Elephants Are Dying From Eating Plastic Waste At A Sri Lankan Garbage Dump

PALAKADU, Sri Lanka (AFP) – Conservationists and veterinarians have warned that plastic waste at an open landfill in eastern Sri Lanka is killing elephants in the area, after two more were found dead over the weekend.

About 20 elephants have died over the past eight years after ingesting plastic waste at a landfill in Balakadu village in Ampara district, 210 km (130 miles) east of the capital Colombo.

Nihal Pushpakumara, a wildlife veterinarian, said examinations of the dead animals showed that they had ingested large amounts of non-biodegradable plastic found in the landfill.

“Polythene, food wrapping, plastic, other indigestible materials and water were the only things we could see at autopsy. The natural food that the elephants ate and digested wasn’t so obvious.”

Elephants are revered in Sri Lanka but are also endangered. Their numbers dwindled from about 14,000 in the 19th century to 6,000 in 2011, according to the country’s first elephant census.

About 20 elephants have died in the past eight years after ingesting plastic trash in a landfill in Balakadu village in Ampara District.

They are increasingly endangered due to the loss and degradation of their natural habitats. Many venture close to human settlements in search of food, and some are killed by poachers or farmers angry over the damage to their crops.

Pushpakumara said the hungry elephants scavenge for waste in the landfill, consuming plastic and sharp objects that damage their digestive system.

Then the elephants stop eating and become too weak to keep their heavy skeletons upright. When that happens, they can’t take in food or water, which speeds up their death.”

In 2017, the government announced that it would recycle trash at landfills near wildlife areas to prevent elephants from consuming plastic waste. She also said that an electric fence would be erected around the sites to keep animals away. But neither has been fully implemented.

There are 54 landfills in wildlife areas across the country, with about 300 elephants roaming near them, according to officials.

The waste management site in Pallakkadu village was established in 2008 with the assistance of the European Union. Garbage collected from nine nearby villages is disposed of but not recycled.

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

Many use fireworks to chase the animals away when they roam the village, and some have even erected electric fences around their homes.

Keerthi Ranasinghe, a member of the local village council, said villagers often did not know how to install electric fences in order to be safe and “could put their lives at risk like elephants.”

“Although we call them a danger, wild elephants are also a resource. The authorities need to come up with a way to protect human lives and elephants that also allow us to continue our agricultural activities.”

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