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 a few National Parks and Nature Reserves. Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Wilpattu National Park and Minneriya National Park are prime locations for spotting elephants.
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, and have short or no tusks.
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 12,000 lb), and have 19 pairs of ribs. Their skin color is darker than of indicus and of sumatranus with larger and more distinct patches of depigmentation on ears, face, trunk and belly.Only 7% of males bear tusks.
The elephant population in the National Parks of Sri Lanka is somewhat diminutive in stature when compared both with historical accounts dating back to 200 BC and with the early photographs taken in 19th century during the time of colonial British rule of the island. The smaller size could possibly be the end result of a long-continued process of removing the physically best specimens from the potential breeding-stock through hunting or domestication (see insular dwarfism).
Ecology and behaviour
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 speciesbelonged 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 successional vegetation.
n the historical past, elephants were found in the dry zone, the lowland wet zone, as well as in the cold damp forests of the mountains in the island. They enjoyed wide distribution and good numbers from sea level to the highest mountain ranges. Until 1830, elephants were so plentiful that their destruction was encouraged by the Government, and rewards were paid for any that was killed. Their disappearance from the montane zone began with the largescale clearance of forests for the planting of coffee, and afterwards tea, during the first half of the 19th century. Even by the turn of the 20th century, elephants were distributed over much of the island.
Elephant populations in Sri Lanka were seriously depleted through capture and slaughter in the 19th century. Between 1829 and 1855 alone, more than 6,000 elephants were captured and shot.
Size of wild elephant populations in Sri Lanka estimated at
- 12,000 to 14,000 in the early 19th century
- 10,000 in the early 20th century
- 7,000 to 8,000 in around 1920
- between 1,745 and 2,455 individuals in 1969
- between 2,500 and 3,435 in 1987
- 1,967 in June 1993 fragmented in five regions
- between 3,150 and 4,400 in 2000
- 3150 in 2006
- 2900-3000 in 2007
- 5897 in total, 2011 elephant census