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Elephants versus Man. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired April 21, 2024 - 20:00   ET




NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: -- soft, so they reached straight for gun powder. Usually the elephants just run. But sometimes they charge. And it's us who have to run.


MARQUARDT: And Nick's story on the all-new episode of "THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER," one whole hour one whole story, that airs next only on CNN.

And thank you all very much for joining me this evening and all weekend.

I'm Alex Marquardt. Good night and have a good week.


The iconic Asian elephant is found mostly across the south and southeastern parts of the continent, including in Sri Lanka which is home to roughly 7,000 wild elephants. But these animals are in danger. Rapid developments in Sri Lanka has pushed humans farther out into the wild, building homes and farms and factories in areas where the elephants live.

These remarkably intelligent creatures are learning to live alongside humans, but that means they're destroying farmlands, evading fences and even holding up cars at times on the road to demand food. And farmers tried to protect their lands with firecrackers, flash grenades, sometimes guns to keep the elephants away. And the elephants will often attack and kill the people they encounter.

More than one elephant today is dying from human activity and one person every two days from elephant attacks.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh traveled to Sri Lanka to witness this deadly conflict, and over the next hour, he's going to show you just how intense these battles can be and what the elephants are doing to survive in this new world. Some of the images in this hour may be disturbing to watch.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (voice- over): The twist in our time, how nature behaves so unnaturally. Turning on us because we turned on it. The biggest have taken this cruel change the hardest. Driven from their homes, elephants now need to break into to ours. Fighting for food, space, water, life. A mirror of so many conflicts between humans around us.

But their struggle for life huge, urgent, lumbering, something to behold and empathize. Because it is our struggle, too, a sign of what is also happening to us. Seeking space to breathe on a crowded earth.

Gentle, private, timelessly patient, and careful. Elephants have for centuries prefer to keep their distance. Their strength, intelligence, complexity, mean they always a fascination.

This is the place where they come every dusk to drink. And it's good a massive river between them and us. It's quite a lot of them here because if at any moment they feel threatened, they could charge.

(Voice-over): This isn't sightseeing. It's an early warning system. These are locals on guard to protect their crops, just 200 yards away, from being trampled by the elephants, mostly at night.

Here in Sri Lanka, the lord of a forest has become a farmland pest. Sanju has observed elephants for years, fascinated, and has now become this village's night watchman.

SANJU, FARMER (through text translation): There's no solution. The elephants keep on coming to our fields. I am not afraid of them because I know their patterns. When I see an animal, I can tell about the animal's situation. If you stay awake and keep a torch lit, the elephants usually stay away. If you fall asleep, they come closer to the fields.


WALSH: A dusk turns to dark sleep is a thing of the past. This farmer's mother-in-law was killed by an elephant a decade ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): The issue has escalated. The growing elephant population is exacerbating the problem. We love elephants, but we are afraid of them at night. A week ago an elephant came inside our house. That's why it's scary. But there's nothing to do. Even if we are afraid, we are used to this. But our children and wives are scared.

WALSH: It would likely be fear that keeps little Sudu awake tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): It's here. It's here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Where?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): It's here today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Where? Oh, my god, it's here? Yes, it's here. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Both of you head up to

the treehouse. It arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): It's getting closer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Daddy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Yes, it's very close to us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Daddy, please watch it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Sudu, come here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Come here. Come here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): I want to stay and watch it with my father.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Go up, go up. Climb, climb.

WALSH: Up high, it is safer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Go to the top. Go inside. Stay there.

WALSH: Just 10 days earlier, an elephant killed a woman at a bus stop near here. The nights have become about patrols, survival, keeping your crop, your livelihood safe. These are these conflicts' weapons. Firecrackers, thunder flashes.

Suddenly the numbers have grown from a couple here possibly to 10, maybe 20 over by the tree line over there. Possibly coming in this direction.

(Voice-over): This is already too close. If they charge, it would all be over. A torch light used to always be enough, or they would bang pots and pans. Now, nobody wants to risk going soft so they reach straight for gunpowder. Usually the elephants just run, but sometimes they charge. And it's us who have to run.

That's the risk they take every night. When flash bang lands, it makes that noise. They could be charged or the elephant could run.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): I'm scared because there is no fence here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): If it comes toward us we must run or get trampled.

WALSH (voice-over): This happens multiple times most nights.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Brother, it's coming toward us.

WALSH: There is good reason why nobody risks falling asleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Father. Are they still there? I'm scared.

WALSH: For a brief moment, the torches go dark when they tried to rest. Then a rustle awakes them and meters away is a large bull already in the crop. He has sneaked in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Go without fear. Go closer.

WALSH: The worst kind of outcome.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Sanju, don't get too close.

WALSH: When the elephants slip through the fence towards the village itself. This is a large elephant called a tusker for two obvious ivory reasons.

He's big and pretty angry, and moving along the outskirts of this village. There are literally people's homes on the other side of a pretty flimsy electric fence.

(Voice-over): That clicking noise is the electric current in the wires next to us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): The dogs were barking because of that tusker. Did you se how he sneaked in?

WALSH: Did he eat a lot?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): About two plots were damaged.


WALSH (voice-over): Later Sanju's plot again is under threat by a large group. And this time they run. Village life here, as we saw over four nights, in the thrall of their larger neighbors. It's become a life here, drinking, fretting, listening in the black, and then the dogs always the first to sound the alarm, pick up from inside the houses. I think one has broken into the settlement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): It's a big tusker. It came from road and entered.

WALSH: They spot it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Elephant.

WALSH: Any signs the elephant could kill particularly their kids and the elephant is likely also terrified lured by the smell of food, but now trapped in tight alleyways, hunted. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Here. Here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Don't go that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Brother, get into the Jeep. If there's an emergency drive this way.

WALSH: One man up ahead seems to be holding a rifle or shotgun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): If you get out and run you will be trampled and killed. It escaped from here and went there. Over there the dogs are barking. It's still in that rice paddy field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): The elephant is gone.

WALSH: This man says the elephant he saw was small and ran off between homes. As this video filmed by a local a month earlier shows, often they are up close. We drive around the edge of the village. Soon it is clear how many are now inside the wire. Some are big. Fires lit by other farmers have not stopped some slipping in between the crops. And so we witnessed an extraordinary standoff between a likely terrified lost group of three elephants and one desperate man.

The flashlight deters them, but the farmer needs to be sure. The oldest of tools in a fight for land that is new to our time for both species. Every night with the dark amplifying the panic. As we drive away, a family spill out onto the village road. They are meters away from human homes that decades ago they might have never even glimpsed.

It takes daylight to understand the geography. The why behind the night's chasing and fireworks. These are the field Sanju protects. Here is the tree line where we first saw the elephants. It is all perilously close and below these are not elephants but cattle. A human addition to this landscape, one that eats that vegetation the elephants need to consume such a huge amount of daily. We have shifted into what was long their space.

And so their nightly invasions are really them returning to their homes, posing the question of whether it's us or them that's become the pest.



WALSH: There's not much we haven't already put nature through, may it ghoulish, alien, even glow. As if it's not formidable enough the way we found it. What makes this scene feel even more out of joint is that the elephants they're parading here are also objects of worship. This is about harnessing their power, adorning them for a wider spectacle.

This is Perahera, the Festival of the Sacred Tooth. It fills the streets of the Sri Lankan city of Kandy every year with 10 nights of flame, dance and elephants. When Buddha died and was cremated, the story goes, his left canine tooth was found in the ashes. It became a symbol of great power in Sri Lanka but the power on show here is uglier. Our power over nature, and the damage we are doing to our world daily.

So much of it to forests, oceans, glaciers, things that cannot fight back. But elephants, uprooted, forced from their homes by our unhinged expansion, have become a violent sign of nature repelling us. We need it, we revere it. But just look at how we brutalize it. In our acts of admiration here, we cause some great stress and pain. The parade is blocked as one elephant has gone astray. They have to pin it down.

The chains are aimed at pulling the legs apart, painfully, limiting movement. Police tell us to stop filming and move back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Hey, don't let these guys in here, please. Move them away.

WALSH: Officials carrying tranquilizer rush in. A week earlier, a woman was hospitalized when several elephants ran amok. We do not see the elephants' fate. The parade resumes.

That journey to that moment takes hours of preparation. They are venerated, the focus of a religious moment of great import, yet also clearly in pain as they're bent into shape. Both people and elephants share the land of about half of Sri Lanka. But a species that once shied away in the jungle is, experts say, ever more in conflict with humans.


There are about 6,000 elephant in Sri Lanka. And in 2023, we killed 476 of them. They killed 169 people.

Be no doubt it is not normal for an elephant to sway back and forth like this. It is a sign of stress. There is what seems to be blood on the floor below. A mahout is a human they've learned to obey.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Elephant, kneel. Elephant, kneel.

WALSH: Shuffled towards the last stage of preparation witnessed the efforts he is forced to make on the stairs to become part of our world. On these packed, drenched streets, the crisis we have put all beings on this planet in feels close, marveling at the very thing we in chain and destroy.



WALSH: Across Sri Lanka, the pristine green has arteries of concrete ambition cut into it. Growth everywhere fast. We headed into the farmland near protected areas to meet the people who need both growth and nature to survive. Another sleepless world where breakneck expansion into Sri Lanka's forests has fueled an economic recovery after three decades of civil war ended in 2009.

Near the village of Dahaiyagala (PH), this reservoir is being built in the cool of night, right across elephant territory. The human decision was simple. The president at the time toured rural areas asking people what they wanted. Here someone said a lake.

It's incredible at night how the building just never seems to stop and quite wise even need it out here just don't get to really understand.

(Voice-over): Most people say they aren't short of water, but they might be one day if they keep expanding like this. So really this is building to prepare for future building, a loop of unchecked growth dependent on itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): His head is split, he lost a lot of blood.

WALSH: It's not long until we see the first signs of nature hitting back.

DAVID, TAXI DRIVER (through text translation): I don't know what happened. I sprang off the road, that's it.

WALSH: David was driving his rickshaw taxi down the road when he says he ran into an elephant. He has a head injury.

DAVID (through text translation): I am not feeling well. My head hurts ad it hurts here, too. No help has come yet.

WALSH: He's drunk and distressed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): I don't know anything. I just woke up lying on the shrubs.

WALSH: His vehicle, his income is crushed at the front.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): I don't go unless I get hired. I need to earn a living. I normally don't go out after 5:00, but today I did. It was late when I returned.

WALSH: Across the villagers here night means bracing for damage. It is witching hour when oddly villages spring to life. The dark makes it so much easier for elephants to surprise them. A long electric fence lines the river bank kept visible to humans in the black by plastic trash ribbons.

That's a pretty eerie place. This kind of no man's land between where the elephants come from, a kind of national parks, and these farming fields.


Every dot in the pitch black here a group of farmers trying to protect their land. And it feels bizarre to see this sort of frontline mentality out here.

(Voice-over): They used to fence the elephants into the forest. But new studies promote instead fencing them out of the villages and farms. Still, sometimes they break through. And these men know what that is like. (INAUDIBLE) still can't raise his arm after a clash with an elephant two months ago. He's been asleep on a berm in his fields exhausted from harvesting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): When the elephant tried to grab, it caught the bed sheet that I was wrapped in, so I rolled out and fell. I went and hugged a tree. I thought I could circle around the tree if the elephant tried to attack me. I held the tree and kept quiet.

WALSH: They say elephants have killed 26 people here since they started farming these fields as children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): These lands were given in 1968. This is my birthplace. Back in those days, it wasn't like this. If you pointed a torchlight at an elephant, it would run away. It is dangerous. Truly dangerous. The elephants won't be tamed. They are -- the elephants roam these land.

WALSH: There is guarantee of compensation if their crops are destroyed. only them out here with a handful of thunder flashes supplied by the state each week.

So for all of you?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): There is nothing to think about. We can't decide between when to protect our farmlands or when to protect our lives. There's no choice. We have to face the elephant until the last minute.

WALSH: Across the river we hear the bangs and roar of clashes apparently around a commercial plantation. As the sun rises, this is the moment of relief, of rest and assessing damage. And it is often horrific. We got a call to come quickly. Two hours away a 4-year-old female elephant has been shot. It was night, and she had entered a farm field. We don't know who shot her. They might be among the onlookers.

Guns are mostly illegal, but shooting elephants definitely is, except it happens a lot. There are signs she's been in trouble before. The green antiseptic from earlier vet treatment also on her knee. Because this is a chest wound there is not much they can do. Water and straw to keep her fed but really time is not her friend here. More of it won't heal her.

They built a plastic sheeting shelter for her to keep the sun away. The vet in this Buddhist countries seldom euthanize animals so they must just wait. This is the closest these children say they've ever been to an elephant. We later learned it took another three nights and two days for her to die.

Yet nature is capable of similar violence. We learned back in (INAUDIBLE) father was killed by an elephant. They were both security guards near the reservoir project we saw earlier. The elephant charged his father causing fatal injuries to his head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Actually we didn't have the normal father-son relationship. It went beyond that. To be honest, now look at this. I will never be able to forget this. We always talked about my children. Yes, this is my daughter. It was my father who raised my kids. He even called me before leaving.

WALSH: The elephant disturbed near the road rushed the father, (INAUDIBLE), but he tried to save this, his bicycle as well as his ow life. Still plastic elephant tusks adorned his resting place. But what they are venerated, there is nothing gentle about them when threatened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): I have no hatred for the elephants. They are wild animals.

WALSH: The bicycle the father saved still sits outside.


There is little sympathy in the laws of the wild, even less here near where he died where lives the village hunter Amorapala (PH) who doesn't want his face shown.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): It's like this wretched guy was destined to get killed by an elephant. In broad daylight, why would he just stare at the elephant? He wanted to save the bicycle as well as himself. So he ran holding onto the bike.

WALSH: He shows us the homemade raffle, the gun trap he set for wild boars. But this cannon dust hit elephants, too. It all depends on how high you set the trip wire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): It goes off if it gets tagged there. See, it's a very fine string.

WALSH: It is rudimentary but effective enough. He's laid several in the forest. The fact he would only hit an elephant's feet would still make it deadly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Haven't you seen some elephants limping around? They've had a taste of these.

WALSH: This clash, this crash between species seems so unlikely out in the green vastness. Yet Sri Lanka has 10 percent of Asia's elephants, but only 2 percent of its living space for them, and still humans are coming from that. But the battle here is often quiet, intense moments of emptiness, anxiety, and panic. Nanda (PH) moved out here to escape abuse at home. She lives on the edge of the farmlands right next to the parks. Around her in the pitch black elephants lurk in the forest, sometimes meters away, and raid at will.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): They leave when I light torches or throw firecrackers. They're never hurt me in any way. If there is a fear, I asked to set up fences because they come at night. So I have to stay up all night. If I fall asleep, they eat my crops in the fields. That is the only worry. There is nothing else to be scared of. WALSH: And so every night she spends awake outdoors. Often her watch

begins up here alone in this tiny treehouse, silent, sleepless, waiting. With the ghosts of a troubled past and the wind swaying her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): Those days, my husband was always out drinking. So I got used to being alone. My sons were small in those days. So no one was there to come and help me. I was all alone.

WALSH: She's noticed the elephants get more aggressive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through text translation): I don't know why the elephants become violent. Maybe aggressive elephants were brought from elsewhere? I don't know what to say. We used to live in these forests without fear.

WALSH: Each blast little comfort. The elephants might have been scared away or chased in her direction. Nothing can give Nanda back a night's rest or a sense of safety. Just noises in the darkness and the weight of solitude.



WALSH: Further south, we see how the painful rivalry between us and them for space to live has led to something uglier still. Elephants getting used to our world. This is the port of Hambantota, built in a hurry by China and perhaps not as frantically busy as planned. It remains source of debt and the reason to keep digging to prompt the growth that might pay the debt off, with the trees here a curated space is left for nature in our asphalt world.

But even here in the emerging concrete jungle, we spot a herd. It's dusk, and they are on the move. Cattle again seem to compete for the grass. Then as dusk seems to bring the horizon closer, timeless rhythms emerged.

You have to whisper to not spook the elephants, but, still, despite the breakneck development happening all around them, there are three herds here slowly coming together. And it's magical to see this. That's been going on regardless of all human intervention for centuries.


(Voice-over): What just is this routine born in the privacy of the Savanna not just a few meters away from a new highway. This young one appears to have injured their left leg hobbling, tended to for a while but also later distanced from the herd.

The port lights pick up and the sun ebbs. The warning lights of our climate crisis ignored, building for growth here for a future that's not been glimpsed yet. Ignoring the lasting damage to the present. Sometimes the roads aren't caged, but become a sort of playground where the elephants have the upper hand. This road runs through a national park and it's lined with elephants

trying to block the traffic until they are fed. It's kind of hold-up, really preying on human fear, panicking the uninitiated. Some that would fancy the run. The buses who drive this daily seemed to almost aim for them and then there are those who came prepared, knowing what the elephants want.

There's bananas, the food they throw at the elephants kind of their tax on humans for getting into their space here. And it's pretty clear who controls this road.

(Voice-over): This veteran bandit has worked this spot for a while. He lets us very close. His instinct does not seem to be to attack, quite when they choose to lurch in, we do not know. It should be a mystery we let them keep. A few miles down the road, however, a warped sign of domestication is emerging. Every morning the municipality comes out and repairs the electric fence because every noon the elephants break it down again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): They break it every single day. To reach the dump over there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): Is it tight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): No. Drag it towards the tree. Should be enough.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): In any case, the elephants will be back around 2:00 p.m.

WALSH: (INAUDIBLE) sees the need to do what they do is baffling. This is a place of toxic stench, plastic smoke. It's obvious to us where nothing living should want to be here. We don't have to wait long to see what desperation here looks like. Soon enough the end-user comes.

The voltage which you can head a buzz nearby not even a cause for pause. Why there may as well he spawned candy. He stops, assesses our camera for a slightly terrifying moment. But a larger, depressing prize awaits. Because this is what he's come for, to feast on garbage. Not deterred by smoke that stings our eyes either so hungry or warped in his diet that this is what he'll endure electric shocks to eat.


Around 20 of the hundreds of elephants that circulates Sri Lanka's trash heaps have died in recent years. Some poisoned, others starving as the plastic has filled their stomachs. They were simply never meant to be this used to the human world.


WALSH: It's hard to watch, but this is actually good news. The bars, the bandage mean he has been saved. This is a home for all orphaned elephants. The human carers do not know if the parents are dead just that these young have been separated from the herd normally because of injury. [20:55:00]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): He will be given watermelon juice. He's been suffering from stomach aches. His name is Elton.

WALSH: Sadly, despite this care, Elton died a few weeks later.

That sounds like it must mean something in particular. But the facts here say it's basically a reflection of the fact that she thinks food is coming and some elephants have very different personalities. They think Arati (PH) is perhaps a little grumpy.

(Voice-over): They fed human baby formula in huge quantities. But the number of orphans coming here is rising year-on-year. Ever more, showing signs of being wounded by humans or in these cases perhaps losing their parents to the conflict. These are the rare few who get patched back together again. Most of the time, elephants just die quietly in the wild from their wounds.

About 50 are here, feeding time is noisy. And to help its funding a spectacle, too. The paradox here is keeping them alive using the human tools they have while nudging them back towards the wild. This one, Sapuma (PH), is missing part of his lower jaw. A survivor of the so- called jaw bomb, explosives deliberately hidden in vegetables by humans as a trap, detonating when the elephants bite them.

He may need a tube for some time more and may never eat like the rest of them. But even this doesn't stop this little guy butting in. Now the game. Humans administering who gets human baby formula. It's about as far from nature as they could get. Some like Lamar (PH) will never truly live in the wild again. This 13-year-old lost the bottom part of his leg to a snare. And now we have made him a prosthetic foot. He feeds apart from the others, lives apart from them, too. In this

heat, they give him a washdown, a powerhouse, also something he'd never feel in nature. Human charity here is a response to its own brutality. Fixing our own errors.

The sanctuary adjoins the lake, where people also wash. The amputees seems to have adjusted to coexistence. It's a man who helps him bathe here, who is his companion, and another man who put him in this position. It's pretty clear who is winning the avoidable battle between man and elephant. Their victims who strike back who done submit quietly. And so let us see the violence we are doing to nature. They're a warning sign of how perilous our survival is. pf how deeply we are disrupting a planet that lets us feed, breathe, and drink, and how lonely and barren our immediate future here could be.


COOPER: It's been one year since the launch of THE WHOLE STORY. And so we want to close out tonight's program with a look at what we've shown you this past year. All of these episodes are available to stream on Max.

Thanks for watching and I'll see you next Sunday. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many have died here.

COOPER: You really get a sense of just the chaos that took place here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You smell death.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I was pretty skeptical of this. Did you think you were going to be able to change my mind?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Do you think you probably did that day was adequate?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I go to sleep, I don't know if I'll wake up. I go out, I don't know if I come back safe.