COLOMBO: Disturbing images of a herd of elephants grazing in a rubbish pit in Ampara, in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, have been circulating since media reports suggested many died after ingesting plastic waste.
Reports estimate that at least 20 of the elephants feeding on the open dump had died in the past eight years.
While environmentalists question the findings, saying plastic ingestion is not directly linked to animal deaths, the question reveals a larger problem: poorly regulated garbage disposal in Sri Lanka.
The island generates around 7,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, most of which lands in uncontrolled open dumps. Burial sites, banned in many countries, are often close to forest canopies or water sources, and wild animals have begun to look to them as food sources.
“About 75% of the landfills in the country are open landfills,” Pubudu Weerarathne, director of the Species Conservation Center at the University of Colombo, told Arab News.
“Animals get used to the taste of human food and start to crave it more.”
He added: “In the case of elephants, this leads to raids and more conflict with humans. And then, of course, there is the more direct impact on their health due to the ingestion of waste.
But it’s not plastic waste that proves deadly to elephants, which are protected by their simple digestive systems. Cattle and deer often die a painful death as the polyethylene remains in their bodies, resulting in intestinal obstruction.
“Elephants are what we call ‘hind-gut fermenters’,” Professor Prithiviraj Fernando, an expert in elephant research and human-elephant conflict, told Arab News.
“Their digestive system is less complex than that of ruminants like cattle. As a result, plastics and polyethylene do not get stuck in the digestive system, but pass through. »
Even if plastic waste is not the immediate cause of the death of elephants, landfills are no less dangerous for the animals. Some die of poisoning after eating fermented organic matter.
Dr Tharaka Prasad, director of wildlife health at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the process by which bacteria break down food waste makes it dangerous for animals.
“Anaerobic digestion causes excretion of toxins into the food environment, which can lead to stool collapse, consequently causing partial paralysis of the intestine, ending in death,” he said.
But the greatest danger to animals comes from encroaching on human settlements by feeding on landfills.
“More elephants are dying from gunshot wounds, or Hakka patas,” said UL Taufeek, deputy director for elephants at the wildlife department, referring to small improvised explosive devices shaped like firecrackers that people use. to scare animals. towns.
There are around 5,000 elephants in the country, and the animals are a symbol of national and cultural pride. The Sri Lankan elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant, is classified as endangered.
It is forbidden to kill elephants, but their death due to human-elephant conflict is commonplace. In 2019, 407 such deaths were reported in Sri Lanka – the highest rate in the world.
Elephants are not the only victims of ineffective waste management policies. In 2017, a landslide at Meethotamulla landfill in the capital Colombo killed 19 people.
Toxic landfill fires and pollution from the same landfill, as well as in other parts of the country, have troubled local communities for years, with residents complaining of health complications.
“We have a huge waste management problem in this country,” environmentalist and recycling campaigner Dr. Ajantha Perera told Arab News.
The activist and academic, who contested the 2019 presidential election on a promise to tackle the country’s growing waste problem, said national action plans and waste management policies were in the works. place for years.
“But until there is political will, there will be no change.”