Sri Lanka has recently shaken off the shackles of civil war, however, there is a new struggle brewing in the rural hillsides and forests of the island. Ravi Corea is founder and president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), and his aim is to renegotiate the relationship between sustainable conservation and economic development.
One of his projects focuses on the mitigation between humans and elephants. The elephant has played a significant role in Sri Lankan society for over a millennia. But population growth, and human activities like farming and construction erode the ancient forests, decreasing the area in which elephants can safely live. As a result, wild elephants and humans clash violently, to the detriment of the elephant population. According to the SLWCS, the population of Sri Lankan elephants has dropped from about 20,000 to about 4,000 in the last one hundred years.
“The significance of the elephant is not unique to any one community but to all Sri Lankans,” Corea said. “This is because of the nearly 5,000 year old association it had with the people of Sri Lanka and the fact that it is a living cultural and religious icon…it is a paradox: the elephant is venerated as a god and respected as cultural icon while at the same time it’s treated as a rogue that comes in the night and destroys lives, property and crops.”
The complex relationship between people and elephants is exacerbated by the poverty endured by some communities, who rely on their farms to survive. It is also worsened by the lack of action from local authorities and the Sri Lankan government. When asked about the challenges he and his organization face, Corea admits it is not easy.
“It is an uphill task to implement some of our projects… mainly because of…political corruption and the vindictive and obstructive attitudes of officials in government agencies whose permission we need to establish our projects and programs,” Corea said. “These people have managed to… obstruct organizations like the SLWCS from implementing progressive projects for wildlife conservation and research.”
The SLWCS has, however, been able to develop an elephant sanctuary which provides veterinary care and retirement for captive elephants, while also promoting elephant friendly tourism. Corea speaks of the booming tourism industry in Sri Lanka, where in many cases elephants are kept in chains so they may entertain tourists who wish to experience these magnificent creatures. “It is the captive elephants that are mostly impacted by the dark side of tourism,” Corea said.
“Fortunately there is an increase in global awareness and recently several reputable international travel and tour companies have denounced certain activities such as elephant riding by not offering them in their itineraries,” Corea said. He stresses the importance of vigilance when visiting so called “elephant sanctuaries”, to impede the commodification of wild elephants. “For these elephants nothing has changed, because for all of the false pretence of a good life and freedom, they are still shackled by chains.”
Despite the struggles, his team has soldiered on with their mission to protect wild elephants. The SLWCS has helped build electric fences to help keep elephants off agricultural land. Project Orange Elephant is another example of progress. Elephants do not like citrus fruit, so by helping farmers plant citrus trees around their crops, they create an elephant deterrent. This not only protects their existing crops, but also provides farmers with another source of income. Corea and his team remain hopeful for the future and beleive with increased education and awareness, the plight of the Sri Lankan elephant can be diminished.
This article was first published in PWB Magazine #8, on sale now.