The Secret to Saving Asian Elephants? Oranges

In Sri Lanka, human-elephant conflict has disrupted farmers for generations. In some cases, people are killed. Now, a local conservation organization is looking to citrus as a solution. Bees and fences can’t stop elephants from attacking villages—but orange trees miraculously can.

Words by Zinara Rathnayake

Photographs by Nathan Mahendra

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The November morning was blue-skied and bright. When Wije appeared behind the large orange tree shading his front yard, his eyes crinkled with a broad smile. He wore a rainbow-colored sarong, a blue face mask, and a Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) T-shirt where he works as a fieldhouse manager. He plucked an orange from a tree to prepare juice. In his village, oranges aren’t just a fruit. They’re a solution to an age-old environmental problem: human-elephant conflict.

 

Like many villages in the countryside of Sri Lanka, Pussellayaya boasts postcard-worthy landscapes. Wije, short for Aluthgedara Wijerathne, is a 43-year-old native of Pussellayaya, which sits in the southern boundary of Wasgamuwa National Park, about 143 miles from the capital city Colombo in Sri Lanka. When the charred evening clouds in November bring rain to the village, farmers start sowing the fields of paddy that disappear into a ridgeline of the Knuckles Mountain Range. In the coming months, farmers toil in the fields, but the surrounding wildlife doesn’t make their life easy.

The Knuckles Mountain Range looms in the background as farmers work the fields.

 

 

“During the last decade, elephants killed four villagers,” says Wije in his native language Sinhala. “We get very scared at night. Elephants came to destroy our crops and houses. We didn’t have a choice but to retaliate. We lit firecrackers to scare them off, but they became more aggressive, so we fired gunshots into the air, and sometimes at elephants. We didn’t want to harm wild animals, but they were destroying everything we had.”

 

Growing up in the village, Wije remembers the sleepless nights he spent with his parents. They lit fires and slept on rickety treehouses in the open air in the rice fields, trying to scare off hungry elephants looking for ripe paddy—the only source of income Wije’s parents had.

 

Wije’s story is not different from that of thousands of others living in rural Sri Lanka. The country’s rapidly growing human population and subsequent demand for land result in clearing of natural habitats, squeezing wild animals—like elephants—into smaller pockets of land.

Orange trees have helped protect Wije’s rice crops while helping him branch out into the world of citrus.

The Sri Lankan sub-species of the Asian elephant is already endangered—with as few as 2,500 elephants remaining in Sri Lanka today—but this forces them into shattered jungle habitats. Wild elephants rampage adjacent villages (their original habitat) looking for natural sources of food and water. 

 

A 2010 report by Columbia University’s Earth Institute found that, historically, elephant deaths coincided with reduced rainfall in Sri Lanka’s eastern region. The climate crisis is set to change precipitation patterns in the country and increase the risk of drought. Sri Lanka, which ranked second in the 2019 global climate risk index, already experiences erratic weather patterns.

 

During Sri Lanka’s dry season, waterbodies dry up. Trees wither. Water buffaloes resort to the last remaining mud puddles while searing hot weather cracks the arid soil. In this fetid heat, elephants frequently wander around looking for water, some of them migrating through human habitats where resources exist.

 

Every year in Sri Lanka, the elephants destroy $10 million worth of crops and property. For the last two years, elephants have killed more than 90 people a year in Sri Lanka. Fearful farmers fight back; in 2019, they killed a record 405 elephants. While human-elephant conflict is a threat to these jungle giants, it also puts impoverished farmers in a vulnerable situation.

“We need to help humans first. If we do that, we can save elephants.”

Ravi Corea
Founder of Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

In the early 1990s, conservationists in Sri Lanka tried to solve the problem by installing electric fences around the villages. But elephants are smart creatures: They began using sticks or branches to break these wires. Busy farmers then have to spend time rebuilding the wires. Ravi Corea, founder of SLWCS, says that farmers who live hand to mouth don’t have the luxury of spending time on such repairs. 

 

Corea understood the need for a long-term solution during his time near Wasgamuwa about three decades ago. After he launched SLWCS in 1995, Corea initiated the project Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) in 1997 to research community-led responses. “I realized that we need to help humans first,” he says. “If we do that, we can save elephants.” 

 

Around 2005, Corea got a surprising tip from the villagers. “Elephants are amazing creatures,” he says, laughing. “They like to remind us that they are the kings in the jungle.”

 

Elephants often display their power by uprooting trees—but there was one type they left alone: citrus.

 

So a year later, SLWCS conducted a series of feeding trials with six captive Asian elephants at Dehiwala Zoo, located in suburban Colombo. While elephants gulped down other things such as melons, bananas, paddy, and palm leaves, they tended to eschew oranges and lime fruits and leaves. Their study (which has not been peer-reviewed) concluded that Asian elephants in Sri Lanka have a natural aversion to citrus. 

 

The researchers never found out why elephants didn’t like citrus—they suspect the compound called limonene might be behind it—but those results were promising enough to expand the solution. Corea had already tried other options in between—like beehive fences. They involve fencing the farmer’s crops with beehives. This invention has worked in parts of Africa, but Sri Lankan bees don’t sting as hard as the killer bees of Africa. Moreover, the bees would leave in the dry season in search of water. 

The Sri Lankan elephant is a sub-species of the endangered Asian elephant. They’re responsible for more than 90 deaths a year in Sri Lanka.

By 2011, SLWCS moved forward on the potential citrus solution: It donated orange trees to 12 farmers in Radunna Wewa, another small hamlet in Wasgamuwa. After three years, as the orange plants grew, the farmers saw the difference the plants made. While elephants still stormed through the surrounding main roads, they would take a detour when they smelled citrus. The strong smell of orange now keeps the elephants out of the village, protecting crops and property.

 

Sixty-year-old Waththegedara Anulawathie is one of Radunna Wewa’s first orange growers. “Elephants don’t come now,” Anulawathie says, her wrinkled face lighting up. Her black and gray hair is loosely braided; her baby pink blouse bright against the backdrop of paddy fields nearby. “Some months, we lost most of our harvest,” she says, pointing to where elephants reduced a house to nothing. “Now we go to sleep at night,” she smiles.

Orange trees have brought in a new source of income for Waththegedara Anulawathie though drought and heat have killed two of her young trees already.

Since their earliest program in Radunna Wewa almost 10 years ago, SLWCS has planted trees in more than 12 villages in the Wasgamuwa region, distributing 25,000 orange plants. Pussellayaya is one of their latest additions. Each of the village’s 300 houses has at least 10 orange trees. In the last five years, SLWCS has estimated that the Wasgamuwa region contributed only about 2 percent to national human-elephant conflict—including property and crop damage, human deaths, and elephant deaths—according to annual data the organization collects from the region’s Department of Wildlife Conservation.

 

“Now elephants don’t harm the poor farmers, and farmers don’t harm the elephants,” Corea says, “It’s a win-win for both parties.” 

 

While oranges kept elephants away, their commercial value further incentivized farmers to cultivate the crop. Most traditional paddy farmers struggle to meet their needs, but oranges now provide them an additional income. Farmers grow Bibile sweets, a green orange from Bibile, Sri Lanka, which suits the climate. Anulawathie says a fully grown tree yields about 300 to 500 oranges, which she sells for 15 rupees (about $0.10) each. 

 

However, soaring heat and extreme drought threaten these orchards. In Anulawathie’s garden, two young trees died in August, the driest month of the year. While SLWCS has already developed an irrigation system that brings in water from nearby canals, lakes, and springs, farmers are still struggling. 

 

As more farmers grow Bibile sweets, Corea says they will help protect the natural water springs. Once the trees grow into large orchards, they’ll help shade the bare soil from the harsh sun. Birds, butterflies, and other insects come for orange flowers, too, increasing the area’s biodiversity. “Oranges are addressing the issues of the ecosystem shared by elephants, humans, and other wildlife,” Corea says.

In the village of Pussellayaya, you’ll see homes surrounded by rice fields and farmers busy plowing. This woman is carrying seed paddy home—safe from any pestering elephants.

SLWCS relies on volunteers and donations for its projects. While Corea has plans to expand this program, the conservation efforts would require more financial support and intervention from government authorities. Corea and his team had planned to begin feeding trials in Tanzania to African elephants, but the pandemic put that on pause. “We want to see if African elephants show a resistance to citrus as well.”

 

Now that elephants don’t come to raid their paddy, farmers in Pussellayaya can sleep peacefully. They can reap and sell their harvest in full. Wije, for instance, was able to buy a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) with last year’s earnings. Wije walks me around the village and shows me a home. The garden is dotted with orange trees, planted only four years ago. In May, the family sold their first harvest. 

 

We walk to the SLWCS field office, and Wije squeezes a few oranges for juice. It’s a great way to kill the scorching heat. Wije peels off the orange rind, but he has already learned that the outer skin is also useful. SLWCS is planning to make essential oil from orange peel, as well as introduce products with a longer shelf life: jam, bottled-juices, and cordials. 

 

Wije believes these products can help bring more income to the villagers. “Until then, we are thankful that elephants don’t come here anymore. Our rice is safe. Our houses are safe. We are safe,” Wije says, smiling. “Elephants are safe, too.”

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