Elephants dying from eating plastic waste in Sri Lankan dump

By ACHALA PUSSALLA

January 14, 2022 GMT

PALLAKKADU, Sri Lanka (AP) – Conservationists and veterinarians are warning that plastic waste in an open landfill in eastern Sri Lanka is killing elephants in the region, after two more were found dead over the weekend.

About 20 elephants have died in the past eight years after consuming plastic waste at the garbage dump in the village of Pallakkadu in Ampara district, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) east of the capital Colombo.

Examination of the dead animals showed that they had ingested large amounts of non-degradable plastic found at the dump, wildlife veterinarian Nihal Pushpakumara said.

“Polythene, food packaging, plastic, other indigestible products and water were the only things we could see in the autopsy. The normal food that elephants eat and digest was not evident,” he said.

Elephants are revered in Sri Lanka, but they are also endangered. According to the country’s first elephant census, their numbers have fallen from about 14,000 in the 19th century to 6,000 in 2011.

They are becoming increasingly vulnerable due to the loss and degradation of their natural habitat. Many venture closer to human settlements in search of food, and some are killed by poachers or farmers angry at damage to their crops.

Hungry elephants seek out the waste in the landfill, consuming plastic and sharp objects that damage their digestive systems, Pushpakumara said.

“The elephants then stop eating and become too weak to keep their heavy bodies upright. If that happens, they won’t be able to consume food or water, which hastens their deaths,” he said.

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In 2017, the government announced that it will recycle the waste in landfills near wildlife zones to prevent elephants from consuming plastic waste. It also said electric fences would be placed around the sites to keep the animals away. But neither is fully executed.

There are 54 waste dumps in wildlife areas across the country, with about 300 elephants roaming nearby, according to officials.

The waste processing site in the village of Pallakkadu was set up in 2008 with support from the European Union. Waste collected from nine nearby villages is dumped there, but not recycled.

In 2014, the electric fence protecting the site was struck by lightning and authorities never repaired it, allowing elephants to enter and search the landfill. Residents say elephants have moved closer and settled near the waste pit, sparking fear among nearby villagers.

Many use fireworks to scare the animals away when they enter the village, and some have put up electric fences around their homes.

But the villagers often don’t know how to install the electric fences so that they are safe and “endanger their own lives and that of the elephants,” said Keerthi Ranasinghe, a local village councilor.

“While we call them a threat, wild elephants are also a resource. The authorities need to find a way to protect both human life and elephants so that we can continue our farming activities,” he said.

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