Virus gives Sri Lanka’s threatened elephants a reprieve

COLOMBO, August 15 ------ Sri Lanka’s coronavirus lockdown has helped reduce the death toll from clashes between elephants and humans, conservationists have said. A record 405 elephants were killed by humans in the country last year, up from about 360 in 2018. A total of 121 people were killed by elephants, up from 96 the year before, according to government data. Speaking ahead of World Elephant Day on Wednesday, Jayantha Jayewardene, a leading international expert on elephants, said: “We can say that the human-elephant conflict eased during curfews.

“But this is a temporary situation. Farmers will start defending their crops and the killings will resume.” Most of the killed elephants are shot dead or poisoned by farmers trying to keep them off their land. The beasts are considered sacred in the majority-Buddhist island and are protected, but prosecutions are rare. Most of the humans are killed by elephants who have seen their habitat drastically reduced, rampaging in villages looking for food.

Sumith Pilapitiya, a conservationist and former director-general of the government’s wildlife department, estimated that the number of elephant deaths decreased by 40 percent during the coronavirus lockdown, which started in March and officially ended in June. Pilapitiya said an average of 240 elephants were killed annually between 2010 and 2017 and the rate had accelerated since.

Pilapitiya told AFP: “The Asian elephant is classified as ‘endangered’, so we cannot afford to lose elephants at that rate.” He expressed hope that a “significant reduction” during the shutdown – which included nationwide stay-at-home orders, with people only allowed out to buy essentials – would bring down the overall toll for the year. Sri Lanka’s elephant population has declined to about 7,000 according to the latest census, down from 12,000 in the early 1900s.