Sri Lankan elephant

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Sri Lankan elephant
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
Genus: Elephas
Species: E. maximus
Subspecies: E. m. maximus
Trinomial name
Elephas maximus maximus
Linnaeus, 1758
Range of Sri Lankan elephant

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is one of the three subspecies of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).

The other two subspecies are the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) and the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus).

The Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of the three subspecies.[1] They are about 11 feet (3.4 m) tall, and can weigh up to 12,000 pounds (5,400 kg). They eat leaves, shrubs, grasses, and other plants.

This subspecies is the National animal of Sri Lanka and is native to the island country. It once lived over the entire island. They now live in the dry zones in the north, east, and southeast. These zones are mainly dry deciduous woodland, scrubland, grassland, and marshes. There is a small group in the rainforest.[1]

Sri Lankan elephants are sometimes working animals. They carry timber, transport passengers, and participate in public events like the Procession of Buddha's Tooth. They were many of them in the past. They were aggressively hunted.

In modern times, these elephants can be seen in Sri Lanka's national parks and elephant orphanages. They have been declared an endangered species, and are protected by law. Killing one carries the death penalty.

Description[change | change source]

Asian elephants are usually smaller than African elephants. Females are usually smaller than males. Life span is about 60-70 years in the wild, and over 80 years in captivity. Elderly elephants may starve to death when their teeth wear out or fall out.[1]

The Asian elephant's highest body point is on its head. The tip of their trunk is used like a finger. Their back is curved upward or level.

Their ears are smaller than those of the African elephant. Their feet have more "nails" than those of African elephants. They have five "nails" on each front foot, and four on each back foot.

Very few of Sri Lankan male elephants develop tusks. A tusk is a very long tooth that protrudes from the elephant's mouth. An elephant with huge tusks is called a "tusker". Females have no tusks.

Sri Lankan elephants are the largest subspecies of the Asian elephant. Their shoulder height is between 6 and 11 ft. They weigh between 4,000 and 12,000 lb.

Like humans, apes, and dolphins, they have a large and well developed brain. They are very smart. Elephants have the largest brain of all land animals. They have very good memories. They can remember places, people, and events from long in the past.

Their skin color is darker than that of the two other Asian subspecies. They may have large patches of skin color loss (depigmentation) on ears, face, trunk, and tummy.[1]

Distribution[change | change source]

The Sri Lankan elephant was once widely distributed across Sri Lanka. Over the past two hundred years however, human land use and development has forced the elephant from the wet and fertile regions of the southwest to the drier regions of the north, east, and southeast. These drier areas are mainly deciduous woodland, scrub, grassland, and marshes.[2]

Social lives[change | change source]

Elephants bathing in the Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka

Like the two other subspecies of Asian elephants, Sri Lankan elephants live in groups of individuals that are related by blood. The group is led by a matriarch. She is usually the oldest and most experienced female in the group.

Sometimes a group will join another group to become a clan. The clan may then join another group or clan to become a herd. Groups are female-centered, and consist of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts.

Immature male elephants are members of the group, but once they reach sexual maturity, the females drive them out of the group. These males may then join bachelor groups or live on their own.

Family ties[change | change source]

Sri Lankan cow and calf

A mature male elephant is a bull, and a mature female elephant is a cow. Their offspring are called calves. Calves suckle for 2 to 5 years, and develop close ties with their mothers. All cows in the group, clan, or herd will help in different ways to raise and protect the calves.

Male calves are more likely to leave their mothers to play. Play involves head sparring, mounting, charging, shoving, and chasing. Female calves play chasing and running games, throw sticks, and may attack imaginary foes. Both sexes play rough and tumble games with each other.[1]

Male elephants[change | change source]

Male elephant being prepared for a festival

When males reach sexual maturity in their early teens, the matriarch and other female members of the group will chase him away. These males will not be able to mate with their relatives. The babies of such close unions will likely be inferior elephants.

Young males often form bachelor groups. Only a very few of Sri Lankan male elephants develop tusks. Female do not have tusks. Males become more solitary as they grow older. Adult males join females only for mating. Males do not help in raising the young.

Feeding[change | change source]

Sri Lankan elephant eating grass at the Yala National Park

Sri Lankan elephants eat leaves, grasses, shrubs, and vines. They sometimes enter farm gardens and eat crop plants. Baby and young elephants feed mostly on different grasses.

Sri Lankan elephants are both browsers and grazers. They walk along and eat, but also stand still and eat what they can reach.

Adult elephants eat 300-400 lb. of food per day to support their bulk. These elephants will eat for up to 16 hours a day to meet their need for food. They drink from 25 to 50 gallons of water daily.

Defecation[change | change source]

Sri Lankan elephant defecating

The elephants use less than 50% of the food they eat. They produce huge amounts of manure. They defecate about 16–18 times a day, and produce about 220 lbs. of dung.[1]

In the wild, this manure carries and spreads the undigested seeds in the elephant's diet. Their manure is a source of food for insects and birds.

Reproduction[change | change source]

Asian male elephants reach sexual maturity during their early teens. At that time, they enter an annual phase called "musth". This is a period when they become sexually aggressive. They will fight other males to mate with a female.

Baby elephant in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka

Once a male and female have successfully mated, a baby elephant called a calf develops in the mother's womb. The calf is born after an 18 to 22 month period.[1] At birth, the calf weighs about 220 lb. Twins are rare.

Babies are weaned at 18 months to 3 years or longer.[1] Female calves stay close to their mothers to strengthen their bonds; male calves venture away from their mothers to explore and play.[1]

Once a mother gives birth, she usually does not breed again until the first calf is weaned. This results in a birth interval of 4 to 5 years. Mothers remain with their herd, but mature males are driven away.

Humans and elephants[change | change source]

See also: Crushing by elephant
President Jayewardene of Sri Lanka presents a baby elephant to President Reagan and the American people on the south lawn of the White House in 1984.

In the distant past, Sri Lankan elephants numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They lived in all zones of the island. They were aggressively hunted by Sri Lankans, other Asians, and Europeans.

In the 19th century, a British officer was said to have killed 1,500 elephants. Other British officers held similar records. Between 1829 and 1855 alone, more than 6,000 elephants were captured and killed.

"An Execution by an Eliphant" (sic), from An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon by Robert Knox (London, 1681)

In 2014, there was an estimated 4,000 elephants living on Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan elephant is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of Sri Lanka (FFPO), and killing it carries the death penalty.

Sri Lankan elephants are important to the economic and cultural life of Sri Lanka. Some are working elephants. They are used to carry timber. These elephants are losing their jobs because tractors are replacing them.

Elephants can be seen in protected areas and national parks. These elephants attract tourists. This trade improves the economy and the lives of Sri Lankans.

Sri Lankan elephants at the Esala Perahera in Kandy, Sri Lanka, July 2004

The elephant has always been held in great cultural esteem in Sri Lanka. Rajah, a Sri Lankan elephant with tusks that nearly touched the ground, was declared a national treasure in 1985.[1]

Sri Lankan elephants participate in ceremonies, processions, and other public events. The Esala Perahera (the festival of Buddha's tooth) is held annually in Kandy, Sri Lanka. It is thought to date to the 3rd century BC. Elephants lead the procession, bearing the sacred tooth.

Endangered species[change | change source]

Sri Lankan elephants face the same threats to survival as other Asian elephant subspecies do: the clearing of forests to make way for farms and other human developments has destroyed their living areas.

Conflicts between elephants and humans have been the result. These conflicts have led to the death of both elephants and humans, and the destruction of property. The situation is complicated by the elephant's taste for crops grown by humans such as sugar cane, bananas, and other fruits.

In 1997, about 126 wild elephants were lost as a result of these conflicts. Conflict between government troops and a terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers has also put elephants at risk.

References[change | change source]