Jan27 (Mongabay) Each day, as the sun set over the horizon, Thettuwage Tennakoon and his wife would carefully climb up into their treehouse in the middle of their rice field. This elevated position was ideal for keeping watch over the crop — and for staying safe from the elephants they were guarding the crop against.
But in the middle of one night late last December, a lone elephant entered Tennakoon’s rice field and attacked the treehouse, bringing it down. The elephant then attacked the couple, and despite doctors’ attempts to save their lives, the pair died of their injuries on Christmas Eve. They left behind two children who will receive 2 million rupees ($5,500) in compensation from the government — a sum unlikely to make up for the loss of their parents, or ward off the continuing threat of marauding elephants.
The family’s home district of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka’s North Central province is the main hotspot of human-elephant conflict in the country. In 2022, 37 people were killed there in HEC incidents, accounting for a quarter of all human deaths recorded in Sri Lanka due to encounters with elephants.
Such deaths have a devastating impact on bereaved families and cause a wide range of socioeconomic effects in this largely agricultural region.
“Farming is the main livelihood of the majority of Anuradhapura inhabitants who barely manage to eke out a living,” said Janaka Jayasundara, the divisional secretary of the Anuradhapura district. “When a breadwinner is killed by an elephant, the household goes into further economic peril.”
Rising death tolls
The conflicts are no less deadly for the elephants. In Anuradhapura, 90 wild elephants were killed in 2022, according to the Department of Wildlife Department data (DWC) — the highest number of any district in the country. That figure marks a rising trend as human settlements continue to expand into elephant habitat, Jayasundara told Mongabay.
Human-elephant conflict is also severe in Polonnaruwa district, also in North Central province region. In 2022, HEC claimed 19 human and 73 elephant lives there. The region is part of Sri Lanka’s dry zone, where water is scarce and poverty rates are significantly high. HEC is the biggest issue that local people face, according to Dharmasiri Weerathunga, the Polonnaruwa district secretary.
Shrinking habitat, growing conflict
A 2019 study found that people live in nearly 70% of the elephant range in Sri Lanka. Almost 40% of land outside the country’s protected areas is shared between humans and elephants.
With a growing population of humans, and a shrinking habitat for elephants, the HEC problem has continued to deteriorate over the years, making the year 2022 the worst one yet, with a toll of 433 elephant and 145 human lives. More than a third of elephant killings involved shooting, explosive-laden bait, and electrocution, accounting respectively for 58, 55, and 47 of the known elephant deaths reported in 2022.