KONWEVA, Sri Lanka, Aug 4, 2010 (IPS) – Dusk creeps over Konweva like a black shroud slowly draping over the village. The edges of its paddy fields, where the agricultural plains meet the surrounding thick shrubs, are first to be blanketed in the darkness. Already, there are signs that the night will not be peaceful.
Villagers in Konweva, located in north-western Kurunegala district some 150 kilometres from the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, eye one another anxiously as loud booms are heard across the fields. “They have begun to move,” Immihami Mudiyanse, a farmer, warns in hushed tones.
From the edge of an abandoned paddy field, we keep a watchful eye out for them – marauding elephants that have been wandering from their jungle habitat and wreaking havoc in the village.
Suddenly, Shanika Ekenayaka, one among the group keeping vigil that night, gestures urgently toward a spot in the horizon where the field ends and the jungle begins. A large shadow emerges nonchalantly from the shrubs and lumbers leisurely across the deserted field – oblivious to the loud firecrackers that go off intermittently, somewhere over the ridge of the jungle. A group of us squats just 500 metres away – the beast knows we are there, but does not care.
In stark contrast, we are visibly more nervous. Mesmerised by the magnificent figure in front of us, our heads twitch toward the jungle to our left every 10 seconds or so, cautious not to be caught off-guard by other rampaging elephants that could be heading straight toward us. “That wouldn’t be very good, would it?” Ekenayaka asks, rhetorically.
After 20 gut-wrenching minutes, the animal completes its amble across the field, and disappears as it appeared – merging into the darkness behind a dirt road. “Tonight there will be no sleep,” Mudiyanse says, as he heads back to his paddy fields to keep a night of vigil.
The hide-and-seek battle between the villagers and the elephants here is a common, but deadly, ritual. And Konweva is but one location where this deadly game is being played out.
According to government official Archchilage Weerasinghe, some 283 hectares of land have been cultivated in the Konweva area for paddy. But the elephants have impeded further development. “We don’t plant in an area of about 350 acres (142 hectares) because of elephants,” Weerasinghe says.
The elephants cross the paddy fields at will and trample the crops, villagers complain. Weerasinghe gave IPS a tour of some agricultural areas where the animals had roamed the week before. From a distance, it looked like the aftermath of a meteorite storm. The elephants have also destroyed hundreds of coconut trees lining the village, he explains.
It does not help that villagers are not entitled to compensation for damages to crops caused by the elephants if their fields are on government-owned land, which locals often use without permits.
In short, residents here say, elephants are far from the adorable creatures seen on television.
In July, a villager was trampled to death, and his wife injured, in an elephant attack. According to Weerasinghe, at least three villagers have been killed by elephants in the past year. In Sri Lanka, some 228 elephants and 50 humans were killed in human-elephant confrontations in 2009, say government reports.
“The government gives us crackers to light when they come, but they are of no use,” Weerasinghe laments. Each farmer receives four firecrackers a month, “not enough, not enough for even a day,” he says.
Some experts, like Jayantha Jayewardene of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, believe the elephants might have wandered into villages here because they prefer secondary- growth forests, or those in the process of re-growth after having been used for agriculture or logging.
The abundance of food in villages like Konweva, where paddy harvests can remain stored inside residents’ homes for months, also provides incentive for the elephants to venture into these homes.
In fact, the elephants have shown a penchant for paddy that is at a particular age, “not young, but not mature enough for harvest,” says Deepani Kumudini, a Konweva resident. To keep the roaming herds from pillaging their produce, farmers are forced to harvest crops before they reach maturity.
Jayewardene suggests a possible solution: building electric fences to keep the animals out – a method that is used extensively here in Sri Lanka. But there could be far- reaching consequences. “One thing to bear in mind is that fencing can confine elephants to a small area and lead to starvation among the animals, especially when food is scarce during times like drought,” Jayewardene explains.
While experts encourage farmers to be more vigilant in watching over their crops, villagers argue that the extra effort results in excruciatingly low returns on investment from paddy cultivation.
In one case, 14 guards had to be employed on elephant watch, stationed in seven huts erected around a 1.6-hectare paddy field. “The labour cost, the time all put together, this is not worth it,” says Weerasinghe. To add to the farmers’ woes, paddy prices have fallen recently.
The villagers are adamant that the elephants are not native to the area: they were not seen here until some 20 years ago, they say. Some believe the first elephants were sighted in Konweva in March 1992 after the herds were forced to flee jungles in the north-east when Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict erupted into an all-out war.
Wherever the elephants came from, villagers want them out – but that is unlikely to happen. For now, there is no solution in sight to make peace between human and beast, so the nightly ritual of elephant patrols by Konweva villagers continues.
* Story by Amantha Perera. This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Bioversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (http://www.complusalliance.org).