The majestic elephant is one of Sri Lanka’s most prolific wildlife resources. These fascinating creatures drive millions of people to our wildlife and nature parks, they have become an integral part of how the world sees us, and, given the role they play within our own culture, they are an integral part of how we see ourselves.
But there is a flip side to our relationship with elephants. For one thing, elephants are an endangered species in need of careful conservation. Even when leaving aside the drama caused by social media influencers who are unable to tell the African elephant apart from the Sri Lankan elephant when curating content for another day, as Sri Lankans, our relationship with the gentle giants is flawed. 2020 saw more than 400 elephant deaths being reported as well as 122 human deaths due to human-elephant conflict (HEC), a number that has exceeded all expectations and broken records we neither want nor need broken. HEC has escalated to unprecedented levels, with intervention greatly needed for both our sakes and those of the elephants. Killing wild elephants in Sri Lanka is a criminal offence, but there have been regular reports of angry villagers poisoning or shooting them because of the risk elephants pose to their livelihoods, homes, and even their lives.
Sri Lanka also has a population of approximately 200 captive elephants in Sri Lanka. One hundred of these elephants are in the custody of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, the Dehiwala Zoo, or the Ridiyagama Safari Park; approximately 40 in the custody of religious establishments and temples; and approximately 60 are privately owned. The treatment of these animals in captivity and the need for them to be held in captivity at all is hotly debated.
Is 2021 the year of the elephant?
The Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) recently announced that they intend to carry out a countrywide elephant census this year. The last official census of this kind was carried out in 2011 and estimated Sri Lanka’s elephant population at a minimum of 5,179 elephants.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch DWC Director – Operations Ranjan Marasinghe shared that the proposed elephant census is set to take place in August or September. “We have been planning this census for the last two to three years but couldn’t do it,” Marasinghe said, adding that the months of August or September have been selected to conduct the census because this is the peak of the drought in the dry season.
“We will be using the waterhole count technique for the census,” Marasinghe said. “It is a direct census method where we map out all the waterholes and places where water is and position our staff and people who are going to help us to count elephant herds continuously.” Conducted over two-and-a-half days, the census will take place with time being sliced into half-hour intervals and recording the number of elephants who will be visiting the waterholes over this two-day period.
Marasinghe shared that through the census, the DWC will be able to get a more accurate and up-to-date idea of the aspects of elephants in Sri Lanka like the density of elephants, the different proportions of elephants according to age classes, the ratios of male to female elephants, the ratios of tuskers to non-tuskers, and the nourishment level of elephants. “There will be a number, but it is not the highest priority of conducting the census,” Marasinghe said. “When we continue this operation 10 or 20 times, we can see the trend and discuss the trends of elephants because there is no statistically sound method for calculating the exact number of elephants in our forests. Conducting an elephant census is a mammoth task; we are going to be working with district secretaries, the Sri Lanka Army, the Sri Lanka Navy, the Sri Lanka Air Force, students, and volunteers.”
Marasinghe also noted that a challenge of working on the elephant census, especially with volunteers and external parties, is that the census will require locating elephants and waterholes within jungles, which comes with an element of risk.
In addition to the elephant census, Marasinghe also explained that the DWC will be focusing heavily on mitigating HEC this year, and are planning to establish a countrywide electric fence network as well as experiment with several other methods of mitigating HEC.
“We can’t specify one particular method that we are using,” Marasinghe said, adding: “Because our approach is to use all methods possible. We’re getting help from the Innovation Commission, a group of innovators who are testing new technology in combating HEC.” Marasinghe did comment that strategies like ultrasound techniques to deter elephants, redesigning electric fences for maximum efficiency, and trenches were among the strategies being considered, although no final decisions have been made.
Is an elephant census futile?
With the upcoming census using the waterhole technique, and no completely accurate way to pinpoint the Sri Lankan elephant population in terms of numbers, the question does arise; is the proposed elephant census a useful exercise?
Sharing his view, Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) Chairman Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando commented that the technique being used by the DWC in the census is flawed. “Waterhole counts are useless and not a scientific technique,” Dr. Fernando said. “We have no idea how far away these numbers are from the truth.”
Dr. Fernando explained that since elephants live in scrub and forest habitats, these can often be far away from humans. As a technique, Dr. Fernando shared that the waterhole count technique is very unreliable and that there are other methods that can be used to estimate animal populations. The methods, like dung counts, identifying individual animals and extrapolating numbers, advanced mark and capture techniques, and fingerprinting by extracting DNA from droppings, while also not completely reliable, are more reliable than waterhole counts. “A waterhole count is an obsolete and amateurish way to try to count elephants,” Dr. Fernando said, noting: “There is no easy, dependable, and cheap way to count elephants.”
Dr. Fernando also questioned the need for a census since no reliable number for elephants could be accurately estimated. What is important to gauge is distribution, which Dr. Fernando said a waterhole count could not do effectively, with a waterhole count not taking into account room for error caused by factors like the same elephant visiting a watering hole twice in one day, and elephants that may be missed at night due to visibility. Another issue Dr. Fernando raised with the waterhole count technique was manpower, and the size of watering holes and water bodies, especially large-scale tanks and rivers.
An independent study conducted by Dr. Fernando with a group of researchers that was published in 2019 showed that elephants occur over 59.9% of Sri Lanka, which gives some idea of the mammoth size of the proposed census. Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) Director Rukshan Jayawardene shared similar views on the reliability of a census carried out using the waterhole count technique, highlighting that even in peak drought season, it’s likely that there’ll be a little rain somewhere in the dry zone which could cause elephants not to come to get the water they would normally have got form a watering hole that day. “There are also rock cisterns that collect water and sometimes last right through the dry season. Rock outcrops are scattered throughout dry zone jungles,” Jayawardene explained, adding: “The census is likely to be fraught with errors. You may undercount because you may not see all the elephants in a waterhole when you’re counting. You can also double-count when an elephant comes to the same waterhole twice. There is no way if one error on the plus side cancels out one error on the minus because you don’t know what the error is anyway.”
Speaking on eliminating room for error, Marasinghe explained that the DWC would be dividing the two-and-a-half-day period into 10 30-minute slices in a bid to isolate the highest and lowest reported sightings and account for error, using the maximum number of sightings reported in each area to estimate the total population. Marasinghe also stressed that population numbers were not the main focus of the census, which is being carried out more for purposes of observing trends in the elephant population.
Marasinghe also said the data gathered during the census would be used to inform management practices and decisions indirectly over the coming years. Speaking of the previous census conducted in 2011, Marasinghe explained that the census provided the DWC with valuable information like where the highest density of elephants was occurring. “On that basis, we distributed funds and resources for those regions,” Marasinghe explained.
Where do we go from here?
Speaking on the proposed census and its long-term impact, wildlife scientist and Born Free Foundation Country Representative Manori Gunawardena shared: “While the DWC feels the need to know the ‘number’ of elephants, what would be prudent regardless of the merits of the method is to focus on critical regions to understand the demographics of elephants in that area.”
Gunawardena also noted that elephants outside parks in human-dominated areas are predominantly nocturnal and visit waterholes or village tanks. Additionally, the entire dry zone of Sri Lanka is dotted with many irrigation tanks, which makes counting elephants islandwide not very feasible.
“What would be feasible and useful from a conservation management and HEC mitigation perspective is to do a combination of direct and indirect methods to ascertain elephant distribution and demography in select locations representing the landscapes, human land-use types, and habitat types.”