Sri Lankan Elephants

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is one of three recognized 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 pre-eminently threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Elephas maximus maximus is the type subspecies of the Asian elephant, first described by Carl Linnaeus under the binominal Elephas maximus in 1758.

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. Elephants are classified as mega herbivores 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. 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 succession vegetation. 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.

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