few electrocuted by wires connected directly to the electricity grid.
Elephants, the vast majority of which roam wild in forest and jungle areas, are increasingly straying into human settlement areas in search of food, as their habitat is encroached upon by development projects, the war and man.
Some have fled their habitats because of artillery battles between the military and rebels.
What is now the Tigers’ northern stronghold was full of elephants in the mid-18th century according to one antique map. It is unclear how many there are in that area now.
“The human population is increasing, the forest is decreasing. You can’t stop it,” said Manjula Amararathna, northwest region assistant director of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife and Conservation.
Elephants killed 50 people in 2007, some trampled, others smashed against the ground using their trunks — and at least one woman was torn limb from limb.
Outside Amararathna’s office in the northern town of Anuradhapura, elephant skulls sit on the porch. One has a round hole in the middle of its forehead made by a shotgun.
“To protect villages from terrorists, guns have been given to homeguards and villagers,” Amararathna said. “We can’t protest, because it is very important to protect the people.”
“I think at the moment there’s no alternative.”
Instead, officials are erecting electric fences and planting vegetation unpalatable to the animals in a bid to minimize human-elephant contact and conflict. Catching culprits is an uphill task.
With up to five years in jail and a fine of up to 300,000 rupees ($2,785) facing those who kill an elephant, there are no ready confessions, and there is often little evidence to go by.
The military admits arming civilians is part of the problem, but says it has no choice.
“We have to increase supervision on this, that’s the only way,” Army Commander Sarath Fonseka told Reuters.
“We give strict instructions, but there will be a couple of culprits because they are from the villages, elephants come and start destroying houses and various things, and they get shot.”
“They have to have the guns, otherwise we can’t guard each and every village ... The Tigers come and start killing people.”
Officials say the Tigers have long used Wilpattu park to transport weapons and explosives to the coast and then run them to the capital Colombo to mount attacks.
Wilpattu’s previous park warden and several employees were killed in an ambush blamed on the Tigers inside the reserve in 2007.
The park has remained closed to the public since a group of local tourists, including renowned Sri Lankan author Nihal de Silva, were killed when their vehicle ran over a suspected Tiger-planted mine while tracking wild elephants in 2006.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Officials estimate the elephant population — which is down from around 12,000 in 1900 — is stable, with birth rates offsetting the kill rate.
In the eastern wildlife park of Minneriya, ‘Ha Ha’ the elephant has been a regular fixture on the threshold of Lilian Jayasinghe’s roadside shop and cafe for years.
Rubbing his head against a wooden post at the entrance, he waits for customers to feed him buns, cakes and bananas. Passing soldiers patrolling the area stop to stroke his trunk.
On his legs and body, round welts of thickened grey skin are tell-tale signs of healed gunshot wounds.
“Once he came with a gunshot wound to his stomach. We made a paste of chili powder, pepper and turmeric and rubbed it on the wound,” Jayasinghe said. “Then he used his trunk to massage the paste in!”
“It is a bad thing that they are killing elephants,” she added, as tourists jumped out of a passing minivan to take photos. “Thieves don’t come here because the elephant is here. He’s like a security guard. We think of him as a pet.”
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Editing by Megan Goldin