How Electric Fences Can Save Hundreds of Sri Lankan Elephants

A group of researchers from the Centre for Conservation and Research, Sri Lanka, suggest the construction of electric fences around human villages, instead of animal confinement, to avoid the battle between men and animals and save hundreds of lives.

Analysing the first country-wide survey on elephant habitat and their conflicts with humans, they say this new conservation approach model would work better than confining the animals in a specific area.

Human-elephant conflicts kill more than 250 elephants and 70 humans in Sri Lanka annually. Adult male elephants entering human habitat to feed on farm crops sets up the stage for the deadly battle between two species.

The increasing fatality from these clashes sounds the death knell of the Asian elephants that are already categorised as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Since the 1950s the approach to human-elephant conflict mitigation in the country has been based around confinement of elephants in protected areas. The animals are chased away into these areas using light flares, thunder crackers and sometimes even shotguns.

These attempts rarely succeed. The scarcity of resources in the protected areas due overpopulation of Elephants compels them to venture into human villages to seek food.  

The research

The researchers headed by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando divided the country into 2,742 grid cells, each covering an area of 25 sq km.  Three residents living within each grid cell were asked to report on the presence of elephants and the severity of human-elephant conflicts.

They opted for a questionnaire-based approach rather than methods based on direct sightings. Elephants, despite their large size, are difficult to be tracked in the wild. Asian elephants tend to reside in low visibility habitats like scrub and secondary forests. They only venture out to the open during the night. They also occupy a large home range of hundreds of sq km frequently crisscrossing long distances at a stretch.

The result of the collected data was later visualised into an elephant distribution map with highlights of key areas for intervention.

(a) Elephant presence, by herds and males; cells without resident people are coloured green. (b) Elephant presence and absence overlaid with the GPS locations of 54 elephants tracked during 2004–2018. (c) Spatio-temporal patterns of cell use by elephant herds and males (Fig. 2). (d) Severity of human–elephant conflict.

The result showed that Asian elephants inhabit in 60% of Sri Lanka’s land, and more than half of their habitat coincided with human habitat. The majority, over 56% of residents, who reported the presence of elephants, had experienced major human-elephant conflicts.  23% of people faced moderate conflicts. Only 7% of residents reported having not experienced any conflicts. The study also revealed that the elephants have lost 16% of their range since 1960

The researchers recommend a human-elephant coexistence model that promotes stakeholder awareness and mitigates conflict by protecting villages with barriers like electric fences. They say the distribution map they prepared can serve as a template for identifying areas where conflict mitigation needs to be integrated.

“If this approach is incorporated into the National Policy for Elephant Conservation and Management in Sri Lanka, it would facilitate human-elephant co-existence.” says the lead researcher Dr. Fernando. “It would also result in the reduction of human-elephant conflict.”

This article is written by Scott Li Meng Aloysius, Editorial Contributor for Earth.Org and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in Singapore.