Why Are Sri Lanka Elephants Dying at Record Rates?

An unnoticed human-elephant conflict is developing in Sri Lanka. Last year set grim records, with over 640 elephant and human deaths from clashes between the species. The rising body count signals the devastating consequences of habitat loss and encroachment in one of Asia’s most densely populated countries.

As expanding farms and settlements squeeze Sri Lankan elephants into forest fragments, hungry elephant herds are raiding crops and attacking villagers. Retaliatory killings by communities are also soaring. The elephants’ traditional migratory corridors no longer work, forcing the giants into deadly proximity to humans. Conservationists are urging urgent government action before the situation escalates further.

Sri Lanka Elephants and a Widow’s Tragic Tale

An elephant is dying every day | Credit: Mongababy

Sumitra Malkandi breaks down as she recounts the fateful evening in March last year when her husband was trampled to death. She was busy in the kitchen – the couple lived in a farming village in central Sri Lanka – and her husband, Thilak Kumara, was just outside feeding their cows. Then she heard an elephant’s trumpeting roar. She said she was about to alert him, but “within minutes, the worst happened”. The elephant ran away after hearing the appalled cries of villagers. (Story Credit: BBC)

Mrs. Malkandi, a 45-year-old mother of three young daughters, said her family is yet to recover from the shock. She worries it could happen again. Surrounded by coconut, mango, and banana trees, which elephants love to feast on, her house is nestled on a farm just a few hundred meters from a dense forest. Her village, Thalgaswewa in Kurunegala district, now finds itself on the frontlines of a worsening conflict between humans and elephants.

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Mr. Kumara is one of 176 people who died in encounters with elephants in Sri Lanka last year. During the same period, 470 elephants died – half of them at the hands of humans, while the rest were killed by illness or in accidents. On average, that means more than one elephant died each day of the year, while a human was killed every two days.

As farming expands, it is encroaching on elephant habitats, disrupting their food and water sources, and putting people’s lives in danger. “All the food crops we cultivate are very attractive to them,” explains Prithiviraj Fernando, Sri Lanka’s foremost elephant expert. But it is also making the future of Sri Lanka’s iconic elephants look precarious, with the latest figures showing a record number of deaths in 2022.

A Deepening Conflict

For centuries, elephants and humans have coexisted in Sri Lanka. But in recent decades, the balance has shifted dramatically. The human population has doubled over the past 40 years, reaching 22 million as of 2024. As villages expand into the wilderness, encounters between people and elephants have intensified.

“With escalating human population, elephants are restricted to small pockets of forests unable to support their numbers,” says Sumith Pilapitiya, a leading environmental lawyer. “And the resulting competition for resources is proving deadly for both sides.”

Wild elephants need extensive territories to forage for the 200-300 kg of vegetation they consume daily. But Sri Lanka has one of the lowest ratios of forest cover in Asia – just 16.5% of its land area. This leaves elephants corralled in small groups and constantly on the move between forest patches.

Credit: Kuwait Times

“When elephants can’t get enough food in forests, they start raiding crops,” explains Mr. Fernando. Fields of rice, bananas, sugarcane, and home gardens make tempting, easy meals.

A single wild elephant can devastate a small farm in a matter of hours. Poor rural communities, who rely on small-scale agriculture, suffer heavy losses and retaliate against the elephants. Shooting, poisoning, electrocuting, and explosive devices are rampantly used, conservationists say.

Meanwhile, the loss of habitat has also increased elephant attacks on people. Hungry elephants guarding a fruiting tree are more likely to charge. A cramped living space raises social stress among elephants, making the males more aggressive.

A Cruel Status Quo

Elephant calves are also paying the price. Between 2011 and 2020, 188 elephant calves were killed – more than 75% of them less than 1 year old. Some are caught up in snares meant for adult elephants. Others are separated from their mothers during clashes with villagers and become dehydrated or malnourished.

“Treating the adult deaths as just statistics masks the deeper tragedy,” says Mr. Fernando. “Each death also impacts elephant social groups and prevents reproduction for many years.”

Yet, the government response remains reactive and inadequate, say experts. Farmers get some compensation for crop losses. Limited funds are allocated to erect electric fences around farms and digging trenches. But none of this addresses the root causes.

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“We need proactive land use planning where the forest connectivity and elephant pathways are integrated before permitting any projects,” emphasizes Mr. Pilapitiya.

For instance, the government recently approved a 6000-acre sugar cane farm in elephant habitat in Eastern Province. This will “spell disaster” for both elephants and local communities, he warns.

Better protection for migratory corridors and forest connectivity could reduce conflicts. Strict enforcement against poachers and explosives is also essential.

Compassionate Coexistence

Photo by Neshin Nelson

But given limited conservation budgets, Mr. Fernando stresses that “tolerance and coexistence are key”. He points to examples of villagers actively protecting neighboring elephant herds by tracking their movements and alerting others.

Some communities are also trying novel strategies like hanging bee hives along farm boundaries. Elephants detest bee stings so avoid these areas. Mixing cash crops like coffee or oranges along with rice cultivation minimizes losses when elephants raid fields.

Simple precautions also save lives. Throwing small firecrackers, shining torchlights, or waving a white cloth to warn elephants away from their homes gently. Clearing shrubs around houses remove hiding spots.

“If we cultivate a culture of respect towards elephants, it will inspire protection,” says Mr. Fernando.

The sentient beings we share this island home with deserve our empathy. Like Ms. Malkandi pleaded: “I don’t want my tragedy to befall anyone else. Elephants are not our enemies.” With wisdom and foresight, humans must pave the way for a compassionate coexistence.


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