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Born Free USA Global Field Projects

Sri Lanka’s Elephant Population

Published 08/24/11

More Sri Lanka elephants project images
(Photograph by Born Free Foundation)

Sri Lanka is a relatively small country (about the size of the Republic of Ireland) with high human population densities and a very significant elephant population (estimated at around 4,000 or more). While there is a good network of national parks and protected areas, many of the elephants spend a significant amount of time outside these zones, and conflict with rural communities is common.

Elephants are not hunted for sport or food, and rarely if ever poached for tusks or other parts (for example, skins or tails). Almost all human-caused elephant deaths — of which there have been around 200 annually in recent years — are due to attacks from rural people acting in retaliation or self-defense. Documented methods include the use of guns, gun-based traps, poison and baited explosives that fatally damage the animal’s mouth.
Around 50 people a year die in elephant-related incidents around the country.

Sri Lanka has a history of training elephants for religious, commercial and domestic purposes that dates back for thousands of years. However, over this period the population of captive elephants has not been fully maintained by captive breeding and has been regularly supplemented by capturing animals (usually juveniles) from the wild. This practice has been largely abandoned for the past few decades, during which time the number of privately owned elephants in the country has dropped to just over 100.

However, elephants are still kept at several Buddhist temples and often used in Buddhist pageants called “Peraheras.” They also are displayed at some tourist sites, a few of which offer elephant-back rides. There are captive elephants held at the government-run zoo in Dehiwala, Colombo, and more than 80 at its affiliated facility the elephant centre at Pinnewala.

Read updates about our Sri Lankan elephants project.

See the Sri Lankan elephant project's photo gallery.

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