By ACHALA PUSSALLA
PALLAKKADU, Sri Lanka (AP) – Conservationists and veterinarians are warning that plastic waste at 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 over the past eight years after ingesting plastic waste at the landfill in the village of Pallakkadu in the Ampara district, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) east of the capital Colombo.
Studies of the dead animals showed that they had swallowed large amounts of non-degradable plastic found at the landfill, said wildlife veterinarian Nihal Pushpakumara.
“The polythene, packed lunches, plastic, other indigestible substances and water were the only things we could see at the autopsy. The normal food that elephants eat and digest was not obvious,” he said.
Elephants are revered in Sri Lanka but are also endangered. Their numbers have dropped from about 14,000 in the 19th century to 6,000 in 2011 according to the country’s first elephant count.
They are increasingly vulnerable due to the loss and deterioration of their natural habitat. Many move closer to human settlements in search of food, and some are killed by poachers or farmers who are angry about damage to their crops.
Hungry elephants seek out the waste at the landfill and use plastic as well as sharp objects that damage their digestive system, Pushpakumara said.
“The elephants then stop eating and become too weak to keep their heavy frames upright. When that happens, they can not consume food or water, which accelerates their death, ”he said.
In 2017, the government announced that it would recycle the waste at landfills near wildlife zones to prevent elephants from ingesting plastic waste. It also said electric fences would be erected around the sites to keep the animals away. But none of them are fully implemented.
There are 54 landfills in wildlife zones around the country, with about 300 elephants roaming near them, according to officials.
The landfill in the village of Pallakkadu was set up in 2008 with EU support. Waste collected from nine nearby villages is dumped there but is not recycled.
In 2014, the electric fence that protected the site was struck by lightning and the authorities never repaired it, allowing elephants to enter and rummage through the landfill. Residents say elephants have moved closer and have settled near the rubbish dump, raising fears among nearby villagers.
Many use fireworks to chase the animals away as they wander into the village, and some have erected electric fences around their homes.
But villagers often do not know how to install the electric fences so they are safe and “can endanger their own lives as well as the lives of the elephants,” said Keerthi Ranasinghe, a local village councilor.
“Even though we call them a threat, wild elephants are also a resource. The authorities need to find a way to protect both human life and the elephants, which also allows us to continue our agricultural activities, ”he said.