In Langscape Magazine Articles

Where Elephants Drink: Water Bodies and Human–Elephant Coexistence

July 04, 2023
Water patterns and an ancient human–elephant social contract hold important lessons for eco-justice.

WORDS AND IMAGES Elizabeth Oriel


An elephant foraging.

An elephant foraging in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka.


A brief walk by three water bodies in rural southern Sri Lanka is a tour through history and through different ways of relating to landscapes and to other beings. Amid teak and jackfruit trees sits an ancient, small pond. Farther on, I encounter the Walawe River and end up at the Uda Walawe reservoir. A human-made pond, a river, and a reservoir created by an embankment dam. A herd of female elephants stands at the other edge of the reservoir, looking across the water. These three water bodies are each historically and relationally distinct. The human-made pond, one of thousands in the dry zone, has helped local people maintain some autonomy with water access. The Walawe River is one of the island’s primary waterways, emerging from natural springs on a sacred mountain, Adam’s Peak. And the large Uda Walawe dam and reservoir were built by the postcolonial government in the early 1970s, providing irrigation water for new plantations.

A large ancient tank.

A large ancient pond, locally called a tank, in Anuradhapura.


What stories or histories do water bodies hold and tell? The way water moves from one space to another in an osmotic fashion speaks of equitable diffusions, of ways to share and co-inhabit lands. If we think with water, will we open doors to imagine new alternate futures based on life? Water is essential to life on earth, and perhaps water has a philosophy to teach. As philosopher Thomas Nail argues, patterns are nature’s concepts. Building on that idea, I propose that being responsible to the earth means learning the patterns that constitute the living world’s philosophy. My research on human–elephant–land relationships and conflict in Sri Lanka offers a lens to explore patterns and to learn with the living world.

Being responsible to the earth means learning the patterns that constitute the living world’s philosophy.

In the southeastern dry zone in Sri Lanka, monsoon rains water the land for several months each year. In dry seasons, instead, a parched brown color blankets everything; elephants appear bony and even frail. Yet, thousands of small ponds, locally called tanks, rhythmically punctuate the land. These human-made depressions masterfully slow the movement of water, retain moisture in the soil, and provide wetness to paddy fields and other cropped areas. Not only are they practical, but also they form a prideful heritage of ancient engineering and sophisticated hydrological prowess. The village tank was part of an inclusive system of crops, forest, paddy fields, and areas for wildlife to access food and water, and tanks were embedded in social and institutional systems that supported their maintenance and perpetuation. Elephants also accessed the tanks, and the land was organized around the needs and interests of both human and non-human species.

Elephants in Uda Walawe National Park.

Elephants in Uda Walawe National Park, with bones showing through their skin.


Elephants drink and bathe in tanks, often at night, taking advantage of the dark’s gift of invisibility. Many birds and other animals access the water as well, and fish inhabit some tanks. Although tanks are ancient in origin, about half of them still function, offering moisture in water-scarce times. Some researchers even claim that they shape interspecies coexistence. The ways of water — infiltration, percolation, seeping — constitute patterns of equitability across living beings. Vegetation around the tanks flourishes, providing food and medicine to insects and other animals.

The ways of water constitute patterns of equitability across living beings.

In the last decades, these dry lands have become embattled in a war of sorts — which seemingly is not among humans, but rather between farmers and elephants who eat and damage the farmers’ crops. This so-called interspecies “conflict” ravages the mental health of this region and of other regions in Asia and Africa in which elephants have lost their traditional habitats. One farmer I know, who lives near Uda Walawe National Park, guards his crops all night every single night from elephants’ incursions. He is losing his vision from lack of sleep and tells me that marriages are suffering while many turn to alcohol for help.

“Human–elephant conflict” has been occurring for millennia here; it was an intrinsic part of farming in elephant territories. Yet, over the past decades, escalating crop damage has led to high death rates for both elephants and humans. In the first eleven months of 2022, 395 elephants and 129 humans died as a result of this conflict in Sri Lanka. This escalation coincides with large-scale changes in land use, which have resulted in increasing abandonment of traditional chena, or slash-and-burn cultivation practices, replaced by more plantations and more irrigated agriculture, with a growing use of agrochemicals.

This so-called interspecies ‘conflict’ ravages the mental health of this region and of other regions in Asia and Africa in which elephants have lost their traditional habitats.

Crops eaten by elephants.

Crops eaten by elephants outside of Uda Walawe National Park.


Probing just below the surface, then, the source of this conflict is indeed a human–human one, rooted in colonialism and in colonial land use patterns that applied an extractive approach to cultivation, thus dislodging many interspecies links and contracts that held the island’s multispecies communities together. The island’s colonial period lasted 443 years, starting with Portuguese traders and invaders in 1505, followed by the Dutch, and finally by the British, who conquered the entire island in 1815. The British hunted down and expelled elephants and cut jungle in the central highlands to make way for coffee and tea plantations, sending the survivors into the dry zones, where access to tanks was crucial.

The source of this conflict is indeed a human–human one, rooted in colonialism and in colonial land use patterns.

This forced exile of elephants from highland terrain was a displacement entirely akin to human displacement caused by dam and reservoir projects. In Sri Lanka, elephants are a potent presence, as they move across the land foraging. They do not abide by the government’s rule that they stay inside protected areas. Seventy percent of them are found outside protected areas. They are robust actors in this drama and seem to remember older ways of cultivating crops and relating to land.

Elephants lounging.

Elephants lounging next to the Uda Walawe reservoir.


“Ours is a poem culture,” one agrarian researcher tells me, as we sit in his office in Colombo. He is referring to poems and songs that were recited to elephants and to other animals, warning them before burning the fields, pleading with them to avoid harming their crops, and honoring other beings. A history of singing and poems shared across species is a hallmark of land and place-based communities, from Ireland to Navajo territory in the U.S. Southwest to Amazonia. Only forty to fifty years ago here, farmers were singing to the elephants, reciting poems. One farmer I met still speaks to them, though not in poetic form anymore. A changing poetics of land relations is central to the conflict.

“Everything changed with the reservoir,” says a researcher as we enjoy the cooling yet humid evening air in a forest cottage next to Uda Walawe National Park. The conflict, I think at this moment, seems to revolve around water, poems, and songs. The Walawe River dam and reservoir project began in 1969, allowing for 67,600 acres of irrigated cultivation, including a sugar cane plantation with 35,000 workers and rice, chili, cotton, and onion fields.

This continuous and controlled approach to water in year-round irrigation differs profoundly from rain-fed cultivation, led by monsoon rhythms. A feature of chena, the traditional form of cultivation, was that elephants entered fields and ate crop remnants after harvests, a practice that provided crucial sustenance to them during the dry seasons. In this way, land access was permeable across humans and elephants and across time and space. Cropped fields were shifted to regenerate soils, which mimics the ways animals move around the land as they forage. Elephants do not migrate in Sri Lanka, but they do move about and are loyal to their known terrain. Farmers say, “This is elephant land,” referring to elephants’ historical ties and rights to this land. This pattern can be named “continuity,” or loyalty to terrain. When elephants are translocated because of crop damage, they often return to their home place.

An elephant herd on the move.

An elephant herd on the move.


I noticed these patterns of permeability, movement, and continuity in human-elephant relations during my research and fieldwork, though many of these patterns are losing out and have become harder to find nowadays. Elephants knew across generations that farm boundaries were permeable and that they could enter after harvest. These unwritten and unspoken agreements were a form of social contract. And patterns such as permeability can be viewed as a living-world philosophy. This is how beings share land and help one another. Thus, these are significant patterns — as Thomas Nail says, patterns of nature’s concepts.

The pattern of permeability, which water teaches, calls into question hard boundaries, highlighting the need for areas of shared access and areas for wildlife.

What are the implications of these patterns, if they are key to coexistence and to the reduction of interspecies conflict? The pattern of permeability, which water teaches, calls into question hard boundaries — boundaries around countries as much as around small land parcels — highlighting the need for areas of shared access and areas for wildlife. Small tanks as sources of local autonomy are another permeable pattern, as rainwater becomes available for both soils and farmers. Permeability occurs as well in our sense of self as either bounded or porous. The stress farmers feel doesn’t prevent them from hanging pictures of elephants in their homes; this is a porous relationship.

Elephant sculpture.

Elephant sculpture in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Elephants are present in photos, sculptures, and paintings in many human spaces.


Movement is present in the flow of water, in traditional cultivation with shifting fields, and also in how animals like elephants inhabit the land. This shifting conflicts with continuously irrigated agriculture and with static private property. Continuity in place is very low in modern times, with global economies and mobile lifestyles. Yet, in the midst of modernity, one can create continuous and loyal ties to place, as elephants do. These patterns, or nature’s concepts, guide each being in how to be responsible to others. They are guidelines to eco-politics for a livable future, in which humans attend to the needs and interests of their ecological context. In this moment of water scarcity and conflict, the patterns of water flows that distribute wetness, and thus life, and the ancient human–elephant social contracts hold important lessons for moving toward eco-social justice.


Back to Vol. 12 |  Read the Table of Contents | Like Our Stories? Please Donate!

Elizabeth Oriel.

Elizabeth Oriel is a postdoctoral research fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark. She holds an MSc in Conservation Biology and a PhD in Global Studies from the University of London. Her research and writing focus on relational patterns of coexistence among humans and the rest of the living world and how language supports or undermines these patterns. Her most recent project focuses on how plants shape human social and political lives.

Tags: , , , , ,