An Echelon Media Company
Tuesday September 26th, 2023

Jumbo Justice?

Sri Lanka may well be the world capital for the human-elephant conflict (HEC). It boasts the highest elephant density in Asia, trailing only Zimbabwe and Botswana worldwide, and ranks comparably to those two African nations in elephant/human ratio. Sri Lanka meanwhile harbours a quick-growing human population, 80% of which still lives off the land.

HEC sharpens as marginal farmers encroach on elephant habitat like forest edges. Hungry and sometimes angry elephants consume or trample valuable crops, raid stored harvests and destroy dwellings. They kill some 70 Sri Lankans every year, while enraged Sri Lankans kill some 200 elephants annually-mostly by gunshot-from a total population of around 6000. This is depressing in a land where admiration for elephants has long been a cultural polestar. For decades, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has purported to manage HEC through a single simple strategy: fence the elephants into reserves and national parks, separate from human livelihood pursuits.

There are two problems. First, getting most elephants into protected zones is unrealistic. Some 70 % currently live outside of reserves. New transports to reserves doggedly seek escape. One bull, trucked from his home in a Hambantota city dump to Yala national park, escaped cleverly and bee-lined fifty kilometers through paddy field and village back to his dumpy home within days. He happened to be wearing a tracking device, as scientists watched in wonder. A dozen of his trans-located companions soon rejoined him in scrounging the dump’s veggie leftovers.

Second, reserve boundaries do not—and probably could never—correspond with elephant feeding and socializing ranges.

Fences cut family members off from one another- a serious if unintended cruelty-plus they crowd protected zones beyond carrying capacity and restrict access to vegetation elephants need to consume prodigiously on a daily basis in order to maintain health. Hungry elephants gaze across electric fences at yummy food they cannot reach. At Yala, elephants have been trending skinny for a decade or so after major fencing, while evidence suggests rising illness and death among malnourished elderly and young. With the elderly, this means premature loss of valuable learning. With the young, it means a looming threat of dwindling populations due to breeding shortfalls: this within a premier and picturesque elephant ‘sanctuary.’

Focus groups with affected farmers reveal that they would feel far less stressed if they could get compensated for lost crops. It seems unlikely, however, that private insurance can provide a solution. Farmers in elephant zones face such high risk of loss that premiums charged would be nearly as high as the losses themselves. Farmers would never buy insurance costing as much as the losses against which they are insuring. Any compensation system would therefore have to come from government. Issues surface there too, however. Proper proof of loss requires tedious investigation: was it really crows that ate the crop, followed by human trampling to finger elephants as the culprits?

More, insurance always raises the spectre of ‘moral hazard’: carelessness because losses will be compensated. Insured farmers may fail to take available steps against jumbo incursion and may even encroach recklessly on habitats.Having examined the pros and cons of numerous approaches, elephant scientist Dr. Pruthu Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research concludes that the best solution by far is fences. But he wants to fence elephants out, not in. Electric fences around paddy fields and villages, he contends, will exclude most depredations at acceptable (though hardly negligible) cost.

Elephants get an unpleasant but non-dangerous shock when they nudge such fences. Fences can be taken down after harvest, so elephant range is preserved, at least in the off-season. Elephants thrive on vegetation that sprouts in paddy fields post-harvest.

Community difficulties may lie, however, in deciding how much fencing should be bought, where it should be sited, who should pay how much for it and who should spend how much time maintaining it. Fencing has aspects of a ‘collective good’: everyone benefits once it is installed and more benefit to one does not mean reduced benefit to others.

Classically, collective goods should be paid for by the entire collective-all benefit so all should share costs-but in this case some may benefit more than others depending on how much land they own and where, how much fence protection they get, how much money they are required to chip in and how much time they are required to spend on maintenance. Sorting out these distributional issues could paralyze communities into inaction on something clearly beneficial to all.

Distributional issues within elephant-affected communities lose their edge if the cost of fencing is subsidized from outside, lowering the stakes for everyone directly affected. DWC has taken some preliminary steps into government-subsidized fencing in select locations. Total subsidy is unwise because villagers will probably fail to maintain fences that cost them nothing to install. Of course, government- subsidized fencing on a large scale would impose costs on all tax-paying Sri Lankans.

Why should town-dwellers-not all of them rich-pay to insure the livelihoods of forest-edge farmers? Because an elephant-filled island is a ‘collective good,’ benefitting all Sri Lankans spiritually, if not materially? How do we judge the truth of that?

From the Echelon Archives.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives in Pelawatte with his Sri Lankan/American family. Aside from his studies in wildlife and political economy, he consults on legal and technical writing challenges

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