Turning over a new leaf

Humans and elephants struggle to coexist in Sri Lanka, but a clever initiative is using waste to broker a tentative peace.

Illustration Getty Images. Words and photography Kadambari Gladding

The “conflict of coexistence” – this phrase has come to encapsulate our tenuous relationship with wilderness and wildlife. In Sri Lanka, this conflict often proves fatal: each year, many humans and elephants die in the struggle over limited resources for human settlement, crop plantations and elephant habitat.

Today the island nation of Sri Lanka has an elephant population of around 3000–4000, nearly half of what it was 60 years ago. Sri Lankans have always revered the elephant, giving it pride of place in traditional festivals and ceremonies. Economically, the nation benefits from tourists coming to see the visible wild-elephant population. Yet where crops are grown near remote forests or elephant territory, lives are marked by violence. Elephants raid crops and people drive them away with gunshots, drums and electric fences. In the last 12 years, at least 1400 elephants and around 600 people have died in this conflict. Elephants migrate along ‘corridors’ in the forest, which are now encroached upon by expanding human settlement. As the elephants’ natural habitat and food source diminishes, hungry herds often wander into fields looking for food: bananas, sugar cane, rice, kitul palm. 

How to maintain peace between man and animal, ensuring both have access to food, resources and safety? The Millennium Elephant Foundation and Maximus, two sister organisations in Kegalle, are changing mindsets and creating awareness around habitat conservation for these majestic creatures. They look after elephants orphaned by the conflict, and produce handmade paper made of elephant dung.

How poo becomes pretty paper

With eight rescued, orphaned, aged or disabled elephants under its care, the Millienium Elephant Foundation has plenty of dung to work with, and also uses waste from nearly 70 elephants at a nearby orphanage. An adult captive elephant eats 200kg of vegetation and produces around 120kg of dung each day. Their diet is varied: jackfruit leaves, coconut, banana, kitul branches. The paper’s texture depends on this diet, the fibre content and the age of the elephants.

Production lasts about 13 days. During the first three days, dung is dried thoroughly and boiled with margosa leaves in large steel vats to be disinfected, deodorised and sterilised. It takes a further 10 days to pulp, mix, press and dry the paper. There’s no chlorine involved, but shredded recycled office paper is added for volume. What looks like an unappealing pulp-porridge is pressed into moulds under thin muslin cloth. The paper is pressed again, dried and then air-dried into even, textured, quality paper sheets. 

When I visit the Maximus plant where paper is produced, two things stand out: innovation and inclusiveness. Production manager Joseph Pararajasingham says, “When we first started, it used to take us hours to make even small amounts of paper. Many of these machines, like the driers and cutters, were custom-made by our manager to serve very specific purposes. This is something only someone who works in this industry can really understand. The plant is much more productive.” 

At Maximus, nearly 80 per cent of the staff are women. “We are very proud to give jobs to local villagers and to so many women”, says Pararajasingham. “The ladies here are happy with the work culture. Some even bring their kids in for the day while they work.”

Pararajasingham has been here from the get-go. During the 1983 Tamil-Sinhalese riots, his house burned down and he was homeless and jobless for several years. Following a chance meeting with Millennium’s founder Sam Samarasinghe, he got a job at the paper plant. The oldest and longest-serving employee, Pararajasingham is every bit the proud, meticulous manager. “The way in which we make a small impact through awareness and conservation of habitat makes us all feel very good.”

A greener alternative

Paper made solely of virgin pulp is hugely taxing on the environment, requiring tremendous energy, toxic chemicals and vast swathes of forest. With so much recycled material available, why has global demand for alternatively sourced paper not picked up as much as it could? Small industries such as this eco-paper plant need support from governments and consumers – which is often thin on the ground. Nearly 20 years on, though, Maximus is still standing. 

A few years ago, profits derived from paper made of recycled material, plant waste or dung weren’t sufficient to make it a viable solution, but conscious consumers can change that – much like the trend in organic food and crops. Factory manager Wibatha Wijeratne says, “It’s good to see the demand for this product gradually increasing. The government has been increasingly supportive of the eco-friendly concept in Sri Lanka, and we’ve been encouraged to learn and adapt from other countries that have successful eco-friendly practices. If we can get more people to see the good in having healthy elephant numbers and habitats, maybe the sense of threat will change and conservation will take place.”

Vision of the future

Not far from the paper factory, the eight elephants are walked, fed and bathed with love by the caretakers, often given a hand by travellers passing through. It’s easy to see the ripple effects of a small industry like this: environmental conservation, job creation, low-impact tourism, and beautiful handmade paper products that, hopefully, will soon be used the world over. 

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