A further two endangered Asian elephants have died after consuming plastic waste in an open Sri Lankan landfill this month, bringing the total number of elephant deaths from the Pallakkadu village dump to at least 20 in eight years, the Associated Press reports

Wildlife veterinarian Nihal Pushpakumara said a post mortem confirmed activists' fears. 

"Polythene, food wrappers, plastic, other non-digestibles, and water were the only things we could see in the post mortems. The normal food that elephants eat and digest were not evident,” Pushpakumara told the Associated Press, before explaining that hungry elephants in the region are forced to rummage for food among piles of trash due to the loss of their natural habitat.

When the gentle giants consume plastic, their digestive systems are majorly damaged, Pushpakumara added.

“They become too weak to keep their heavy frames upright. They can’t consume food or water,” he said.

The Sri Lankan subspecies are the largest of all Asian elephants.

Their population has dropped by almost 65% since the 19th century, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with the species plummeting from 14,000 in the 1800s to 6,000 in 2011. Today, as few as 2,500 are thought to remain in the wild.

“The primary threat to Sri Lankan elephants is the loss of forests,” the WWF explains. “Once found throughout the tear-shaped island at the bottom of India’s southern tip, these elephants are now being pushed into smaller areas as development activities clear forests and disrupt their ancient migratory routes.”

To protect the animals — which majorly contribute to tourism in the region — the Sri Lankan Government promised in 2017 to erect electric fences around the landfill and establish recycling systems for the nine nearby villages that rely on the dump.

Despite the promises, neither of the initiatives was ever fully established.

Environmentalist and activist Sumith Pilapitxiya says the issue, particularly with electric fences, is that they are never suitably maintained and often only half constructed. Despite almost AU$10 million being spent on the fences over the past few years, Pilapitxiya believes the number of elephants entering dangerous areas “is only increasing.” 

"It is not that the fencing has failed; the way we do the fencing is the problem,” he told the Sri Lankan news website The Morning. "The lack of proper maintenance and not being placed in the correct places seems to be the main reason why elephant fences don't seem to be working. I do believe that it can be successful through managing it methodically."

The plastic waste crisis affects more than just elephants.

Over recent years, headlines have been made worldwide about various endangered animals dying after consuming or coming into contact with the material. In 2019, a baby dolphin was found washed up on a Florida beach with a stomach full of plastic trash, with similar stories about a beloved young dugong and a cuvier's beaked whale also making waves.


Defend the Planet

20 Elephants Have Died After Mistaking Plastic for Food in Single Sri Lankan Landfill

By Madeleine Keck