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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
Sri Lankans battle with elephants

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo

"I saw the elephant trying to pick up my wife with its trunk and then repeatedly trampling her chest with its foot," says Punchibanda, a 59 year-old farmer from Kumbukwewe village.

Punchibanda constantly battles against the elephants
His life is now overshadowed by tragedy because of the daily battle against wild elephants.

Statistics show, on average, one human and three elephants die every week as a result of clashes over land.

Punchibanda has moist eyes as he looks at the photograph of his dead wife.

He himself was lucky to escape.

The elephant ambushed them in broad daylight on the way to the fields, picked up Punchibanda first in his trunk and tossed him aside.


Lying injured on the ground he saw the elephant playing with his wife's body.

Sri Lanka is one of the last havens for wild elephants but the growing conflict with human beings over living space is causing havoc.

Vet Samanthi Mendis with a baby elephant
Vet Samanthi Mendis says even the smallest elephants suffer
Walking through the jungle at dusk there is a trail of farmers going to their fields for the nightly elephant vigil.

Some carry musket guns, fire brands or torches along with a food parcel and a bottle of something to while away the long night hours.

"I have spent such a lot of money planting these crops and tending them - if the elephants come and eat them up that's the end of my life," says farmer AC Simon.

For the last three months he has kept himself awake every night in a tree top platform to ward away the marauding elephants.


Each animal needs hundreds of square kilometres of territory across which to range but - while Sri Lanka's forest cover is shrinking - its human population is expanding rapidly.

Farmers are encroaching on jungle which was once the sole domain of the elephant.

The result is injuries and deaths - on both sides of the conflict.

Elephants battle for space with humans
"For small babies there are bruises and infected wounds due to some gunshots," explains vet Samanthi Mendis, who tends rescued elephants at the Pinawella Elephant Orphanage.

"Once the mother dies these small babies run here and there in the jungle and they get hurt," she says.

Pinawella Elephant orphanage has become a major tourist attraction but it does not offer a solution to the problem of the elephant's dwindling habitat.

One small factory hopes it has the answer by turning elephant dung into thick, fibrous hand-made paper.

The raw material is collected by farmers living in areas prone to elephant attacks to give them an alternative living to agriculture.

Processing dung

An adult elephant defecates 16 times a day and eats 200 kilos of food.

So there is no shortage of the rather smelly raw material here but it first has to be sun-dried and then boiled, mashed and strained.

Thankfully the final product does not smell of the raw ingredients.

Sign for elephant dung paper
Making paper may offer hope for villagers and elephants
"The elephant dung itself can be a source of income for the villagers," explains Thushita Ranasinghe the founder of Maximus, the first company in the world to start commercial production of elephant paper.

"We hope to duplicate similar plants in areas of human elephant conflict thereby taking an innovative and novel industry to an area that is underprivileged," he adds.

It is certainly sustainable and eco-friendly and it might make an impact in areas of Sri Lanka where the conflict between man and elephant is just beginning to develop.

But in places like Habarana which are so densely populated it is going to take a lot of paper factories to defuse tensions.

For poor farmers here the elephant is still a giant pest.

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18 Jan 02  |  South Asia

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