A recent documentary hosted by Sir David Attenborough explained how the discovery of bones in Argentina has led scientists to believe there was once an animal treading the Earth the equivalent of 15 times bigger than the African Elephant. The long necked dinosaur, Titanosaur, is an ongoing story but it may have been 40 metres long. Today we must make do with the elephant but it is still a magnificent sight and is the favourite wild animal of many people interested in wildlife.
Back in prehistoric times there were in fact 350 different species of elephants; there are now just two, African and Asian, but within the two there are different types, 2 in Africa, 3 in Asia. In Africa the Savannah Elephant is far larger than the Forest Elephant, four metres and seven tonnes is perfectly possible in the former. In Asia there are the grey Sri Lankan (Elephas Maximus Maximus), the lighter grey Mainland (Elephas Maximus Indicus) and very light grey Sumatran Elephants (Elephas Maximus Sumatranus). The Asian Elephant is smaller, with a double bulged forehead, smaller ears than its African cousin and the females have no tusks. Even some males have no tusks and even when they do they are much smaller than those in Africa.
Another thing that differentiates the two is the level of intelligence. The Asian has superior intelligence which has been a factor in its interaction with Man. It can easily be trained.
Man’s demand for ivory remains a major concern although there are still significant elephant numbers in Africa; perhaps 500,000. However the elephant is now considered endangered with Asian numbers now perhaps as low as 30,000. Thailand now has just a few thousand in the wild while the tame ones used as tourist attractions show the extent to which elephants have been exploited in that country. The fortunate statistic with regard to the Sri Lankan Elephant is that very few have ivory yet the species is still endangered.
The power of the elephants and is susceptibility to learning made the elephant an excellent ‘workhorse’ for Man and over the years it has been used extensively on various projects. It has also resulted in its use in religious processions and nothing illustrates this better than the Kandy Esala Perahera in July or August each year.
Perahera is a festival in homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha which is housed in the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. The highly colourful procession has dancers and musicians; without elephants adorned in garments the procession would lose much of its impact. Its early origins date back to 3rd Century BC when the Tooth Relic came from India. In the 18th Century the tooth was seen as the property of the King but it was agreed that the public could see it in a procession. Subsequently in colonial times, the Relic was placed under the guardianship of the Buddhist clergy.
The Festival lasts several days and on the 6th day a casket, a substitute of the Tooth Relic, is carried by the Maligawa Elephant at the head of a procession. This is the major event of the year in Kandy and shows how closely man and elephant have become linked.
Human conflict is nothing new. Elephant habit has been lost over the years because of the need for land for cultivation. The reservoirs that were built in the dry zone a century ago transformed land. Agriculture expanded and that process has been ongoing. The result is that the elephant population has become fragmented within the dry zone. When this process started there were probably as many as 8,000 elephants on the island. For a variety of reasons that figure seems to have fallen below 2,000 in five different areas twenty years ago. The Tamil Tiger conflict was a major reason for this and its end has certainly helped the elephants though the problem of land mines did not appear immediately after the cessation of hostilities.
The good news is that a census at water holes a few years ago concluded there was almost 6,000 elephants. That is despite the fact that wild elephants have been killed in many parts of the islands because of perceived need to protect homes and crops.
The Department of Wildlife Conservation works to expand the habitats available and hence increase the wild elephant population; the recent census suggests not without some success. Some areas are well protected but the hope is that elephants can thrive even in unprotected areas.
Human conflict restricted tourist movement to specific parts of Sri Lanka until fairly recently. Now that the Island is at peace it has opened up all of this beautiful island. The popular destinations remain but there are also national parks that should become increasingly popular with visitors keen to see the Island’s fauna, including its elephants, in a natural environment. It is a real bonus for Sri Lanka that wildlife tourists are continually looking for new places to pursue their passion and some of the Country’s National Parks are effectively falling into that category.