The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is the largest of the four sub species of Asian elephants. Historical accounts show that an extensive wild population inhabited the island for many centuries and there is a well-established culture of domestication.
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Sri Lankan Elephant Population Figures
Elephant Range: 15,000 km² approx Country Ranking: 7th of 13 Total Wild Elephants: 2,100 – 3000 Country Ranking: 4th or 5th of 13 Total Captive Population: 200 – 250 Country Ranking: 7th of 13
Source: R Sukumar – A Brief Review of the Status, Distribution and Biology of Wild Asian Elephants Elephas maximus- International Zoo Yearbook 2006
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While this information source is considered the very best available, accurate data on wild elephant populations is difficult to obtain and scientifically verify. Sri Lankan elephant expert Jayantha Jayewardene reported in 2001 that the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) estimated 4,000 wild elephants.
Wild Elephants in Sri Lanka
It is reported that at the beginning of the 19th century there were 19,500 wild elephants in Sri Lanka 100 years later and indiscriminate capture, hunting for ‘pleasure’ and the destruction of elephants as agricultural pests have catastrophically reduced the figure to just 2,000.
There has also been a change in the distribution of elephant herds. Whereas previously healthy elephant populations existed across the island, today an increase in land utilised for agriculture has pushed the elephants into the drier regions in the south-west.
The highly competent Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation(DWLC) has an effective and well-developed elephant policy that estimates that the remaining forests and National Parks could have a carrying capacity of between 4,000-5,000 elephants. Despite this, the biggest issue affecting Sri Lanka’s wild elephants is human-elephant conflict.
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The reduction and fragmentation of habitat has increasingly brought wild elephants in conflict with man. As food and water becomes scarce, the elephant population is forced to feed on cultivated land. The predation of the elephants has destroyed the livelihood of farmers and despite a general reverence for elephants in Sri lankan culture, they have become increasingly viewed as pests.
The DWLC claims that in the last decade at least 1,369 elephants have been killed as a result of crop raiding; a huge percentage of the current estimated population of just double that figure. The elephants are not the only ones to have suffered, in the same period 536 humans have reportedly lost their lives.
The DWLC has been very positive in trying to resolve the problems facing Sri Lankas elephants and is currently adopting the following conservation measures:
- Elephant Deterrence – the use of noise, flashes and other shock tactics to deter elephants
- Establishment of new National Parks and increasing the size of conservation areas.
- Establishment of elephant corridors – to allow the safe passage of elephants from one area of habitat to another.
- Habitat enrichment of elephant areas to enhance carry capacity
- Translocation of elephants to less populated areas
- Electrical Fencing – forming solid barriers between farmland and elephant habitat
- Ex-situ conservation and breeding programme
- Control poaching
- Synergising elephant conservation with economic development.
Domesticated Elephants in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a long history of domesticating elephants – back to the times when Sinhalese Kings kept them for military purposes and to enhance the majesty of their reign.
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Today domesticated elephants are engaged in the following types of work:
- Logging – particularly in forested areas
- Construction – Historically elephants have played a big role in the construction of ancient historical cities. Today elephants are still used to carry steel, sand and other building materials.
- Tourism – elephants are used to give tourists rides although this use is far less developed than that in Thailand. The elephant orphanage at Pinnawela operated by the National Zoological Gardens is also a big tourist attraction.
- Ceremonies and Temple Work – Elephants participate in annual temple processions all over Sri Lanka. Often they are richly caparisoned and central to proceedings. Other elephants are permanently kept at temples as a status symbol. Often these poor animals are heavily chained and restricted in their movements.
Domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka face difficulties finding useful and gainful employment. There are also serious concerns about a sharp decline in mahout skills and accusations of abuse and cruelty are commonplace.
The Captive Elephant Owners Association of Sri Lanka was formed in 1998 to bring owners together to address the many problems that Sri Lanka’s domesticated elephants face.
Sri Lanka plays host to a sizeable population of elephants whose importance is magnified by the fact that the native elephants comprise a wholly separate sub species. The Sri Lankan authorities recognise the cultural and natural significance of the elephant and are working assiduously to ensure the survival and health of both wild and domesticated elephants on the island.