Sri Lanka's New Flashpoint for Human-Elephant Conflict

Conservationists are up in arms over what they consider a potential threat to endangered Asian elephants from a banana plantation bordering a Sri Lankan national park and activities in the park.

Dole Food Company and a local partner, Letsgrow, recently established the plantation on 2200 acres of scrubland near Kandakadu, a town on the edge of Somawathiya National Park in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged North Central Province. Conservationists claim that as much as half of the plantation's land is protected forest—a claim that Dole denies.

Separately, conservation groups contend that the Sri Lanka Army is clearing swaths of land inside Somawathiya, which it has controlled since the end of Sri Lanka's long civil war in 2009. The army, swollen from the protracted war and interested in profitable peacetime activities, recently announced a foray into industrial farming in northern Sri Lanka. Press reports allege that thousands of acres of land in Somawathiya are marked for clearance as part of that venture.

The army's maneuvers and the plantation are almost certain to harm elephants living in and around the park and exacerbate human-elephant conflict, say environmentalists and biologists. But to what degree is difficult to say, as even biologists who work closely with Sri Lanka's elephant population have not attempted to visit the park.

Northern Sri Lanka was the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. Tens of thousands of inhabitants fled the region during the civil war, leaving behind houses and fields that gave way to regenerated scrubland. Civilians are returning, but the area is riddled with landmines and largely under military control. "The army has stopped wildlife officials who have gone there to see what is happening," says Vimukthi Weeratunga, operations director for Environmental Foundation Limited in Colombo. Word of the land clearances has leaked out through laborers employed on the farms, conservationists say.

Dole contends that the army, which partners with Letsgrow on its agricultural ventures, granted the local company rights to the Kandakadu land. But conservationists insist that the army does not actually own the land, and that part of the plantation belongs to the government's National Livestock Development Board, which once managed farms throughout northern Sri Lanka that were abandoned during the war. They claim that neither Dole nor Letsgrow carried out a required environmental impact assessment. Sri Lankan law dictates that land within 1 mile of a national park can be cultivated only after completion of such an assessment, says environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena.

Marty Ordman, a spokesperson for Dole, says that the Kandakadu farm is in compliance with company environmental standards.

Another bone of contention is how the plantation and land clearance in Somawathiya will affect elephants. While accurate estimates of elephant numbers in Sri Lanka are difficult to come by, Weeratunga estimates that at least 300 to 400 individuals live in the Somawathiya region. Villagers report that there is a herd of 20 to 25 elephants residing around Kandakadu, says Gayan Pradeep Wijethunga, assistant program manager for Green Movement in Nugegoda, Sri Lanka.

Ordman asserts that elephants are "not very common" in the area around Dole's plantation. While farm employees are trained in how to deal with an elephant attack, he says that the probability of such an attack or encounter in the Kandakadu area is low. As a result, Ordman says, there is no electric fence surrounding the farm to prevent elephants from entering the plantation.

Still, the area may be prime elephant stomping grounds, warns biologist Prithiviraj Fernando, head of the Centre for Conservation and Research in Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka. "Regenerating scrub vegetation is optimal elephant habitat," he says. Lands surrounding national parks are generally important to any elephants residing inside those parks, explains Shermin de Silva, director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in southern Sri Lanka: "Large animals need a large area to roam in," she says. "They don't just stay where people say it's OK for them to be. It doesn't quite work that way."