After studying sociality among harbour seals and then dolphins in the past, a terrestrial herbivore species, the Asian elephant, was a whole new focus for me when I began my PhD as a Bloomsbury Scholar three years ago. My focus was not on studying wild elephants per se, but on the drivers and possible mitigations of human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.
Last year was especially brutal, with 121 humans and 361 elephants lost to the conflict. Outside of fatalities, it is challenging to quantify the tolls on farmers with dwindling land and hungry elephants.
My initial plan was for an action research approach, a citizen science project amidst farmers whose crops are eaten by elephants – this came to a halt after the Easter attacks of 2019 in Sri Lanka when funds couldn’t move to pay the project trainers. In these circumstances, I pursued my backup; studying complex relations across elephants, farmers, politicians, development agencies, landscapes, plants as a relational Field Guide, in which the plant and animal kingdoms and landscapes have patterns that both connect and also cause disjunctures, leading to conflict.
As a student based at SOAS’s Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, I’m interested in social capital and networks, relations of the global and local, pluriversal dialogues, yet viewed with a multispecies lens. This non-anthropocentric approach feels appropriate and timely, as human-caused climate crisis threatens the island’s climate and food securities across species. Conservation science can benefit from learning about multispecies social capital as opposed to the human/nature divisions that perpetuate nature as an inert resource to be exploited.
During my second field work trip in September and October 2019, I visited a UN Small Grants program, helping farmers to manage human-elephant conflict in a region where the conflict is only a decade old challenge. A UNESCO designation for the Knuckles Forest in 2010 means farmers lost access to that terrain and must change cultivation practices, though the traditional methods provided elephants with post-harvest vegetation.
The nearby enormous new Moragahakanda dam and reservoir which displaced thousands of people and an unknown number of elephants, is another trigger of the conflict. In spaces of high human and elephant density – and Sri Lanka has the highest elephant density among Asian range states – alterations to forests and land use patterns have an impact, with collateral damage to local people and other animals.
The multispecies actors in this landscape are diverse – plants species cultivated, agrochemicals, farmers, traditional knowledge, elephants and their traditional terrain, multilateral organizations, local governance, nepotism, climate, religion, and the land. Though farmers maintain close but increasingly tense negotiations with wildlife, colonial and postcolonial policies have abstracted many relations, from foreign landscape and land use designs, to foreign markets dictating prices, to farming technologies that produce landscapes that many see no future in.
My dissertation is called A Field Guide to Distributed Social and Political Relations Across Ecosystems Shaping Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka. One of my favorite parts of this project is the connections I made with Sri Lankan researchers who I continue to collaborate and publish with. I was so honored to be taken on a magical tour of their friends’ houses who live in elephant conflict areas, which was a total highlight of my research. Another highlight, though for different and emotional reasons, was a week spent at an elephant orphanage for those who lose parents to the conflict.
I’m already planning my next research project, which examines wild elephants’ use of medicinal plants, the conservation status of these plant species, a look at which plants modulate stress responses, and how landscapes can be designed to support elephants’ continued access to these species as a significant form of autonomy.
Elizabeth Oriel is a PhD student based in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy.