How To Live With Elephants In The Backyard


Elizabeth Oriel is a writer and researcher based at Aarhus University in Denmark. Her work examines how humans are social with plants and other animals.

Author’s Note

In 2018 and 2019, I lived in Sri Lanka while conducting fieldwork for my PhD at the University of London. I was studying human-elephant conflict. Though this conflict is an ancient one, in recent decades, it has gotten tenser. Elephants are eating and damaging crops at higher rates. Though it is illegal to harm an elephant and doing so can also upset a tacit code of interspecies conduct, farmers sometimes retaliate.

Over the course of my research, I interviewed farmers, government officials, economists, guides and others near Uda Walawe National Park in the south and Knuckles Conservation Forest in the central region. Here I present their stories exactly as they were told to me, with some light editing for clarity and anonymity. Contextual information has been added in footnotes and in the blue-gray boxes. This format, inspired by the polyphonic style of the journalist Svetlana Alexievitch, lets Sri Lankans speak in their own words about their lives and the conflict, and it accesses a sense of an emergent multispecies politics.

The conflict’s causes are many, but most cite land development — expansion of irrigated agriculture and dam and reservoir construction — through which elephants lose their traditional lands and access to palatable vegetation and water. The country’s severe economic crisis beginning in 2020 seems to have worsened the conflict. In 2023, human-elephant conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 176 humans; 470 elephants also died, half from the conflict and half from illness and other causes. Though accurate estimates of elephant numbers are elusive, the island likely hosts between 5,000 and 6,000 Asian elephants in total.

It turns out that being on farms, immersed in the complexities of human-elephant conflict, offers insights into how the very local meets systemic dysfunctions of industrial approaches to land. It also helps imagine alternatives that involve more robust and more cohesive multispecies politics and futures.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is an island at the southeastern tip of India in the Indian Ocean, roughly the size of the American state of West Virginia. The population is 74.9% Sinhalese, 11.2% Tamil and 9.2% Moor (data from 2021). In 1518, the Portuguese built a fort in the Colombo area; later the Dutch ruled for over a century and a half. Finally, the British controlled the entirety of the island from 1815 until 1948. Much or all of modern-day Sri Lanka was under foreign control for more than 400 years.

I. Encounters And Dialogues

Elephants can be hard to see in sugarcane fields. I sit in my watch hut at night, and I know when elephants are coming because birds and other animals are shouting, especially the grassland bird, the kirili, as they protect their nests. One bird will shout and then others join in. Flies swarm over elephants’ bodies within a hundred meters. Also, they smell of mud, though if elephants are walking against the wind, you can’t smell them. 

Elephants can read and sense your feelings. I have been charged, and I stand my ground. If they sense fear, they will be more aggressive. If they have been harassed often by humans, they will not respond to human voices, and you need to use a dominant voice. But if not harassed, they will respond to a softer voice. Your tone of voice matters.

Three elephants came one night to my three-acre coconut plantation. They were disoriented — this was not their usual terrain. I told the guard to put the paddy on the ground to see if they would eat that. I told him not to chase them away, even though many villagers were coming to help drive them away. They stayed two nights. Then the villagers chased them back to the sanctuary. The elephants ended up doing more damage during the drive than they did while they were staying in my coconut farm.

When you shine a flashlight in their eyes, they become aggressive, but if you flash on a tree nearby, they don’t. There’s a male who has been shot at a lot. The flashlight would flash on him and then he would be shot, so now he responds to the memory of those traumas.

Elephants minimize conflict with one another. They greet each other as friends with certain posturing. That shows, “I am submissive to you.” Males tend to have more conflict, but even they will minimize it unless they are in musth. All males know their rank and the ranks of others. They won’t challenge someone of higher rank, and only when in musth will they challenge one with a similar rank.

Females also have rank. They have mechanisms to ensure little conflict. But when they respond to people, they will challenge and become more aggressive from human behavior toward them. They also become aggressive if their calves are threatened.

In Minneriya in the early 1990s, the elephants were very docile. Then jeeps came in 2003 and blocked their access to water, and now some females will hit vehicles unprovoked. They became aggressive due to how they were treated.

I moved to this area of the sugarcane plantation area in 1997. Back in my village, I injured my leg from an accident and now have a fake leg. I had a pretty good education and a government job, but then I boycotted the government during a massive protest. After that, I became a security guard. I was working on a cashew farm in my village, and a weapon that is used against porcupines — like a gun with an automated trigger — hit my leg.

After I received a fake leg, I moved to this area to work as a laborer, protecting crops from the birds. I started farming in the residual forest. I have no land rights but am considered a permanent resident.

In this area, most farmers cultivate five acres of crops, 40% of which have been damaged by elephants. Farmers bear the brunt of elephant incursions. They come from both directions and the electric fence is not strong enough.

In January 2003, my friend and I were traveling toward the city on our bikes at dusk. We were going up a hill and couldn’t see what was coming. An elephant was 15 meters ahead. My friend was excited. I spoke to the elephant, pleading with it not to harm us. We have long believed that elephants can understand what you say to them. I grabbed hold of the elephant’s leg to protect myself from being trampled, and he swung me around. My fake leg was crushed, but my real leg was fine.

We were carried to the hospital partway in a cart and then a van. My friend’s back was broken and he had to be in the hospital for a month, and afterward he needed a wheelchair. He sold lottery tickets. He became addicted to alcohol and in 2010 committed suicide by drinking agrochemicals. He had night terrors and PTSD.

Men protect their crops during the night, as this is when elephants move and forage. The men sleep very lightly, so they are aware of elephant movements. They develop a certain amount of night vision, though in general, their vision suffers from lack of sleep. Many have to wear glasses. Families break up because men are guarding every night and women want more love.

The elephants don’t have enough food inside the parks. Lantana camara is growing rapidly because people let their buffalo graze too heavily. Elephants don’t like to eat Lantana, and they can’t find enough to eat. That’s why some come to the village, to eat something.

There is no buffer zone, which would reduce conflict; many people live very close to the national park boundary. Elephants like manioc, banana and coconut, and they can easily find these in the villages. The park was created in 1972. The people who lived in that area were sent away to other villages. When they made the fence for the park, it made the elephants angry. Elephants walk long distances and now there is a barrier they cannot cross, even though they can see empty land on the other side.

Human-elephant conflict has been part of our culture for millennia. We have a poem culture here. Across thousands of years, we spoke poems and sang folk songs on farms, in mines. Every industry had its own poem and folk song culture. Plant protection was an important part of the poems and songs. Farmers would sing to scare elephants away. And they used certain charms and magic too. This was not from Buddhism, though we call these poems “elephant mantras.” The elephants understood them, or something about the sound waves affected them. Farmers could control elephants this way.

But in those times, elephants had enough to eat; now they don’t, so they eat more crops. In ancient chena cultivation, there were huts on the boundaries of the fields. All night, the farmers would sing — when one stopped, another would start further down the line.

The conflict wasn’t severe in the past, but it was considerable; elephants would eat crop remnants after harvest. Farmers would devote plots for animals’ consumption. They also made water catchment areas for wildlife. They created natural demarcations for human and wildlife areas using a tree belt. We had coexistence between both communities. But there was ample land in those days.

The elephant threat is happening in the night here. In Africa, elephants are out in the daytime, but here it is always at night. Farmers must protect their cultivations at nighttime.

Conflicts over crops have existed in Sri Lanka for millennia, yet coexistence was built through certain interspecies codes of conduct, by observing each other’s behavior and feelings, and also through poems, songs and interspecies communication. In other words, they had a dialogue and a politics in which elephants were actors with rights.

To explain the collapse of that relationship, many blame the colonial era and the postcolonial dam building, irrigated agriculture and the concept of demarcating national parks as spaces for elephants. The national park idea, as a fixed space for elephants, is not realistic: 70% of the island’s elephants live outside of them. All of these factors increased elephants’ reliance on crops for food.

Many farmers refer to their land as “elephant land”; they speak about elephants as persons and say they can sense your feelings. One farmer told me that the only remaining Indigenous group on the island, the Veddas, can feel elephants approaching through vibrations in their skin.

When technology arrived here — in agrochemicals, irrigation and cell phones, along with modernist notions of human-nature separation — ancient dialogues between people and land were altered. Farmers now use their phones to stay in contact instead of singing or reciting poems. Protected areas are not an adequate solution because, fundamentally, they position wildlife and human activities as separate instead of supporting a coexistence that has depended on traditional land management with fire and rotating crops, and with dialogue and collaboration.

In my interviews, I was often told that the proportion of crops damaged was one third, which takes a hard toll. Larger companies can afford to develop and protect their land from elephant incursions, which means most of the brunt of poor land planning falls on small-scale farmers. One retired official from the Ministry of Agriculture told me that starting in the late 1960s and 70s, cultivation manuals started arriving from the United States, and though they lacked specific knowledge of local conditions, the practices they outlined were widely implemented here. This was part of what is now called the “Green Revolution” — the shift toward agrochemical use to increase crop production.

James Scott, in “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” equates the loss of practical, experiential knowledge, or metis, with greater centralized and state control, often at the expense of local decision-making and power. Metis is highly specific to local conditions and fosters local autonomies, and, as Scott writes, the “relations between practical and scientific knowledge … is part of a struggle for institutional hegemony by experts and their institutions.”

Centralized control of landscapes often neglects metis, even though collective knowledge is key to human-elephant coexistence. Land-based dialogues across humans and elephants, rooted in metis, are foundational to a multispecies politics.

II. Interspecies Politics

Rambo started coming in 1991, when he was 8-10 years old. He was bold and aggressive and would come to the national park entrance, where jeep drivers gave him water in buckets. He would mock charge them. In the early 1990s, there were only a couple jeeps taking tourists into the park to see wildlife. The tourists came from Colombo — they were from the elite class.

Rambo would hang out with other boys, and the boys didn’t like the jeeps. They would charge the vehicles. One out of 10 times when driving a jeep, a driver would face an elephant charging the vehicle. But the drivers continued to give Rambo water. He started tolerating people and would move two miles up the road, patrolling the area.

Then the fruit stalls came. Out of love, people started feeding him. The fruit and vegetable vendors, they started feeding elephants so they would stay there, which helped their businesses. They trained Rambo to stay by the road. By 2000, he moved toward the dam and a few boys followed him.

By 2010, there were around 40 elephants lined up on the road just south of the national park, begging by the fruit stalls. Rambo is like a leader of the males. His followers stayed by the fruit stalls but Rambo patrolled back and forth. He knew local people. He was like the ambassador to humans. The other males don’t have the same privileges.

In 2016, someone with money intervened and transported Rambo to another location, but he came back to the dam after a month. The team had used harnesses to translocate him and it damaged his groin area. He had issues with swelling — his penis got swollen and infected. He was treated by the local doctor and his treatment was long-term. His metabolism is upside down from eating rubbish, like too many sweet fruits.

A few deaths have occurred around the park, but Rambo didn’t kill anyone. There are many stories that he killed three people. He gets the blame, but it was others. It is not Rambo’s intention to harm people.

A tusker was killed recently. It was one of the tractor drivers that patrolled the sugarcane plantation at night. A hotel had a security camera, and it showed a group of security guards removing the tusk. They were caught and arrested but only locked up for a week. Then they were bailed out and went back into society. They should be punished.

Rambo is an elephant politician, from this local person’s perspective — a leader in the politics of human-elephant relations. In “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures,” Rosemary-Claire Collard, Jessica Dempsey and Juanita Sundberg make a case for flourishing multispecies worlds through “diverse and autonomous forms of life and ways of living together.” This vision, they say, draws on Indigenous and peasant movements and perspectives, and offers a different conservation model from the current neoliberal and post-natural one. They recognize animal autonomies and call for pluriversality rather than universality, which our capitalist system fosters.

Similarly, the geographer Kathryn Gillespie speaks of colonial and capitalist agriculture as sites of ruin, and engages with multispecies flourishing as a different politics of sharing landscapes. If nonhumans can be appreciated as political leaders who have voices, an ecological future would appear more brightly.

III. Causes, Impacts, Solutions

This village is over 700 years old; it existed during the Kandy Kingdom, before British rule. Elephants only started coming 10 years ago. Now they are coming all year round — not just in the dry period. Herds of five or six, males and females, come three or four times a season.

The elephants eat everything. They don’t have enough to eat elsewhere, and they are moving south to find food. They have enough water in this region, but not enough food. We grow paddy and millet, corn, cow peas, chilis, beans and vegetables. They also eat our home gardens. They will eat bark and jackfruit.

The conflict started because of two changes. One is the Moragahakanda Dam and reservoir that took land away from elephants. So, they moved down here. Also, when UNESCO took over the Knuckles Forest, they banned chena cultivation, which had provided food for elephants. The fires would keep areas in open grassland. And grass is 80% of the elephant diet.

I am Muslim. I have run this small shop, just at the edge of where the new Moragahakanda reservoir will be, for several years. Soon they will fill this whole area with water. You can see elephant dung on the other side of the fence. Water will be there soon. Those elephants will have to move.

Gem hunters come to this area often. Look, see these sapphires? They were found here.

I moved to this area in 2005 to serve this community as a monk in this temple. Workers on the sugarcane plantation come here for worship.

There is elephant phobia here. Elephants are on the roads at dusk and in the early morning, which means that many children go to school late to avoid them. The teachers are also afraid. One day, an elephant came onto school property.

The roads are very bad here, so transportation is a big challenge. There are only two buses a day, and the doctor is 25 kilometers away. The roads are not safe because of the elephants. There is also not enough clean water.

I have started a project to distribute food given in alms to those who need it. The food used to be distributed differently, but I think we should take from where there is a surplus and give to where there is a deficit. And we started an afterschool program for children to have more study opportunities, so they can leave here and find work in the city.

The people have a voice, but no one hears it. The temple steps in, and I raise their voices to politicians. Monks have the power to be heard.

In ancient times, we managed our water in a tank cascade system. All these techniques are time-tested from peoples’ experiences, which is why they are sustainable. Every tank included a separate area for animals; forests were protected and ecosystems were balanced.

But then in the colonial period, the British only cared about the wet zone, where they grew coffee and tea, and villages in the dry zone collapsed. Civilization collapsed. In 1920, the government started to reestablish the ancient dry zone tanks for food security. But reestablishing tanks also helped the elephants — there was more water for them.

Buddhist culture is very generous. Kindness to trees and to animals is important. We have this culture. Elephants are our traditional symbol. The Buddha’s tooth relic is carried by elephants. That is why this conflict is very sensitive. According to colonial records, we used to have conflicts with snakes and buffaloes too — but it didn’t matter that people killed them. But when it comes to elephants, it is different.

In Nuwara Eliya, upcountry, the colonial hunter Samuel Baker killed thousands of elephants. When lightning strikes in that area, people say it is because he killed so many elephants.

Human-elephant conflict partly comes from resettlement. Communities are resettled from a dam and reservoir project — but in the wrong place, in an elephant corridor. That’s bad planning. It’s like watershed management — if you erode a hill, you get landslides, drinking water gets affected. If you don’t think about where not to farm in the first place — where elephants are present — then you will have more conflict.

Here you have a community that someone has put in harm’s way. The community wants to be taken care of: fences, insurance, solar panels, fertilizers. It just perpetuates problems when communities become dependent like this. It’s only one-sided management. Then comes the question of how to provide all these needed resources.

A lot of government agencies say that the farmer should learn from the fertilizer dealer. You go to the fertilizer dealer and ask him to diagnose your problems and what to apply, what chemical cocktails. This deprioritizes the farmer and the environment. It creates a health mess. You get sick people, and then you have to import drugs. The entire system operates through dependency.

The Sinhala word for elephant is aliya, meaning big or powerful. A big person is the aliya. It’s about power.

In earlier times, when we didn’t have machines, people used elephants to transport things. Elephants contributed to our development. That model shifted in the colonial period. We lost control over development in our own areas. Now, development is designed elsewhere, by non-local authorities.

After WWII, the IMF and World Bank paid attention to the agricultural sector. They started new projects, hired new labor and let people encroach on the land — which is good for the factory but harmful for the elephants. So now, the ecology has been designed and altered by politics in order to boost foreign investment.

FDI is not a perfect model. We have to do development differently, otherwise we will face a lot of problems with elephants. You can observe how human-elephant conflict is high in drought season. That is basically because elephants have to find water. If climate change worsens, conflict will increase.

The pressures of capitalism explain it. As the market expands, you have to produce more. When the open economy was introduced in this country, consumerism took off, which we had never experienced before, and everything started playing into each other.

The farmers in the North Central Province got into debt from environmental issues like drought. The pesticide business essentially makes farmers dependent. They go by the advice of fertilizer and pesticide agents. Earlier we had an agricultural extension service. They were very qualified and advised farmers on how to grow crops. But this is reduced now, and sales representatives and marketers of chemicals are the people who practically control how the farmers make produce. They get into debt, it’s a vicious cycle.

The elephants are permanent residents here. My house has been smashed to pieces, not by elephants but by humans, for political reasons. I don’t support the ruling party, the Rajapaksas, and for that reason, one of his thugs destroyed my house. He has thugs nationwide. I live with my daughter, my wife, my daughter’s daughter and her cousin in a tent. And I can’t get a loan because of my age. You have to be below 35 to get a loan. How can I survive?

During the British colonial period, they cut down all the wetland forest, and most of the elephants in the wet zone died. Only the 22 elephants in Ratnapura are left, and others moved to the dry zone.

In ancient times, there were elephants in the dry zone, and farmers depended on rainwater and the tank system, tanks full of grass and water. During the rainy season, paddy grew, was harvested, and afterward, elephants would eat the abandoned paddy. The farmers didn’t care about abandoned paddy. And everyone had enough water because of the tanks.

If we rehabilitate the tanks, this may be a solution to the conflict. More than 50% of small tanks are abandoned. There are agrarian books mentioning small anicuts and small tanks and the number of functioning and abandoned ones. Even though these tanks are functioning, human-elephant conflict will continue because things aren’t balanced. All the different components need to be there. It depends on how the uplands are functioning, how water is balanced.

Wild animals’ access to drinking water is an issue for humans. Most elephant attacks happen in the dry period. They come to find water in the village. Elephants drink a lot of water. They can drain a small tank in one go. We don’t have enough to support humans and elephants.

This territorial conflict is complex and ancient, but certain socio-ecological patterns are apparent. The conflict is part of a pattern of dependency on both national and local levels. Elephants can no longer meet their own needs by foraging for food and water. Farmers are dependent on chemicals and salesmen. Consumerism can be viewed as a form of dependency, where humans have lost the ability to meet their own needs by themselves and in their communities.

These dependencies in Sri Lanka were wrought by the imposition of foreign control through the colonial period, and afterward in development work enacted by international organizations and companies. In the last half-century or so, with large-scale and “economic agriculture” replacing regenerative local farming practices, the Sri Lankan landscape became an artificially engineered space that no longer met elephants’ needs and interests and has made farming unsustainable. Farmers report that the soil is dead, that they see no future in farming. Potential solutions to the conflict such as electric fencing around crops or around whole villages are limited because of a lack of funds.

Alternatives that ease territorial pressures by supporting local ecologies such as agroforestry and regenerative farming systems offer promise. What people call “home gardens” — a form of agroforestry — is an ancient yet ongoing practice in the wet zone. Access to water is a central feature of coexistence, and rehabilitating the ancient tank system holds potential for multispecies flourishing.

Though Buddhism has been connected to Sinhalese nationalism and control, the stories, histories and tenets of the religion support human-elephant coexistence. An ethos of respect for all beings resides within sacred traditions and stories.

Multispecies flourishing depends on diverse and autonomous beings supporting one another through a system of local resilience, responsibility and reliance — communities meeting their own needs, supported by higher orders of governance. This model is what Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom called “nested enterprises,” in which common resources are managed and protected within polycentric governance structures, from villages on up.

I hope structuring this story in a polyphonic style helps readers access human and other animals’ realities and subjectivities. It seems to me that it can support and enact a multispecies politics of diverse actors and local autonomies. And I am grateful to Deepani Jayantha, Amal Dissanayaka, J. Simon Rofe, Ayona Silva-Fletcher and everyone who offered their time and support during my fieldwork and research.