I never thought too much about elephants until I visited Sri Lanka. Like I never thought I’d meet up with a wild one when I was just driving down a road. But on my second day in the country that’s just what happened and it gave my driver a fright. He said elephants are “very dangerous”, that they can run very fast and will charge you.
I knew there were elephants in Sri Lanka’s national parks but I somehow thought they stayed within the boundaries but that isn’t so. This is a relatively small island and there are about 20 million people here along with 4000 elephants so it’s a little crowded. Elephants need lots of living space and tons of food.
Before I came here I associated elephants with African safaris or with my daughter’s ‘Save the elephant’ campaigns that she started when she was a kid. Her whole bedroom was filled with images of rather friendly-looking elephants.
So it was a bit of a surprise to learn that elephants are not necessarily cuddly. It seems they kill more than 50 people in Sri Lanka every year (and at least double that number of elephants also get killed; the NGOs call it human-elephant conflict.)
My elephant encounter was outside Minneriya National Park at the time of year when there are few elephants about. Later on, when sources of water dry up, about 150 elephants congregate around the enormous irrigation tank that you can see from the road.
Village life here revolves around agriculture and elephants prefer the kinds of crops that farmers grow. In a single night an elephant can do a lot of damage. There are electric fences that zap the animals if they cross the park’s boundaries but fences don’t seem to be much of a deterrent for, according to my driver, villagers won’t walk along the roads outside the fence from dusk to dawn for fear they will come upon one.
Some farmers actually grow crops inside the park. That’s because they don’t own land so must depend on what little space they can carve out of the jungle. It’s called ‘slash and burn’ farming and it’s a tough way to make a living because they must depend on rainwater alone.
Their elephant warning system are tin cans tied to wooden barriers and tree branches. They keep watch all night, suspended high in a tree in a makeshift hut, climbing down a rickety ladder from time to time to feed the bonfires, making lots of noise if any nocturnal intruders come along.
In 1904, Leonard Woolf (aka the husband of Virginia Woolf) went to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) to work for the British colonial government and wrote the novel The Village in the Jungle based on that experience. In it he describes the solitary elephant “whom all of you really fear” as an animal that even “the Lord Buddha himself would be powerless against”. Farmers back then, he wrote, had to “lay out all night in the watch huts” to scare them away. So little has changed in 100 years.
A couple of weeks later, this time in northern India, my taxi to the airport joined a caravan of vehicles with an armed jeep in the lead. It was nightfall, the time when wild elephants come out on the road. Elephants had recently killed 11 drivers along this route. So like the indigent farmers in Sri Lanka, I became a night watcher.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013