Sri Lankan elephant
Male Sri Lankan elephant
Female elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
Genus: Elephas
Species:
Subspecies:
E. m. maximus
Trinomial name
Elephas maximus maximus
Range of the Sri Lankan elephant

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is one of three recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant, and native to Sri Lanka. Since 1986, Elephas maximus has been listed as endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. The species is primarily threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.[1]

Elephas maximus maximus is the type subspecies of the Asian elephant, first described by Carl Linnaeus under the binominal Elephas maximus in 1758.[2]

The Sri Lankan elephant population is now largely restricted to the dry zone in the north, east and southeast of Sri Lanka. Elephants are present in Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Lunugamvehera National Park, Wilpattu National Park and Minneriya National Park but also live outside protected areas. It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia. Human-elephant conflict is increasing due to conversion of elephant habitat to settlements and permanent cultivation.[3]

Characteristics

A herd of elephants in Yala National Park
A herd of elephants in Yala National Park
Elephant calf in Udawalawe National Park
Elephant calf in Udawalawe National Park
Elephants bathing
Elephants bathing

In general, Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and have the highest body point on the head. The tip of their trunk has one finger-like process. Their back is convex or level. Females are usually smaller than males. Some males have tusks.[4]

Sri Lankan elephants are the largest subspecies reaching a shoulder height of between 2 and 3.5 m (6.6 and 11.5 ft), weigh between 2,000 and 5,500 kg (4,400 and 12,100 lb), and have 19 pairs of ribs. Their skin colour is darker than of indicus and of sumatranus with larger and more distinct patches of depigmentation on ears, face, trunk and belly.[5] Only 7% of males bear tusks. Average adult elephant tusks grow up to about 6 feet. It can weight up to 35 kg (77 lb).[6] Longest tusks found Raja (elephant) (1913 - 16 July 1988)

The Sri Lankan subspecies designation is weakly supported by analysis of allozyme loci,[7] but not by analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences.[8][9][10]

In July 2013, a dwarf Sri Lankan elephant was sighted in Udawalawe National Park. It was over 1.5 m (5 ft) tall but had shorter legs than usual and was the main aggressor in an encounter with a younger bull.[11]

Distribution and habitat

Sri Lankan elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone where they are still fairly widespread in north, south, east, north-western, north-central and south-eastern Sri Lanka. A small remnant population exists in the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. They are absent from the wet zone of the country. Apart from Wilpattu and Ruhuna National Parks, all other protected areas are less than 1,000 km2 (390 sq mi) in extent. Many areas are less than 50 km2 (19 sq mi), and hence not large enough to encompass the entire home ranges of elephants that use them. In the Mahaweli Development Area, protected areas such as Wasgomuwa National Park, Flood Plains National Park, Somawathiya National Park, and Trikonamadu Nature Reserve have been linked resulting in an overall area of 1,172 km2 (453 sq mi) of contiguous habitat for elephants. Nevertheless, about 65% of the elephant's range extends outside protected areas.[12]

Former range

In the historical past, elephants were widely distributed from sea level to the highest mountain ranges. They occurred in the dry zone, in the lowland wet zone as well as in the cold damp montane forests. During the colonial period from 1505 to 1948, the wet zone was converted to commercially used fields and became heavily settled. Until 1830, elephants were so plentiful that their destruction was encouraged by the government, and rewards were paid for any that was killed. In the first half of the 19th century, forests in the montane zone were cleared large-scale for the planting of coffee, and afterward tea. The elephant population in the mountains was extirpated.[6][12] During the British rule, many bull elephants were killed by trophy hunters. One of the British army majors is credited with having shot over 1,500 elephants, and two others are reputed to have shot half that number each. Many other sportsmen have shot about 250-300 animals during this time.[13] Between 1829 and 1855 alone, more than 6,000 elephants were captured and shot under order of colonial British Empire.[14]

By the turn of the 20th century, elephants were still distributed over much of the island.[12] The area currently known as Ruhuna National Park was the Resident Sportsmen's Shooting Reserve, an area reserved for the sporting pleasure of British residents in the country.[15] In the early 20th century, mega reservoirs were constructed in the dry zone for irrigated agriculture. Ancient irrigation systems were rehabilitated and people resettled. This development gathered momentum after the independence in 1948. As a result, elephant habitat in the dry zone was severely fragmented.[16]

Population trend

The size of wild elephant populations in Sri Lanka was estimated at

Important protected areas for the elephant in Sri Lanka[23]
Name of the park Size in sq.km Number of elephants
Wilpattu 1,316.9 100-150
Ruhuna(Yala) 1,267.8 300-350
Gal Oya 629.4 150-200
Maduru Oya 588.5 150-200
Victoria-Randenigala 400.8 40-60
Somawathiya 377.6 50-100
Wasgomuwa 377.1 150-200
Madhu road 346.8 100-200
Uda Walawe 308.2 150-200
Peak Wilderness 223.8 50-60
Flood Plains 173.5 50-100
Sinharaja 88.6 10-50
Minneriay-Giritale 66.9 300-400
Bundala 62.1 80-100
Lahugala-Kitulana 15.5 50-100

Ecology and behaviour

Elephants feeding on shrub in Maduru Oya National Park
Elephants feeding on shrub in Maduru Oya National Park
Elephant feeding on grass in Yala National Park (video)
Elephant feeding on grass in Yala National Park (video)
An elephant displaying defensive behavior against predators
An elephant displaying defensive behavior against predators

Elephants are classified as megaherbivores and consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per day. As generalists, they feed on a wide variety of food plants. In Sri Lanka's northwestern region, feeding behaviour of elephants was observed during the period of January 1998 to December 1999. The elephants fed on a total of 116 plant species belonging to 35 families including 27 species of cultivated plants. More than half of the plants were non tree species, i.e. shrub, herb, grass, or climbers. More than 25% of the plant species belonged to the family Leguminosae, and 19% of the plant species belonged to the family of true grasses. The presence of cultivated plants in dung does not result solely due to raiding of crops as it was observed that elephants feed on leftover crop plants in fallow chenas. Juvenile elephants tend to feed predominantly on grass species.[24]

Food resources are abundant in regenerating forests, but at low density in mature forests. Traditional slash-and-burn agriculture creates optimum habitat for elephants through promoting successional vegetation.[12]

Females and calves generally form small, loosely associated social groups without the hierarchical tier structure exhibited by African savannah elephants.[25][26] However, at some locations such as Minneriya National Park, hundreds of individuals aggregate during the dry season, suggesting that grouping behaviour is flexible and depends on season and place.[citation needed]

Like all Asian elephants, the Sri Lankan subspecies communicates using visual, acoustic, and chemical signals. At least fourteen different vocal and acoustic signals have been described, which include some low-frequency calls that contain infrasonic frequencies.[27]

Threats

Main article: Human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka

During the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, elephants were maimed or killed by land mines. Between 1990 and 1994, a total of 261 wild elephants died either as a result of gunshot injuries, or were killed by poachers and land mines. Several elephants stepped on land mines and were crippled.[28]

Today, given the rarity of tuskers in Sri Lanka, poaching for ivory is not a major threat. Nevertheless, some trade in ivory still goes on. Kandy has been identified as the centre for such illegal trade. The greatest threat to elephants comes from an expanding human population and its demand for land. Loss of significant extents of elephant range to development continues currently, with a number of irrigation and development projects leading to the conversion of more elephant ranges to irrigated agriculture and settlements.[12]

Between 1999 and the end of 2006 every year nearly 100 wild elephants were killed. Elephants are killed to protect crops and houses. Other threats are poaching, deforestation, drought and starvation. During drought seasons many elephants damage agricultural land for food. Nearly 80 elephants were killed in north western Sri Lanka, 50 in south and east, and another 30 in other parts of the country, totalling 160 elephant deaths in 2006 alone. Sri Lanka become largest number of elephants killed country.[29]

DWC official recode showed that more than 361-405 elephants were killed in 2019.[22] Sri Lanka ranks as the country which killed highest number of elephants.[30]

Number of elephant deaths past 10 years[31][32]
Year 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 Total
Deaths 318 405 258 256 279 205 239 206 250 255 227 2,898

Conservation

Elephants at the Elephant Orphanage near Kandy
Elephants at the Elephant Orphanage near Kandy

Elephas maximus is listed on CITES Appendix I.[1]

The elephant conservation strategy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation aims at conserving as many viable populations as possible in as wide a range of suitable habitats as is feasible. This means protecting elephants both within the system of protected areas and as many animals outside these areas that the land can support and landholders will accept, and not restricting elephants to the protected area network alone.[12]

Cultural and symbolism

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A sketch of Hansken by Rembrandt (1637)
A sketch of Hansken by Rembrandt (1637)
Sri Lankan elephants at the Esala Perahera
Sri Lankan elephants at the Esala Perahera

Elephants were a common element in Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils heraldry for over two thousand years and remained so through British colonial rule. The coat of arms and the flag of Ceylon Government from 1875 to 1948 included an elephant and even today many institutions use the Sri Lankan elephant in their coat of arms and insignia.

An important cultural symbiosis has continued to exist between the elephant and humans for over two thousand years – no religious procession was complete without its retinue of elephants, and many large Buddhist temples and Hindu Temples in Sri Lanka had their own elephants.

Captive elephants

Sri Lankan elephant at Kataragama
Sri Lankan elephant at Kataragama

Since time in memorial, elephants have been domesticated for uses as work elephants and war elephants in Sri Lanka by the ancient kings. Elephants were exported from the island for hundreds of years and into the Portuguese and Dutch colonial era. The British did not export elephants, instead took to hunting wild elephants and capture of wild for domestication as work elephants continued. Elephant Kraals were organized to capture large herds of elephants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The capture of wild elephants were regulated under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 1937, with the issuance of permits to capture of wild elephants. This practice stopped following the last Elephant Kraal in 1950 by Sir Francis Molamure. A census of the domesticated elephant population in 1970 indicated 532 elephants among 378 owners, while this number had dropped 344 in 1982. These domesticated elephants were used mainly as work elephants and for cultural pageants, the chief of which is the annual Kandy Esala Perahera. In recent years, the domesticated elephant population has dropped further with the need for their labor dropping widespread use of tractors. However, they remain in use in terrain inaccessible by vehicles for logging and used for tourism. Ownership of elephants are highly prestigious among Singhalese as a status symbol and calls have been made for permission to capture wild elephants or release of orphaned wild elephants in government care to Temples to take part in pageants. Captive breeding in private ownership does not take place due to the long period of unemployability associated with it.[33] Legal reforms pertaining to the captive elephant population was introduced in 2021, just as a landmark case into dozens of calves being stolen from their herds in a ten year period collapsed with the Attorney General's Department dropping charges and releasing the elephants to their former owners.[34]

See also

References

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  2. ^ Linnaei, C. (1760) Elephas maximus In: Caroli Linnæi Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Halae Magdeburgicae. Page 33
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  5. ^ Shoshani, J. (2006). "Taxonomy, Classification, and Evolution of Elephants". In Fowler, M. E.; Mikota, S. K. (eds.). Biology, medicine, and surgery of elephants. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 3–14. ISBN 0813806763.
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