The plastic waste at a landfill in Sri Lanka is blamed for killing around 20 elephants. More may die, warns a veterinarian.
In recent years, around 20 elephants have lost their lives after eating plastic waste at the landfill in the village of Pallakkadu in the Ampara district of Sri Lanka. Pallakkadu is located about 210 kilometers east of the capital Colombo.
In early January, two more elephants were found dead on the landfill.
Investigations of the dead animals showed that they had swallowed large amounts of non-degradable plastic that can be found in the landfill, says veterinarian Nihal Pushpakumara.
– Food paper, plastic, other indigestible things and water were the only things we could find during the autopsy of the elephants. What elephants usually eat and digest was not to be seen, says Pushpakumara to the news agency AP.
Elephants are deeply respected in Sri Lanka, but they are also an endangered species. The population has decreased from around 14,000 animals in the 19th century to around 6,000 in 2011, in the first elephant census in the country.
They are becoming increasingly vulnerable due to their natural habitat being restricted. Many of the elephants dare to approach human settlements in search of food, which leads to them being killed by poachers or farmers who are angry that the animals are harming their crops.
The hungry elephants therefore search for the waste at the landfill. There, they end up eating plastic and other sharp objects that damage their digestive systems, says veterinarian Pushpakumara.
– When the elephants have ingested so much indigestible things, they stop eating and become too weak to keep their heavy bodies upright. When that happens, they become unable to ingest food or water, which accelerates death, he says.
No action was taken
In 2017, the government of Sri Lanka announced that it will ensure the recycling of waste at landfills near the habitats of wild animals – precisely to prevent elephants from ingesting plastic waste. They also promised that electric fences would be set up around the landfills to keep the animals away. None of the measures have been fully implemented.
Around the country, there are 54 such landfills near wildlife habitats. According to the government, there are around 300 elephants roaming around these landfills.
The waste management site in the village of Pallakkadu was established in 2008 with EU assistance. Waste collected from nine nearby villages is dumped there, but is not recycled.
In 2014, the electric fence around the landfill was hit by lightning, and the authorities have not repaired it since. The elephants therefore have free access to rummage through the waste on the landfill.
According to the villagers of Pallakkadu, the elephants have settled near the landfill, which has aroused fear among the people who live nearby. Several use fireworks to chase the animals away as they wander into the village, and some have set up electric fences around their homes.
But according to Keerthi Ranashinge from Pallakkadu’s local authorities, the villagers often do not know how to set up the fences in a safe way, and they end up endangering both their own and the elephants’ lives.
Blocks off the filling
– Although we see them as a threat to local agriculture, elephants are also a resource. The national authorities must find a way to protect both human life and elephant life, at the same time as we can continue to farm here, he says.
And now the authorities are planning to block off the landfill by digging a ditch around it, a representative of Sri Lanka’s wildlife ministry told the news agency DPA.
– It is the only way to prevent hungry animals from eating rubbish on the landfill, which measures around 800 square kilometers, says the representative.