In August 2008 ElephantVoices initiated an elephant project in Sri Lanka in collaboration with Sri Lankan Conservationist, Manori Gunawardena. The project focuses on the elephant population utilizing Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks located in the Mahaweli region of north-central Sri Lanka. This region is believed to hold one of the largest elephant populations in the country and, although little is known about the Minneriya-Kaudulla population, it is considered key to Sri Lanka’s elephant conservation efforts.

The Minneriya and Kaudulla tanks (ancient reservoirs) and surrounding forest habitat were only recently designated (in 1997 and 2002, respectively) as national parks in order to provide habitat connectivity for these elephants. Individuals in the population are thought to migrate from Minneriya to Somawathiya Chaitya National Park through a larger landscape mosaic of forest reserve, sanctuaries other fragments of unprotected elephant habitat which is interspersed with human dominated land uses.

During the dry season each year the elephants aggregate around the tanks of Minneriya and Kaudulla. This seasonally occuring behavior, coined ‘the gathering,’ has become a popular tourist attraction and is, therefore also an important economic asset for the country. The open habitat around the receding waters of the tanks provides an opportunity to make good observations of the elephants, permitting a rare chance to collect data on the demographics, social structure and behaviour of free-living Asian elephants. While the elephants frequent the protected national parks during the dry season, rather little is known about their use of the fragmented habitat year round, although conflict with people is high.

Individual identification of elephants will give population size

It is extremely difficult to understand the habitat needs and social dynamics of an elephant population, and how to reduce or solve its conflict with people, without knowing how many elephants there are. The only way to get an accurate count of forest-dwelling elephants is through individual identification - in other words getting to know each elephant individually. This is the basis for the Minneriya-Kaudulla Elephant Project.

Until recently the population was thought to number around 450 elephants. A survey carried out by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in 2008, which involved counting elephants at waterholes over a 48 hour period, suggested that the population is much higher.

Pressure from human activities outside parks

Although there have been suggestions that the higher numbers indicate that the population is undergoing rapid growth, based on what Joyce observed during a visit in September 2008 we suggest that previous estimates were inaccurate. Rapid growth is not corroborated by the perceptible dearth of younger elephants (at least compared to our experience from growing populations in Africa). Our impression based on the observed age structure of the Minneriya-Kaudulla population is that although there are more elephants than originally thought, the population is stable - or may even be in decline.

The increasing numbers of elephants gathering around the reservoirs and an age structure with a disproportionate number of older elephants could instead indicate a declining population under pressure from human activities outside. Individual identification, demographic and ranging data are, therefore, needed to make sense of the apparently contradictory suggestions and to determine how best to ensure the long-term survival of this population and its co-existence with people.

The project aimed to provide the authorities with data on population size, individual behavior, movement patterns and life-history - information needed to make take informed decisions regarding the conservation of these elephants and the coexistence of elephants and people. The project was taken over by Sri Lankan Conservationist Manori Gunawardena in 2009. 

This article was published 26 February 2009.