AS TROPICAL DUSK turns into a night outside Galgamuwa, the fireflies are not the only points of light around the small rice field of Lalith, the last field of the valley awaiting harvest. On one side, bonfires blaze in the fields of the neighbors. On the other, Lalith’s nephew shines a torch in one of the impressive treehouses that dot this part of the country. And in the middle of his paddy, sitting around embers that boil a kettle, Lalith and his friends play a furious card game that looks like whist.
Two dozen men help in all: it’s Lalith’s watch against elephants coming out of the forest at night. Growing rice is like making dinner. A herd of cows and their calves can lose a year of livelihood in minutes.
Sri Lankans’ relationship with wild elephants is as old as it is complex. Curiously biddable and formidable in wartime, animals were of great value to the Sinhalese kings, who used them to build imposing monuments. The Portuguese brought the first Sri Lankan elephant to Europe: fed on cake, he died of dyspepsia and is resting in the Vatican Gardens. British settlers used elephants to clear the forest for their tea plantations.
As John Gimlette, a writer on Sri Lanka, says, elephants were used as tractors, limousines, warhorses and executioners. Today, very few remain slaves, but more than 6,000 wild animals roam the countryside. There, the “human-elephant conflict” has always been a problem. Humans have been hunting elephants for as long as they grow crops; elephants have long flattened both. So how do you explain an alarming increase in human-elephant collisions in the past two years? Until recently, 200 to 250 elephants died every year at the hands of humans. But in 2018, the balance rose to 319, and to 386 last year. Over the same period, human deaths have risen sharply, to 114 last year.
Prithiviraj Fernando, who heads the Center for Conservation and Research (CCR), says that it is the harmful consequence of a kind of arms race. Finding that the increasingly fearless elephants could not be hunted with cries or stones, the villagers have used in recent years huge firecrackers, subsidized by the government, which sound like exploding bombs. Elephants have learned to ignore them. They take care of electric fences by uprooting trees, for example, and dropping them on cables. Some villagers who break the law pepper the animals with bullets, set snares to catch the trunks or legs, or plant explosives in pumpkins that twist the animals’ mouths and cause horrible starvation deaths.
Just last week, in another area near Galgamuwa, a villager set up a fence for electricity, killing a bull. Meanwhile, under the leadership of a recent minister, Sarath Fonseka, the Department of Wildlife Conservation began calling for more guns to hunt elephants. Marshal Fonseka found a similar approach effective against humans when he commanded the Sri Lankan army during the brutal civil war that ended in 2009.
Peppery, mocked and mutilated, the elephants have unsurprisingly become more aggressive, more ready to charge when threatened than to flee. The resettlement of peccant pachyderms in national parks, another popular strategy among politicians, is also ineffective. Elephants, as Mr. Fernando says, do not recognize the boundaries of the park. They sometimes travel hundreds of kilometers to return to their area of origin.
The persecution has been disastrous for both species. Obviously, something must be done. In just under half of Sri Lanka, elephants and people live next to each other. Meanwhile, forest fragmentation and development are hampering the alimankada, the elephantine paths which cross the island and which the animals insist on following.
Permanent electric fences around national parks and fields are of no use to humans or animals. CCRThe solution is to protect the colonies but to fence the fields only during the growing season. After the harvest, the land is reserved for elephants. Around Galgamuwa, villagers have long been receptive to a more flexible approach, even if politicians do not see what it means to them.
The animals seem to appreciate a kind touch. In the middle of his paddy, Lalith and his neighbors demonstrate their technique, transmitted for generations. They sing to the animals: “Go away, little babies, go away. But once we have gathered the harvest, everything we leave is yours. “How the hell, asks Banyan, can it work? It’s just the case,” replies Lalith. “After all, he adds,” We’re still here, just like the elephants. “
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “The sound of trumpets”