Sri Lankan elephant

Elephants play an important economic role in Sri Lanka, attracting tourists to national parks to observe elephants in the wild.
 / ©: WWF-International
© WWF-International
Elephant orphanage of Department of Wildlife Conservation, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka. rel=
Elephant orphanage of Department of Wildlife Conservation, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka.
© WWF-Canon / Anton FERNHOUT

Key Facts

  • Common Names

    Sri Lankan elephant; Eléphant de Sri Lanka (Fr); Elephant de Sri Lanka (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Elephas maximus maximus

  • Geographic Location

    Southwestern Sri Lanka

  • Population

    Between 3,160 and 4,405 individuals in the wild

Background

This information has been reviewed.

Elephants hold aesthetic, cultural and economic importance in Sri Lanka. They are used for carrying timber and they have a special significance and role in religious events.

The Sri Lanka elephant is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of Sri Lanka (FFPO), and killing it carries the death penalty. Elephants can be observed in protected areas such as Yala, Wasgomuwa, Udawalawe, Minneriya and Kaudulla.

Physical Description

The Sri Lankan species is the largest of the Asian elephant genus, and has patches of depigmentation (areas with no skin color) on its ears, face, trunk and belly.

Colour

This is the darkest of all Asian elephants.

Habitat & Ecology

The herd size in Sri Lanka ranges from 12-20 individuals or more, with the oldest female, or 'matriarch', leading the herd. In Sri Lanka, herds have been reported to contain "nursing units," consisting of lactating females and their young, and "juvenile care units", containing females with juveniles.

Breeding

Sri Lankan elephants do not exhibit a particular breeding season, and the period of gestation varies from 18 to 23 months.

Population & Distribution

The latest count places elephant population size in Sri Lanka between 3,160 and 4,405 individuals. Of these, between 2,000 and 2,870 are found in protected areas, however this is likely to be an underestimate. Captive elephants have declined to 400-600 individuals.

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

Biogeographic realm
Indo-Malayan

Range States
Sri Lanka

Geographical Location
Southwestern Sri Lanka

Ecological Region
Sri Lankan Moist Forests

What are the main threats?

The threats facing Sri Lanka's elephants are common to all Asian elephants. Forest clearing for human settlements and agriculture is causing loss and increased fragmentation of elephant habitat in Sri Lanka - the population has fallen by almost 65% since the turn of the 19th century.

As a result of forest clearing, human-elephant conflicts have also increased and led to the death of both humans and elephants, and the destruction of property. The problem is compounded by the elephant's predilection for crops such as sugar cane, bananas and other fruits grown by humans.

During 1997, about 126 wild elephants were lost as a result of human-elephant conflict (a rate of about 2.4 elephants per week). Current recorded levels of mortality would indicate that about 6% of the animals in the wild are dying annually. Conflict between government troops and the Tamil Tigers in the North-eastern region has also put elephants in the cross-fire.
Indian elephant (Elephas maximus) pushing down fence, Sri Lanka. / ©: naturepl.com/Toby Sinclair / WWF
Indian elephant (Elephas maximus) pushing down fence, Sri Lanka.
© naturepl.com/Toby Sinclair / WWF

Did you know?

    • Elephants were a common theme in Sinhalese heraldry for over 2,000 years and remained so through British colonial rule.

Infographic

  •  The WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard report selects 23 range, transit and consumer countries from Asia and Africa facing the highest levels of illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.

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