Elephant Calves Are Being Killed With Horrific 'Jaw Exploder' Devices in Sri Lanka

Endangered elephants in Sri Lanka have long struggled to survive in the face of threats from deforestation, poaching and a turbulent political environment, but a new and deadly hazard has now emerged.

The country's elephants—and young elephants in particular—are increasingly being maimed and killed by explosive bait left out to target bush animals, an investigation by environmental news site Mongabay has found. These home-made explosives have now become the leading cause of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka, and a dire threat to the island's embattled elephant population.

Explosive bait is formed of food containing gunpowder and small bits of metal or rock. Packed tightly together, these elements form an improvised explosive device. Once hidden insider the bait, the weapon is left in the forest.

The explosives—known locally as "jaw exploders"—are designed to kill small animals such as wild boar that are sources of bush meat. However, the bait also draws in much larger elephants, inflicting grievous injuries.

When an animal bites down on the bait, the gunpowder ignites, destroying the jaws, teeth, tongue and other soft tissues in the mouth and throat. For the animals that do not die immediately, severe bleeding and infection are potent risks. Such infections can spread from the mouth all the way down the esophagus and into other organs, resulting in drawn-out and painful deaths.

There are thought to be fewer than 6,000 Sri Lankan elephants—a subspecies of the Asian elephant—left on the island. The subspecies has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature since 1986, and the overall population has fallen by at least 50 percent over the past 60–75 years.

In Sri Lanka as elsewhere, elephants have suffered greatly from increased contact with humans. Poaching and habitat erosion are near-universal threats for elephants, but decades of civil war in Sri Lanka posed an additional threat to local wildlife. Gunfire and landmines maimed and killed hundreds of elephants over decades of fighting.

But the end of hostilities has not brought respite. Human activity and development continue to pressure elephant populations, and explosive bait has become the leading cause of death among elephants in the country.

A total of 319 elephant deaths were reported in 2018, Mongabay reported. Of these, 64—20 percent—were caused by explosive devices. That is higher than the 53 killed by gunfire, which previously was the leading cause of death. The trend has been sustained into 2019, with 30 elephant deaths from explosive devices reported so far this year.

Many of the victims are young elephants below the age of 10 and especially under the age of 5, Department of Wildlife Conservation veterinary surgeon Isuru Hewakottage told Mongabay. "The young calves are both curious and playful. They also pick things and insert into their mouths, unlike the more wary adult elephants," Hewakottage explained.

Ravi Corea, the president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, told Newsweek that an average of 246 elephants were killed every year between 2008 and 2018. The vast majority have been killed as a result of direct human-elephant conflict, and many of the deaths can be attributed to jaw exploders.

"The fear here is that this method will spread far and wide on the island, and then that would have a horrendous impact on our elephants," Corea explained.

Human communities carry their own costs of the conflict with their elephant neighbors. Last year, cabinet spokesperson Gayantha Karunathilleke said more than 375 Sri Lankans had been killed by wild elephants since 2013. Corea noted that it is too easy to simply blame humans for the carnage, and that wider economic and social issues are exacerbating the conflict.

Many rural farmers who live and work close to elephant territories live "a very marginalized existence," he said. Hampered by low-quality land, climate change and a lack of demand for their products, many of these farmers are desperate and already battling to protect their crops and communities from other animals.

Among these myriad threats, elephants are the greatest. The huge mammals can destroy farms, tear down houses and kill those who try to stop them.

The trend of increased conflict between humans and animal communities holds true across much of Asia, Nilanga Jayasinghe of the World Wildlife Fund told Newsweek. Elephants straying into human communities can destroy up to a year's worth of crops, leaving local farmers in a perilous position.

"Drastic measures" like explosive bait "are evidence of deteriorating tolerance among communities for elephants," Jayasinghe said, though she noted that tolerance for the animals has generally been high in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this very complex issue. Both Jayasinghe and Corea stressed the importance of working with the communities most affected by conflict with elephants.

"We can make change only through the people," Corea explained. "We can't get elephants to change their behavior...but we can get people to change their behavior, we can change their attitudes. That's where our focus should be."

"You can win this," Corea said, but only by addressing the "issues and concerns of the people."

This article has been updated to include comments from Nilanga Jayasinghe.

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In this photograph taken on July 30, 2018, a Sri Lankan baby elephant walks alongside an adult in Kaudulla national park in Habarana. ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty