Sri Lanka has a complicated relationship with elephants. The completion of the country’s first expressway was recently celebrated by marching a herd of elephants down the new road. Elephants are protected by law in Sri Lanka and revered by both Hindu and Buddhist faiths. But just like in parts of India, where elephants and people metaphorically step on each other’s toes, Sri Lanka also has an “elephant problem”.

But let’s be real here – what is often referred to as an elephant problem is really a human problem. Humans multiply, develop, build, farm and generally consume a lot of resources. Granted, elephants eat a lot too – they are big creatures that require up to 150 kg of vegetation every day. That means they need a certain amount of natural habitat to graze. When people cut down that habitat and build a farm or a city or whatever, sometimes the elephants eat their crops and cause a nuisance. Some even kill people. But more elephants – at least twice as many last year in Sri Lanka – are deliberately killed by people.

(READ MORE: India: Elephants vs. people?)

Pinnawela Elephant orphanage/sanctuary, Sri Lanka. Pic: Malcolm Browne (Flickr CC)

An Indian wildlife expert has suggested that Sri Lanka is too densely populated to support a large elephant population and that in certain areas elephants should be culled in order to resolve the conflict between elephants and humans as well as – bizarrely – aid in the conservation of elephant populations in less stressed areas of the island. Some local elephant experts disagree, offering other methods for dealing with the elephant problem.

From an opinion piece in The Island newspaper: 

We live in a world overpopulated with humans, where human food crops are far more attractive to elephants than the natural vegetation in their habitats. Electric fences can protect both humans and elephants from conflict. But in Sri Lanka, there is a need to reassess the haphazard way in which electric fences have been established across the range of elephants without regard to their movement patterns. Electric fences, if properly constructed and maintained, can certainly prevent the movement of elephants into agricultural areas. Instead of killing elephants, some of them can be captured and trained for use in wildlife management (anti-poaching operations), nature tourism (elephant-back safaris), in forestry operations (logging in forest plantations) and if funds are available, the pocketed elephants can be captured and relocated to other Range States so that they can still live in the wild, and a few could even be maintained in well managed zoological gardens and safari parks. Thus culling of elephants is not an option in Sri Lanka.

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Pic: Terry Feuerborn (Flickr CC)

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, an entirely different kind of elephant problem has cropped up – poisoning by poaching. During the past month poachers have used cyanide to poison over 100 elephants to death. This spike in elephant deaths, facilitated by the new devious method of poisoning, is the direct result of high demand for ivory and elephant parts in the Far and Middle East.

From AFP:

Elephant tusks and other body parts are prized in Asia and the Middle East for ornaments, as talismans, and for use in traditional medicine. The international trade in ivory, with rare exceptions, has been outlawed since 1989 after the population of African elephants dropped from millions in the mid-20th century to just 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.

I wouldn’t suggest something so reckless and ill considered as shipping Sri Lanka’s “extra” elephants to Zimbabwe where they’d probably be killed anyway. (Not that anyone is suggesting that, by the way). I am suggesting that humanity would do well to not simply consider every animal as either a resource to be exploited or an enemy to do battle with, but rather something to revere, respect and coexist with – like the people of Sri Lanka have generally done for thousands of years.