Sri Lankan Farmers Have an Ingenious Way to Deter Wild Elephants

©. Graeme (used with permission)

It involves planting another surprising crop.

Sri Lankans have a complicated relationship with the majestic wild elephants that roam their island. The animals are viewed as a national and religious symbol, but for subsistence farmers living in rural areas, the arrival of an elephant can spell devastation. It takes an elephant mere minutes to undo months of careful farming and inflict hunger onto an already poor family.

Human-elephant conflict results when farmers defend their crops from the elephants, who are also trying to fulfill their daily need for 300 kilograms of grass and other plant matter (in addition to 150 litres of water). They love rice and, if hungry enough, can break through brick walls to get at it. This "war for food," as Chinthaka Weerasinghe calls it, results in approximately 70-80 people and 225 elephants dying annually.

The problem has grown since the 1970s, when the Sri Lankan government offered subsidies for people to move into rural areas to expand rice production. Elephants were pushed back into national parks and the human settlements were cordoned off with electric fences. But elephants are smart and, lured by the abundant crops and familiar paths, grew adept at testing fences to pass through the non-electrified parts.

treehouse

© Peter Shelper (used with permission) – A view of a typical treehouse in which a farmer would sit at night to protect rice paddies from rogue elephants.

Farmers relied on government-issued fire crackers to scare them off, but eventually resorted to homemade bombs, built by stuffing pumpkins with explosives and planting them on the well-trodden elephant path. This resulted in injuries horrific enough to kill, but not so quickly that an elephant couldn't run off a farmer's land. Nobody wants to get caught with a dead elephant, as it's illegal to hunt them.

Weerasinghe works for the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) in the Wasgamuwa region of central Sri Lanka. He is part of a research team that's working to reduce human-elephant conflict and I met him this past December when he led a tour of Project Orange Elephant, one of SLWCS' more ingenious endeavors that's sponsored in part by Intrepid Travel, the sustainable tourism company that invited me to Sri Lanka.

Project Orange Elephant office

© K Martinko – C. Weerasinghe steps out of the Project Orange Elephant office

Elephants do not like citrus of any kind. They will not approach a home or garden, no matter how food-filled it is, if it means passing through a row of citrus trees. So Project Orange Elephant's goal is to get as many local farmers as possible to plant orange trees around their home gardens to create a soft buffer and deter invading elephants.

Since its inception in 2006, 17,500 orange trees have been planted and the goal is to reach 50,000 by 2025. By then, Project Orange Elephant hopes to have attracted international investors to build an orange juice factory in Sri Lanka to process all these 'elephant-safe oranges' and raise more money for the project. Currently they are sold to a national supermarket chain and provide a decent second income to farmers. Despite being backed by SLWCS, a government agency, the project receives no federal funding and relies entirely on donations and fees paid by volunteers. (You can find out about volunteer opportunities here.)

little orange trees

© K Martinko – Newly planted orange trees dot the yard of this subsistence farm.

Weerasinghe explained the project to us visitors at the office, then we visited a farm nearby to see where orange trees have been planted among the corn stalks. Afterward we headed into the national park to look for the rogue males who cause so much trouble. (Elephant herds are led by a matriarch, who typically keeps them away from human settlements, understanding them to be dangerous.) We found one munching industriously on grass and he looked at us innocently.

Project Orange Elephant is a success story in a country that has been afflicted by extreme violence over the past half-century. It's hopeful to see how a solution as simple as planting trees can accomplish so much. There's more information on the website here, as well as on SLWCS' active Facebook page.

The author was a guest of Intrepid Travel while in Sri Lanka. There was no obligation to write this article.