It is the first ever census of its kind in the country
The first-ever nation-wide elephant census in Sri Lanka has found that there are about 7,379 jumbos in the country. As many as 5,879 of them were spotted near parks and sanctuaries and another 1,500 were estimated to be living in other areas.
A methodology called water hole count was used for the survey that began August 12 and lasted three days. This period was chosen as it is one of the driest periods in the country when small water bodies disappear. So, elephants gather at the remaining large water bodies, enabling easy counting of the animal. Over 3,500 wildlife officers and volunteers counted elephants from watch towers set up near 1,500 irrigation tanks. Fifteen of the country’s national parks were also closed for public during the survey.
“Sri Lanka’s elephant population is healthy,” says H D Ratnayake, director general of Department of Wildlife Conservation of the country while releasing the figures.
Holes in the survey
But animal activists are sceptical about the accuracy of the data. They say this is more of an estimate rather than a census. “Counting elephants is a difficult task given the elusive nature of elephants. Elephants can move about 30 km overnight. Movements of elephants over wide ranges can result in double counting errors,” says Srilal Mittapala, an animal activist. He adds there could be water bodies that have not been surveyed. “Also, what is the guarantee that all elephants have visited these water bodies during the survey period,” he adds.
Activists also say that the water hole count method is the least reliable way to count elephants based on field results of India and some other countries. They point out that population estimate for elephant is best done using methods like line transect or dung count.
Elephant census has been in the spotlight due to a controversial statement by the minister for wildlife conservation few days before it started. At a press briefing, he said that the census is aimed at identifying young elephants and that some of them will be caught for domestication. Sri Lanka has a tradition of using elephants during festivals or celebrations. To carry the sacred relics, only some tuskers with certain prominent characteristics are selected. The survey sheet used for the census contained a column identifying the the shape of the tusks.
The wildlife department says the census results will be used for management of elephant population. The problem of human-elephant conflict is severe in many parts of Sri Lanka. Around 200 elephants and 50 people lose their lives each year because of such conflicts.
“But how willl this data be used for conservation?” ask elephant experts in the country. Writing an editorial in the Journal of Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Prithviraj Fernando questioned its relevance to actual conservation. “A count is probably of value at local scales, for planning and monitoring the impact of management activities, which however, needs accuracy and precision.
Unfortunately, the quick and dirty methods are neither accurate nor precise, so we have to rely on the more technical methods. These require a high degree of training, skill, expertise, funds, time and dedication,” he wrote. Fernando is a pioneer in country’s elephant researches, tracking their movements using radio and satellite collars.
Sri Lanka has the highest density of Wild Asian Elephants in the world. The Sri Lankan elephant is also a unique subspecies of the Asian Elephant, scientifically categorised Elephas maximus maximus. The country also hosts, The Gathering of Minneriya Elephant, a top wildlife spectacle when herds of elephants gather on the shores of Minneriya lake.
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