By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

Elephant is the largest four footed vegan animal now living in the world, with two curved ivory tusks, thick skin and a long trunk. Elephants never forget and are, therefore, noted for their good memories. Out of an estimated global total of 40,000 Asian elephants in the wild Sri Lanka is home to about 4000 of the species.

Elephants can be useful to man as much as they can be pests when it comes to the damage they can cause to farmers, especially in Sri Lanka where agriculture is the dominant form of land use.

In Sri Lanka elephant is running out of space as most of the protected areas inhabited by elephants are small - less than 1000 sq. km in size. Despite this fact, elephants, especially the bulls, may range over hundreds of square meters in the course of a season.

The sheer size of the elephants and their gargantuan appetite simply do not make it comfortable for people to live together with these animals, particularly when it comes to agriculture, unless the damage elephants cause to farmers can be compensated! So, there are no easy solutions for resolving the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka elephants are not killed for their tusks although elephant tusks are a rare and an expensive commodity. Neither they are not killed for meat, since no one eats elephant meat in Sri Lanka, nor are they being killed for elephant hide since there is no market at all for elephant hide in the leather industry. Yet, elephants are being killed in Sri Lanka simply because these creatures do interfere with agriculture! Since 1950 it is estimated that more than 4000 elephants would have been lost as a direct consequence of the conflict between man and elephant.

What is the solution to save this animal from being killed and ultimately becoming extinct in Sri Lanka? Much will depend on how rural folk perceive the worth of the elephant. To stop the meaningless killing of elephants requires educating and changing the perceptions of the farmers who suffer constant destruction from the animals. Many are now convinced that the only way elephants and human beings can exist successfully in the same environment would be through finding ways and means to use the elephant as a sustainable economic source. At present elephants are used only to handle huge logs and transport in certain quarters, in other areas elephants are used for ceremonial purposes such as in the Esala Perahera in Kandy and tourist attractions in Pinnawela.

The latest brain wave to use the elephant as a 'sustainable economic source' is now underway by a Sri Lankan company under a venture called Maximus Project where elephant dung is used to manufacture paper.

Elephant dung, 'Maximus', believe is an end product which provides a way of converting a liability into an asset in conflict areas. It is also a commodity which is freely available at any time. On an average an adult elephant produces about 180-200 kg of dung per day.

Until now no one had any use for elephant dung. However, Maximus Project is now making use of this end product of the elephant to manufacture paper not only as an economic source but in the belief that elephant dung may help change the perceptions of the farmers in conflict areas. Maximus Project commenced in 1977 and has successfully produced and marketed a new product what is known as "Pachyderm Paper'. Made out of 75% of elephant dung, the paper which looks much superior than the alternative products made out of rice paper or re-cycled paper, today produces note books, cards, badges, boxes, bags etc, where the only limitation is one's imagination'.

These products made out of "Pachyderm Paper' have proved extremely popular over the years and are exceptionally popular among varied segments of the local population and foreign tourists.

Elephant dung may not resolve the on-going human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka completely but its use for the benefit of the farmers who suffer from elephant depredations will certainly go some way towards raising the tolerance of the farmers towards the elephant.

Maximus Project has been based in the belief that 'if the elephant is used as an economic asset in a way that it contributes meaningfully to the welfare of the people, then people themselves may not like to see it disappear from their area'. Furthermore, all the conservation efforts would be futile without the support of the local communities as the elephant can play an important role in conservation of its provider.



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