Can technology actually save the Sri Lankan elephant?


Since 1986, the Sri Lankan elephant has been listed as endangered by the ICUN.  They’re primarily threatened by habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. Yet, another regrettable human activity that threatens elephants in Sri Lanka is the railways. Now, it seems like the authorities have accepted its high time to do something about this. And they’re turning to technology for a solution.

Sri Lankan | Elephant | Technology
Elephant deaths due to trains are a well-documented tragedy

In fact, just earlier this week, an elephant in Galgamuwa died after it was struck by the night mail train traveling from Colombo to Kankesanthurai. And on that same day, another elephant was killed after it collided with a train bound to Batticaloa, which saw the train get derailed. Sadly, these are only the latest tragedies.

A quick Google search will tell you that such tragedies aren’t rarities. They’re regrettably avoidable ones. In the wake of these tragedies, Sarath Fonseka – Minister of Sustainable Development, Wildlife and Regional Development said measures would be taken. Nimal Siripala – Minister of Transportation has also echoed similar statements.

Sri Lankan | Elephant | Technology
Minister Sarath Fonseka said measures would be taken to utilize technology & protect elephants

As such, a series sensors would be installed at specific points to alert train drivers of elephants. According to the Daily News, these sensors would be installed as part of a special program.

It would take eight months to complete and the total cost of the program is expected to be Rs. 100 million. This is because each sensor is said to cost Rs. 1 million. The installation of these sensors will be undertaken by Sri Lanka Railways in collaboration with the Wildlife and Conservation Department.

Dilantha Fernando – General Manager of the Railway Department said, “The Minister has promised us to table a Cabinet proposal requesting funds for this project. We are positive about receiving a grant for this project from the Asian Development Bank. Either way, we are going to start this project with whatever the funds available, local or foreign, as soon as the Committee which was appointed to inquire into this matter submits its report to the Minister.”

But will this technology actually save elephants?

It’s a positive sign that the authorities are acknowledging the gravity of elephant deaths. However, we have to question how effective their proposed solution is. There have been initiatives in the past to install sensors near train tracks to protect elephants. However, these sensors were soon vandalized and then left unattended.

Sri Lankan | Elephant | Technology
Technology has been utilized before. However, after being installed (L) it was vandalized (R)

Furthermore, trains cause only a fraction of elephant deaths. As we discussed previously, elephants in Sri Lanka are primarily threatened by habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. In other words, as our population grows, we expand our communities. This means building houses, buildings, roads, and railways.

However, this infrastructure is built with little to no regard to the habitats of local wildlife. According to the University of Colombo, this means elephants are restricted to smaller areas. As a result, it not only interferes with the behavior of elephants but also impedes the development of communication skills. More importantly, they lose access to their sources of food and water.

Sri Lankan | Elephant | Technology
The destruction of habitats has been said to be the root cause of the deaths of Sri Lankan elephants (Image credits: Sean Gallagher)

This is why Sri Lankan elephants are famous for venturing into villages and destroying farmland. They’re simply searching for food because they’re starving. However, this is when the human-elephant conflict begins, which causes the majority of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka.

Doing more to find effective solutions

To their credit, the government and local villagers have tried to minimize the deaths from this conflict. Alas, elephants are smart creatures and can adapt based on experience. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped people from looking toward non-lethal methods.

In fact, we’ve seen teams at hackathons build such non-lethal solutions to prevent elephants from damaging farmlands. Interestingly, these solutions are similar to what the government is proposing. The solutions we found at hackathons also utilize sensors to emit sounds that ward off elephants.

Sri Lankan | Elephant | Technology
The authorities installing sensors to protect elephants is a good first step. But more needs to be done (Image credits: Mongabay)

More importantly, we’re sure that these solutions if commercialized properly are unlikely to cost Rs. 1 million per sensor. Yet, based on our experience at hackathons, we know one thing for sure. Unless the government takes these solutions and perhaps work with the private sector, the ideas we’ve seen at the hackathons will remain mere ideas.

At the end of the day, the authorities using technology to protect elephants is a positive step forward. However, this is merely the first step forward. These sensors would need to be maintained and protected. Finally, we must adopt sustainable development practices as we build the infrastructure needed to sustain our growing communities. If not the Sri Lankan human-elephant conflict will never end.


  1. The elephant human conflict is very old. We don’t think that there Ian exact solution. There have been nature friendly solutions tried. Some has been effective. Our question is how we design nature friendly cost effective community driven solutons. So we are conducting an elephant tech open forum on 11th November afternoon at Sudatshi. Colombo to initiate a jeaningful dialog.
    We invite concerned technologists, environment lists, engineers and community to join.


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