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Tsunami Survivors Learn to Live With Elephant Neighbors


They survived last year's Indian Ocean tsunami, but the residents of one of Sri Lanka's resettlement communities are facing a new problem: elephants. A new housing project outside one southern town has been built in elephant territory and the two sets of neighbors must now learn to co-exist.

When local authorities told Sumiya Zainub that her family would get a new home after months of living in a temporary shelter, she had one specific request: she did not want a house near any elephants.

Helped by international donors, the Sri Lankan government is building thousands of houses in new communities outside the southern town of Hambantota to resettle those left homeless by last year's Indian Ocean tsunami.

That includes hundreds of new homes in Siribopura, where Ms. Zainub's family recently moved. But the area is also home to wild elephants.

Just a few hundred meters away from Siribopura, three elephants are picking through garbage at a dump. The huge animals appear docile; several dogs and scores of birds are also looking for food in the trash, and everyone is getting along.

But Ms. Zainub says people are afraid to go out at night. And she is especially worried about the children, who might not know how to react when an elephant comes near.

She says it doesn't matter how they look, deep down everyone is scared of them. She quotes an ancient expression that says, "When an elephant is near, your heart starts to race".

It is not an irrational fear.

Ten years ago, Liyanawadugay Arelsamy lost a granddaughter in an elephant attack.

The 77-year-old also says he has had to rebuild parts of his house damaged by wild elephants.

Sri Lanka's forestry department has put up 25 kilometers of electric fencing to keep elephants out of communities like Siribopura.

But Mr. Arelsamy's home is across the street from Siribopura and outside the protected perimeter. That means elephants trying to reach Siribopura reach Mr. Arelsamy's house before being forced to turn around and that means trouble.

Mr. Arelsamy says the elephants often try to drink from the water tank in the back of his house. He says the fence is inadequate and the government should provide his house with real security.

Officials admit the barrier does not always do the trick. They say some elephants have figured out how to push over the support posts, and then they simply walk over the fence. When that happens, firecrackers are considered the best defense.

An "elephant patrol" made up of six forestry department staff throw firecrackers towards the elephants to keep them out of the tsunami survivors' communities. They also provide firecrackers for residents so they can defend themselves. The goal, they say, is to scare away the elephants, not to injure them.

One staffer, Dileepa Sanjeeva says there were about 25 wild elephants in the area until the forestry department rounded up about ten of the more aggressive animals and moved them to a national park.

But, Mr. Sanjeeva says, the government cannot simply take all the elephants away.

He says some of the elephants do not harm anyone, they just come to the garbage dump to eat. The forestry workers have also been told not to chase the creatures away because foreign tourists like to see them.

Officials point out that many communities across Sri Lanka have to cope with wild elephants. And, despite residents' fears, the elephants have not harmed any tsunami survivors resettled in Siribopura or the other new communities outside Hambantota. It is just a case, officials say, of new neighbors simply having to learn how to get along.