Sri Lanka is home to approximately 4500 wild Asian elephants. However, with a steadily expanding human population and the associated, relentless need for more land, forest habitats are diminishing and becoming increasingly fragmented.
As a result, elephants are venturing into cultivated areas more frequently in search of food. Incidents of crop and village raiding are becoming increasingly common, which inevitably places humans and elephants in direct conflict.
Elephant raids can destroy a farmer’s livelihood in a very short time and put human lives at risk. Unsurprisingly, villagers and farmers will do all they can to try and defend their families, homes and crops.
Sadly, human-elephant conflicts currently result in about 65 human and 150 elephant deaths each year. Furthermore, the frequency of such conflicts is rising in many rural areas adjacent to elephant habitat.
Although elephants have long been of significant social and cultural importance, the current situation is catalysing fear and animosity towards them.
This ongoing human-elephant conflict problem, combined with a continued decline in available habitat means that Sri Lanka’s elephant population is now under serious threat.
Involving local people in elephant conservation initiatives is essential. Therefore, the need to reverse negative attitudes and foster a greater sense of empathy towards elephants has been identified as one of the key conservation priorities required to ensure their future survival.
Auckland Zoo’s Elephant Team Leader, Andrew Coers, travelled to Sri Lanka to meet with elephant conservation experts, discuss current elephant conservation programmes and find out how Auckland Zoo could help.
As a result of Andrew’s visit, Auckland Zoo proudly collaborates with the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust (BECT) to support their Schools Awareness Programme.
The BECT is a non-profit organisation, established in 1998, which recognises the importance of dealing with the social issues of human-elephant conflict in order to facilitate the conservation of elephants.
The BECT’s School Awareness Programme operates in the rural districts of Sri Lanka, where there are frequent incidents of human-elephant conflict. By educating children, the programme aims to gradually reduce fear, engender positive, sympathetic attitudes towards elephants, and create a greater conservation consciousness throughout local communities.
The programme delivers half-day workshop sessions to schools with experts providing interactive lectures and presentations on the value of elephants; their biology and ecology; their importance in religion and culture; how and why human-elephant conflicts occur; how conflicts can be minimised and the need to conserve elephants.
Ultimately, as younger generations become more knowledgeable and understanding of the complex and fragile situation, it is more likely they will take positive actions to ensure elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully.
Over the last nine years, the BECT has taken its Schools Awareness Programme to over 1300 schools, reaching out to an incredible 90,000 children.
With Auckland Zoo’s support, the BECT is taking the Schools Awareness Programme to an additional 50 schools during the next year, thereby influencing a further 3000 children.