Dr Deepani Jayantha is a committed conservationist and a veterinarian who has been working closely on the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka for about a decade. In this interview with Women Talk, she discusses her passion for elephants, community-led initiatives that are helping to mitigate the human-elephant conflict, and the interconnected social, cultural, and economic dynamics of conservation. She stresses the increasing need to safeguard fast disappearing wildlife habitats and the necessity of generating inclusive development policies that favour communities, wildlife, and the environment.
How did you develop an interest to work with wildlife?
I think the turning point of my life was joining the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA). There was a young crowd studying wild animals and their eco systems. I started studying mammals. We all are familiar with mammals and learning their natural history intrigued me. I felt good and continued with other animal groups as well. Similarly, we discussed environmental issues of the time. We were lucky enough to work with both wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists. I gradually got the exposure to biodiversity conservation of the country.
I was then selected to study at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at the University of Peradeniya. During that time, towards the end of my course, I joined the Department of Wildlife Conservation, as a veterinary internee. Actually, the Faculty gave us the opportunity. That was the first time I got to experience wildlife conservation at management and policy levels. During veterinary training, I had to study different species – dog, cattle, horse, many domestic species, you name it. But we never had a chance to study wild species in detail. We had a few lectures on elephants. To be honest, my first animal love was snakes. I should thank the Young Zoologists’ Association. It is through them that I got the chance to learn and interact with snakes.
What was it like to train as a veterinarian?
Studying the veterinary course, I would say, wasn’t always easy and attractive. By the time I did my final exam, I knew dairy or poultry practice will not be my cup of tea. For instance, though I knew the dairy industry was important for the country, I was not happy with the way the students were performing pregnancy diagnosis and reproductive health evaluation on cows. It was just me, perhaps, I thought cows were being harassed unnecessarily. Anyway, my heart was always with wildlife. Soon after graduation I was recruited by the Faculty to deal with wildlife health and management. I was taking care of cases of sick wildlife. I enjoyed that. Even during my final year, I went out for elephant treatment with my teachers. I remember there were days when I had to spend the whole night with sick elephants. Seriously ill elephants go recumbent and that is the time you have to be with the animal, treating and nursing, round the clock. It was challenging. I am really thankful to those who accepted me to take part in such exercises and assisted me through treatment sessions. So, it went well. I’ve kept my confidence. I was working with the Faculty and different opportunities came.
Are there any particular challenging cases that you remember from your veterinary days?
Public informs the Faculty when an injured or sick wild animal is found. Sometimes, in the case of smaller species, they bring the animals to the clinic. Otherwise, we have to visit the case onsite. One day we got this call from Kundasale Open Prison Camp. The prisoners had been clearing and burning a shrub and later they found a burnt python moving in the area. It was a huge specimen, burnt and helpless. By the time we found it, outer layers of its skin had started sloughing off exposing underneath tissues. Its face too was burnt including ocular scales. It was very difficult to handle the snake, let alone treating. However, we brought the case to the clinic and started specific and supportive treatment. It threw up its last meal, a half-digested land monitor (thalagoya), two days after. Despite our efforts the python died. I am sure it was an agonizing death for the snake.
I felt bad. It was obviously nobody’s fault. Snakes go off food and slow down for a certain time soon after their heavy meals. This python had been unfortunate in that shrub in Kundasale and ended up with severe burns.
We could not evaluate its prognosis accurately on the Day One. And the concept of euthanasia was not encouraged at the Faculty during the time. Today, I would think twice. Euthanasia is hugely debated here in Sri Lanka, unlike in industrialized countries. Perhaps because of our religious and cultural backgrounds, veterinarians and general public are hesitant to think about relieving animals from suffering. Some believe it would be bad Karma to euthanize an anguished animal even in its terminal stage. The python’s case was a difficult one for me. Animals can’t describe their ailments. That’s why we have to be thorough with their behavior, ecology, anatomy and physiology in detail.
It is the same about hakka patas, the jaw bomb, cases of wild animals. Poachers target small game like wild boar with this explosive but unfortunately the young elephants are usually victimized. It is a dreadful pain for an animal to go through when all its mouth parts and sometimes throat are blasted while it is alive. If it survives, soon the wounds get infected, necrotic and even maggot infestation could set in. And it can’t eat or drink. That suggests extremely bad prognosis. So, I think, diagnosis of such cases on the Day One is very important for the affected animal, veterinarian and also for the assisting staff.
You then go on to study the behavioral ecology of rehabilitated elephants that are released from the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe. Could you elaborate on how you got into working with the ETH elephants?
I left the Faculty and started working for different projects, sometimes volunteering. I was always engaged with something related to wildlife conservation. The Elephant Transit Home (ETH) is managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Born Free Foundation was supporting the ETH, which rehabilitates orphan elephants and sends them back to the wild in Udawalawe National Park. Born Free was assisting the facility to foster orphan animals and with infrastructure and veterinary aid. They wanted a researcher to follow these animals in the wild after release. My senior colleagues at the Wildlife Department proposed me to not miss the chance. I thank them for trusting and giving me such a lifetime opportunity. I am thankful to Born Free too.
For me, elephants just happened. I wanted to specialize on reptiles but that never happened. Then elephants became my passion and career. At Udawalawe, I was monitoring the rehab and released juvenile elephants for about two and half years; two weeks every month; from around 6am to 6pm. I studied their post-release behavior, in other words, how they survived the wild on their own along with their interactions with wild relatives.
What were some of your encounters with elephants during this study?
I was studying this particular batch that was sent to the wild in 2004. I remember one of my study subjects, a female about 5 years old at release. We called her Ethimali. She showed us a unique association and interactions with one of the wild female elephants in the Park. The wild female was frequently observed away from the rest of her herd and roaming with her male calf. For elephants, it is unusual to see lone females with calves because calves are almost always accompanied by other members of its natal herd. But this particular adult female was different and for some good reasons, she accepted Ethimali to her family. We continued following this association. Through the times, we saw their bonds got stronger. Apparently, Ethimali too accepted the calf of the wild female as a younger sibling. She has been successfully surviving the wild. She got her own calf a few years ago in the Udawalawe National Park.
How did you go on to initiate a Sri Lankan chapter for Born Free?
I had another wonderful career opportunity in 2007. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust granted me a scholarship to study endangered species management at the prestigious Jersey Zoo in UK. It was a commonwealth programme. They focus on endangered species in islands and highlands. We had a broad syllabus to study with practical exposure at the zoo and in the island of Jersey.
‘Keep wildlife in the wild’ is Born Free’s dictum. That is practically against the concept of zoos, menageries, animal theme parks and performing wild animals in captivity. I hadn’t seen Dehiwala Zoological Gardens doing a great job on captive wild animals. In contrast, Jersey Zoo and Durrells were doing a magnificent and herculean task to keep the endangered species from extinction. Likewise, I realized the appropriate role of captive facilities in conserving wildlife at peril – the good practices versus the bad.
One of my colleagues at Jersey suggested me joining Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) as they too were running an orphan elephant rehabilitation programme at Kaziranga National Park, Assam, just like at the ETH. I took the challenge. I flew to Delhi, got through the interview, visited the rehabilitating young elephants at Kaziranga and finally saw the release site at Manas National Park, which continues as the Royal Mansa National Park in Bhutan. Fantastic! I couldn’t ask for more.
While I was getting ready for the new adventure, Born Free had something else in their store for me. They were thinking about a Sri Lankan chapter of Born Free and for my previous contracts with them, I was offered the position of Country Representative. I couldn’t say ‘no’, Sri Lanka and her wildlife mattered to me a lot. WTI understood my position and wished me luck. That’s how Born Free Sri Lanka started.
Why was it important to work with the community to find solutions to the human-elephant conflict?
We started working in remote communities with the idea of helping wild elephants. The field situation taught us human-elephant conflict was beyond a dispute between two smart species. It is a complex product of environmental, socio-economic, cultural and political issues. The outcomes are always detrimental on both the species. Being a realist, I understood those who live along with wild elephants will be the ultimate stakeholders to protect the species at risk, not the policy makers of this country. We observed a delicate line between species coexistence and conflict in affected communities.
Farmer life in the dry zone becomes ever challenging. Land is getting scarcer; rain water is not promised as it used to be; farming is an expensive business; harvest may not be as expected for various environmental reasons. Subsistence farmers struggle to make the ends meet. Elephants in their neighbourhood cause them unnecessary costs – precisely, crop, property and life damages. If the communities are not capable of fighting the battle financially, technically, politically and emotionally the outcomes are retaliatory. Such communities need external support to survive the conflict.
To relieve elephant-affected communities from the conflict, the strategy should be to minimize the conflict interface. That eventually saves elephants getting into danger.
We started with raising awareness among farmers and school children. Community support began at village schools; infrastructure development, in-class assistance and extra-curricular opportunities were amid our scope of work. Better education attainment of the children in elephant-affected communities can gradually reduce the intensity of conflict interface. Farmer children shouldn’t necessarily be future farmers who would continue illegal land encroachment for farming in elephant habitats. I strongly believe, together with effective law enforcement practices, better education attainment and community awareness contribute to conflict resolution.
When one season’s harvest is promising, farmers can spend more on crop guarding against elephants in the next season. It could be fencing, bright flashlights or noisy firecrackers. If a farmer fails to prepare himself to fight the conflict, he loses the season’s crop to wild elephants. Then his crops of the next season, too, will be at risk. That’s a vicious cycle. We supported their farming efforts in various ways. Fencing and irrigation were among their agricultural needs.
Man and wild animal conflict is multifaceted and so is the solution. There is no text-book answer for varied issues seen in different geographical locations. Mitigatory measures can be innovative yet the fundamental requirement is to find a way of reasonable resource sharing between the two species.
What are some of the other measures you took to help communities mitigate the human-elephant conflict?
Farmers were willing to grow crops that are not predated by elephants. Crops with strong flavours, such as chili, black pepper, ginger, turmeric and betel are not elephants’ favourite. Those have a good year round market value locally and when produced organically, particularly the spices, can be sent to export market. We didn’t expect the farmers to replace all their traditional crops raided by elephants with non-palatable crops. Farmers have to have their traditional crops as household food sources. We suggested them to do non-palatable crops in their home gardens, so that their home gardens are less attracted to elephants. We realized the income from non-palatable crops can compensate all or a part of the crop loss made by the elephants. Alternative crops brought inspiring results, particularly chili, black pepper and betel. Chili was prepared for the export market.
We created small farmer groups as cooperatives. They got together and built low-cost, community agri-fences with our support. Those are electric fences to keep elephants away from farmlands. Farmers, as a group, took the responsibility of maintaining the fence. In any given village, one spread of paddy fields (yaya) contains plots belonging to several farmers. Protecting a yaya of paddy or chena is more economical and efficient rather than doing individual fences. Such projects, I should say, get better farmer inputs as well. For example, the cost of erecting a fence around a 25-acre paddy yaya should be shared among the beneficiary farmers. That is when they feel the sense of ownership and with ownership comes the sense of responsibility to properly maintain the fence. Farmers in conflict areas must be sensitized to the fact that they are a part of the problem they live with while they can be a part of the solutions they need.
Farmers always had encouraging results with well-managed electric fences. I remember one farmer expanded his banana plot within the same yaya following better harvest (income) from his well-guarded crops in previous seasons. His boosted income allowed him to send his daughter to the remote town to fulfil her dreams of higher education. She is now awaiting university entrance. Her father wouldn’t have been able to support her if his farming didn’t thrive. These are intricate stories of human-elephant conflict and how people fight it.
How complex is the human-elephant conflict at the ground level?
The cost of the conflict is phenomenal on both sides. For elephants, the conflict begins with habitat loss which results in population fragmentation and overcrowding of remaining habitats. Recent development projects in Hambantota gives the best example. Animals in crisis are driven away to other poor quality habitats that cannot sustain them for long. Juvenile elephants give up soon in such destinations. Some males are captured and translocated, labelled as ‘problem animals’. Elephant movement patterns are disturbed. Disoriented individual males and female groups go into non-conflict areas and people in panic naturally react against them. Forest and scrub habitats have gradually turned into human settlements and palatable crops are available within a trunk’s distance. When crop raiding takes place, farmers take matters into their hands. Most of the elephants in the country are found with gunshot wounds and bullets embedded in the skin. Electrocution, poisoning and hakka patas are among other reasons to cause wild elephant deaths. Sri Lanka reports about 250 elephant deaths annually and a substantial number out of that is a direct result of the conflict. To add to that, researchers say more than 70% of the elephants of Sri Lanka are found outside the protected areas.
Most of the conflict-affected individual elephants are bulls of prime breeding age. It’s theorized that stronger animals (genes) of the population are the ones dare to go on crop raiding. Thus the conflict gives rise to the elimination of strong genes from the population. That’s not a healthy ecological phenomenon.
Crop, property and life damages to humans are direct impacts of the conflict at the opposite end. Damage also includes stakeholder expenses on cost compensation and conflict mitigation. Nevertheless, outcomes like anxiety, fear, sleeplessness and hopelessness among farmer families usually go unnoticed. The cost of elephant damage in household economy cuts down farmer capacity to spend, just the needed, they say, on essentials like health, nutrition, education and welfare. Farmer economy at risk at the conflict crisis is unfortunately not discussed. I think that is very unfair by the low-income subsistence farmers of the affected areas.
Is there a difference in the way the human-elephant conflict operates in different areas of the country?
Yes, absolutely. Different communities in Monaragala District around Udawalawe National Park react to elephants in various ways. Some are just around the delicate line of coexistence and conflict. With increasing conflict intensity, say frequent crop raiding, daily elephant encounters, constant property and life damage, the toll it takes on elephants and humans is high. Communities living closer to elephant habitats and those rapidly encroaching into forests and scrubs complain more about elephant threats. Elephant populations in shrinking habitats frequently go into conflict with nearby farmer communities. Once conflict is constant, naturally, human behavior shifts from defensive to retaliatory. That is when the delicate line is cut beyond coexistence.
Southern development projects are running in Monaragala and Hambantota Districts. Areas between Yala, Bundala and Lunugamwehera, Udawalawa National Parks currently witness emerging human-elephant conflict cases. Similarly, new records are made in North and East following resettlement. In contrast, the predicament in areas of North West and North Central Provinces is decade-old and chronic conflict is devastating mainly for the elephants.
During the course of development of conflict, elephant response changes according to human reactions. Simple deterrents like noise and light would repel invading animals at early stages. Next comes the phase where elephants disregard primary deterrent methods and continue crop raiding. Effective barriers like fencing is needed by this time yet some farmers would choose lethal deterrents on elephants. With hostile human response comes hostile elephant response. Farmers wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate the problem animals from the neighbourhood. Threat imposed on tuskers are much larger for obvious reasons.
I have spoken with farmers those who changed their farming practices for elephant crop raiding. Some abandoned a few vulnerable crops they used to do while others gave up their entire farming plots. Remote locations in Matale District have small abandoned villages, as the locals couldn’t continue fighting the battle of conflict.
Resilience is not uncommon. I met a farmer in Hambegamuwa. He has three young daughters. The family lives just next to the border of Udawalawe National Park. He experienced a near-death situation once an elephant charged him and broke his ribs. He survived the accident and is back in the fields. Whenever I see the family, I inquire about recent elephant visits to their chena or home garden. His farmer wife, a pleasant village soul, goes chirpy with a big smile, ‘There was a huge elephant at our door step the other night. We managed to chase it. It is the dry season, poor animals are in search of food and water.’ I am sure she was utterly scared at that particular moment but when narrating the incident she looks so relaxed and uncomplaining. ‘Don’t you ever have grudges against wild elephants?’ I don’t want to ask that from her. She doesn’t need a long lecture on coexistence either.
Yet these farmers need guidance and support to escape growing conflicts with the species.
Are the needs of these communities taken into consideration at policy level?
I doubt and am skeptical. Sri Lanka has excellent researchers, scientists and government officials into policy making. Politicians, unfortunately, override them at policy planning and implementing. Policies are not effectively debated at legislature. Policy implementation is not people oriented but political agenda is prioritized. For example, it’s a national policy and a legal commitment to protect forest reserves, sanctuaries and national parks where elephants inhabit. Those who are in power disregard the case and happily share the wild habitats among their cohorts.
Land and water are basic needs of farmer communities. Shrinking habitats increase human-wildlife conflict interface. With fragmented habitats come intensifying conflicts. People’s needs should be met at a least cost on people, wild animals and environment. Well, this is easier said than done.
It is the same about development projects in the areas roamed by elephants. Do the people living in areas under development know that their future is going to be a trade-off between ‘quality life’ and conflict with wild elephants? Is the matter discussed in detail with local communities so that they are psychologically prepared for the conflict forthcoming? Are there conflict mitigation strategies planned ahead? I would rather prepare the locals to be the partners of both problem and solutions. One shouldn’t forget that they too have the right to information.
We have very cultural views about elephants in Sri Lanka, more or less we associate religious and cultural symbolism with them. What are the challenges of cutting across the denial of science that is strengthened by myths surrounding religion, culture, and elephants for the conservation of these species, in particular those that are in captivity?
I should make this clear. There are no domesticated elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka. They are simply wild elephants held in captivity. Precisely, an endangered species held in captivity. Domestication is a process where selected wild species are sent through genetic blends and a selection process over generations and finally a ‘breed’ of chosen traits is produced and propagated for human needs. That’s how the Leghorn chicken, the Terrier dog, the Friesian cow, or the Arabian horse has been resulted. Captive elephants do not fit in there.
The most prominent cultural symbolism of elephants is seen in ‘traditional’ processions (perahera). It is a magnificent cultural event. Being connected to a religious institution doesn’t make perahera a religious event. In that sense, I wouldn’t see that the perahera elephants or elephants held at religious institutions have anything to do with a religion.
I used to love flamboyant perahera with full of talented artists; hewisi, that integral music, is a matchless orchestra. Yet I started disliking it when I gradually learned to compare the behavior between wild and perahera elephants. In fact, it is using elephants in perahera I do not like or I cannot agree with. The array of stress behaviours expressed by elephants there, such as head bobbing, waving and rocking, is misinterpreted as they ‘dance with joy’. How would an elephant in the forest respond to elements like intense sound, bright light, heat and crowd for several days in a row? Simply by avoiding it. How an elephant in captivity is made to bear such exasperation? Yes, through strategic breaking and submission into fear of pain.
The way elephants are managed in captivity is substandard in most of Asian countries. India and Sri Lanka are worse. Determined animals (remember, they are still wild) are deliberately injured, particularly the ones in musth, expecting quick submission to the handler. I have seen enough of jab, cut and burnt wounds around legs and head, usually infected. The elephant eye is extremely sensitive. Handlers whack or poke into elephant eyes to control them. Despite all these mistreatment and suffering they are sent in perahera.
Elephant is a commodity in today’s society. That is why this endangered species is smuggled from the wild and illegally sold at millions of rupees. And then it is worked by the owners for good revenue. The irony is, making a free living, endangered wild animal submissive through pain and fear, allowing it to go through the agony of mistreatment and then sending that suffering animal in a stressful procession to ornament a cultural event at a religious institution while that religion is entirely based on compassion. I cannot comprehend that – totally irrational.
Unlike some five-ten years ago, locals, specially the younger generations, openly and widely discuss these matters. Being considerate of animal rights, beyond human rights, is a positive sign of civilized nations. Certain traditions, like slavery, had their good reasons in the past when the world had limited resources and options. It is time we analysed the consequences of our customary thinking.
You are currently a representative of the Elemotion Foundation. What are some of the programs that you do with this organisation?
Elemotion helps the Asian elephants and people connected to them. We work with communities, raising awareness on elephant conservation and welfare. Wildlife rangers are the official protectors of elephants in the country. We help with their field trainings, patrol needs and welfare requirements. ‘Happy rangers keep wildlife happy’, I trust.
Elemotion is concerned about the welfare of captive and wild elephants. We strongly believe elephant back safari is detrimental for the elephants. We discuss the matter on several platforms. Just like the managers of national parks, we too want to help establish proper rules pertaining to jeep safaris. Thus information materials are produced by us to be shared with the park visitors at the beginning of their jeep safaris.
We are also worried that garbage kills wildlife. Officials reported 13 elephant deaths within Polonnaruwa District during the last 2-3 years. It is again an agonizing death for elephants and a tragedy man-made. We would like to help the government offices to find solutions for the matter. Public awareness, establishing proper waste disposal methods at public places and encouraging officials to fix effective garbage management systems are some of the activities we do. We have been working at Somawthie Temple/National Park. One can see food begging elephants – not an acceptable behavior for wildlife – in Somawathiya, and they definitely feed at garbage dumps around.
Conservation doesn’t always need big money. Small yet well-planned budgets can fill the gaps of conservation needs in the country. Elemotion is happy to be a support in this regard.
What kind of policy changes are needed immediately to address better management of wildlife habitats?
Sri Lanka embraces policies of many types, some not so practical. Policy implementation is the biggest challenge. I would like to see the land policy being revisited. Encroaching wildlife habitats has been augmented during the last decade and ownership ambiguity gives way to easy land grabbing by anybody. For example, custodians of Devale in the country would sell, or lease on long-term basis, acres of prime wildlife habitats to private owners and companies pushing the wildlife in there towards danger. Similarly, Crown Lands too are misused often. It is rarely questioned about legal status of lands versus abundance and importance of natural resources of the property when the proposed development efforts are too powerful. Large-scale land encroachment is usually powered by politics.
It is time Sri Lanka reviewed land ownership of every square kilometer of the country while re-defining the legal rights of land owners of each category in relation to development and sustenance of wildlife habitats.
Any final comments you would like to add?
Life today is too complicated. That is not healthy, definitely not for the environment. Every breath we take reminds us of the limited resources on the planet earth. It is everyone’s responsibility to wisely use and spare nature’s wealth. Living a simple, compassionate life will ease the human burden on it.
Nature teaches us a lot about existence of life. Religious extremism is detrimental to the earth, just as evil as habitat destruction. Nature doesn’t discriminate – no bias towards skin color, language, religion, and power, not towards any attribute. I think that is a good ‘religion’ to consider.
Date of Interview: 31 July 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage