When Man-Made Waste Turns Fatal: Sri Lanka’s Elephants Struggle to Survive

Wildlife experts and veterinarians are sounding the alarm on the harmful effects of plastic waste in an open landfill located in eastern Sri Lanka, which has caused the death of around 20 elephants over the past eight years. The most recent casualties were discovered last weekend in Pallakkadu village, Ampara district, approximately 210 kilometers east of the capital city, Colombo. An examination conducted on the dead elephants revealed that they had ingested large quantities of non-biodegradable plastic found in the garbage dump, according to wildlife veterinarian Nihal Pushpakumara. In addition to polythene, food wrappers, plastic, and other non-digestible materials, the elephants’ post mortems showed a lack of their usual food sources.

The body of a wild elephant lies in an open landfill in Pallakkadu village in Ampara district, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) east of the capital Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 6, 2022.

In the village of Pallakkadu, located in the Ampara district of Sri Lanka, a wild elephant’s body is seen in an open landfill. Despite being revered in Sri Lanka, elephants remain endangered, with their numbers dwindling from 14,000 in the 19th century to 6,000 in 2011, according to the country’s first elephant census. Loss and degradation of their natural habitat has made them increasingly vulnerable, leaving many to venture closer to human settlements in search of food. Unfortunately, some are killed by poachers or farmers angry over damage to their crops. In addition, hungry elephants often consume waste in landfills, including plastic and sharp objects that can damage their digestive systems. This leads them to stop eating, become too weak to stand, and eventually die from lack of food and water. In 2017, the government announced plans to recycle garbage in dumps near wildlife zones to prevent elephants from consuming plastic waste and erect electric fences around these sites to keep animals away. However, these measures have yet to be fully implemented.

Wild elephants scavenge for food at an open landfill in Pallakkadu village in Ampara district, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) east of the capital Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 6, 2022.

In the village of Pallakkadu in Ampara district, Sri Lanka, wild elephants are scavenging for food at a landfill site that was set up in 2008 with European Union aid. Unfortunately, the garbage collected from nine nearby villages is not being recycled. There are a total of 54 waste dumps located in wildlife zones around the country, and around 300 elephants roam near them, according to officials. In 2014, the electric fence protecting the site was struck by lightning and authorities never repaired it, which allowed elephants to enter and rummage through the dump. This has caused concern among nearby villagers, who have resorted to using firecrackers and even erecting electric fences around their homes to keep the elephants away. However, the villagers often do not know how to install the electric fences safely, which could result in harm to both themselves and the elephants. Local village councilor Keerthi Ranasinghe believes that authorities need to find a way to protect both human lives and the elephants while still allowing agricultural activities to continue. While the elephants may be seen as a menace, they are also a valuable resource that needs to be protected.

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