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Elephants in Sri Lanka

  Sri Lanka is a small island of 65,000 square miles. It has a population of 20 million people. It is also home to a wild elephant (Elephas maximus) population of approximately 4,500 to 5,000. The man-elephant ratio is 5000:1.  About 5 square km of land is needed to support an elephant in its forest habitat.
  This wild population is declining. The increasing human population, with its demand for jungle land for development from the elephants habitat, is causing problems to the wild elephant population. Reducing habitats and the resultant Human-Elephant Conflicts, which records the deaths of both the humans and elephants, is the greatest threat to Sri Lanka’s wild elephants population.

The Sri Lankan people have had a long association with the elephants. During the reign of the Sri Lankan kings over 2000 years ago, elephants were caught, tamed and used in large numbers for the large scale and massive construction works that they initiated. Large palaces, temples and vast reservoirs have been built with the aid of elephants.

  Initially there were elephants all over the country except in a few coastal areas and the Jaffna peninsula. During the reign of the Kandyan Kings, who ruled in the central hills, elephants were caught and tamed for many uses. The Kings used them for war against invaders, ceremonial occasions and religious occasions. They even exported them to India, Burma and Egypt. The king was the only person who could capture wild elephants.
  With the Portuguese capturing maritime provinces of the country, they introduced the Kraal or Keddah method of capture practiced in India. The Dutch and the British, who conquered and ruled the country subsequently also continued the capture of elephants mainly by kraaling. Though some of these elephants were used by the rulers for domestic purposes, they were mainly exported since there was a big demand abroad for Sri Lankan elephants.
  With the advent of the British, who subsequently ruled the whole country, the elephant population was greatly reduced. The British indulged in shooting elephants as a sport and as a result a large number of elephants were destroyed. They declared the elephant as an agricultural pest and armed the villagers with guns to enable them to protect their crops from elephants. They even paid a bounty for each elephant killed. British planters, opening out jungles lands in the hill country to plant tea and coffee, also shot elephants in the montane forests thereby driving the remnant herds down to the lowlands. There are no elephants in the hill country now except for a small herd that migrates occasionally.
  Elephant population and distribution
  Prior to the large scale destruction of forests, elephants enjoyed a high population and a wide distribution throughout the island. Today, except for a small remnant population in the Peak Wilderness area, elephants are restricted to the lowlands, especially in the Dry Zone. Over the past 200 years, human land-use has forced the elephants from the wet and fertile regions of the south-west of the island to much drier regions.
  With the exception of Wilpattu and Ruhuna National Parks, all other protected areas are less than 1,000 km2 in extent. Ten areas are less than 50 km2 and hence may not be large enough to accommodate the annual home ranges of the elephant populations. This problem was overcome to a certain extent in the Mahaweli Development area, by linking protected areas such as the Wasgomuwa National Park, Flood Plains NP, Somawathiya NP, and Trikonamadu resulting in an overall area of 117,194 ha (or 1,172 km2) of contiguous habitat for elephants. However elephants in this country are not wont to use corridors designed by man. About 70% of the elephants' range extends outside the protected areas, into human settlements and agricultural areas.
  The number of elephants in Sri Lanka today is but a fraction of what existed about a hundred years ago. From a population well over 10,000 elephants in 1796 the figure came crashing down to less than 2000 in the mid 20th century. Different figures were given by different people on the number of wild elephants.
  During the first half of this century, Sri Lanka had some of the best, and probably the most wildlife conservation areas in Asia. Most of them were located in the low country Dry Zone, where human pressure was not serious enough to prevent the recovery of elephant numbers. The recovery was slow at first, but under the management of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the number of elephants seems to have picked up somewhat in the sixties. McKay, in 1973, estimated a minimum population size of between 1,600 and 2,200 animals, while Thilo Hoffmann, in 1977, suggested a much higher total of 4,000.
  Estimates of elephant numbers in the wild in Sri Lanka vary and this underlines the difficulty of counting even such large animals in the dense and tangled vegetation of its habitat. The DWC carried out a survey of elephants in much of the safe areas of the island in June 1993, and arrived at a minimum of 2,000 elephants in the wild in the five regions: North-western, Mahaweli, Central, Eastern and Southern.

Today the elephant population estimate is between 4,000 and 5,000 of which between 2,000 and 2,870 occur largely in the protected areas. All these estimates may turn out to be underestimates, given the difficulty in counting elephants in the scrub forest.

  The number of elephants in captivity too has declined from about 670 in 1955 to anything between 140 and 150 today. The distribution of tamed elephants is quite distinctive and does not overlap with that of the wild elephants. They appear to be confined to 14 smaller districts out of a total of 22, in the south-west quarter of the island.


Elephant and mahout: the age old relationship
  Human-Elephant Conflict
  With the reduction of their habitats elephant populations have broken up and some herds have got pocketed in small patches of jungle. With their movement restricted, especially when food and water resources are depleted, elephants wander into new cultivated areas, which were their former habitat, in search of food. Elephants find ready source of food in these cultivated areas, but wild elephants are unwelcome neighbours in agricultural areas.
  With their large size and equally large appetites, elephants can easily destroy the entire cultivation of a peasant farmer in a single night. Therefore the farmers look upon the elephant as a dangerous pest and would rarely regret its disappearance from their area. Elephants are incompatible with agriculture unless the damage they cause is compensated the anger and frustrations of the farmers will increase. Thus the conflict between man and elephant has become the most serious conservation problems facing the DWC in Sri Lanka, where a combination of deforestation, agricultural expansion, and human population growth has substantially reduced the habitat that was once available to the elephant.
  The ecological and social costs of clearing forests to resettle villagers have proved to be very high. Wild elephants have lost so much of their range in Sri Lanka that they are now forced to prey on the communities that have displaced them.
This has often been viewed as the crux of the human-elephant conflict. Since 1950, a minimum of 4,200 elephants have perished in the wild as a direct result of the conflict between man and elephant in Sri Lanka. The conflict has escalated in the recent past. During the last twelve years alone, a total of 1,464 elephants were killed, with 672 humans being killed by elephants.  

An elephant killed in Tissamaharama

  The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has identified several areas where the elephant-human conflict has become serious. The DWC has adopted certain conservation measures to mitigate the human-elephant conflicts. They included the use of thunder flashes, crackers, noise, etc but the elephants soon learn to ignore these as bluffs.
  When these initial efforts failed, the DWC adopted other measures. They were;
a) the establishment of elephant corridors
b) increasing the extent of protected areas
c) translocation of troublesome elephants
d) driving elephants to new locations
e) erection of electric fencing
f) ex-situ conservation
g) the integration of elephant conservation with economic development
  Another important action was the government formulating and adopting National Policy for Elephant Management and Conservation.

A herd of elephants in Udawalawe National Park

  Documents to Read
Human Aspects of Human-Elephant Conflicts
  By Jayantha Jayewardene, Loris (PDF file, 85 kb) 
Illegal Captures - A Serious Threat to Asian Elephants
  By Jayantha Jayewardene, Gajah 40 (2014) 1-2 (PDF file, 210 kb)
  Famous tusker killed recently (Photo: Palitha Anthony)
  Elephants at Pinnawala Elephant orphanage

© 2008-2017  Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust


Last updated: 17 March, 2017