In the past, the Sri Lankan elephants were quite common and widely distributed across the tear-shaped island, located at the edge of India’s southern tip. Currently, they face habitat loss and degradation of their natural habitat due to forest clearing. In addition, they are now unable to follow their migratory routes as a result of human development. The Sri Lankan elephant is identified by patches of depigmentation, which are portions of skin without color, found on the ears, face, trunk and belly of the animal. This elephant is the largest and meanwhile the darkest of 4 sub-species of Asian elephant. This animal differs from the African elephant by smaller ears and more curved spine. As opposed to their African relatives, females of this species usually lack tusks. Females that do have tusks, grow very small ones that are almost invisible, seen only when the mouth is open. Males grow rather long tusks, which can be longer and heavier that these of the African elephants.
The range of this species is limited to Sri Lanka Island off the southern coast of India, where a small population of these elephants inhabit a natural reserve called the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. The Sri Lankan elephants are found in different habitats such as open grasslands, forested regions, open savannas as well as marshes and lake shores.
The Sri Lankan elephants are highly social animals. They are known to form matriarchal herds of 12 - 20 individuals. These social units consist of related females and are led by the oldest female. There are 2 types of herds: nursing units, made up of lactating females and their offspring; and juvenile care units, composed of females and juveniles. These elephants are migratory animals, travelling strict routes between the wet and dry seasons, determined by the monsoon season. While migrating, the oldest member of the herd usually remembers the route and guides the group on their way. However, due to expansion of human settlements, these animals have been known to come across and destruct farms on their ancient migratory routes. They are active both day and night, but many of them sleep under large trees in the day time.
There is no exact information about the mating system in Sri Lankan elephants, although their close relatives, Asian elephants, are polygynous. These animals can mate at any time of the year. Gestation period lasts for 22 months, yielding a single baby, which weighs approximately 100 kg. The newborn elephant is usually cared by both its mother and other females of the herd, which are called 'aunties'. Calves live with their mothers for up to 5 years, after which they are independent. Males disperse, whereas females continue living with the herd. Females of this species are sexually mature at 10 years old, producing offspring with intervals of 4 - 6 years.
The biggest threat to the population of this species is loss of their forest habitat, which is currently being cleared due to agricultural development and expansion of human settlements throughout the island. The Sri Lankan elephant is known to favor crops and fruits, grown by humans such as sugar cane or bananas. This factor, combined with deforestation, leads to conflicts between elephants and humans, resulting in destruction of property as well as mortality among both parties, where population of these elephants in the wild reduces by 6% every year.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total number of Sri Lankan elephants’ population is 2,500-4,000 individuals. Overall, the Asian elephant is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List.
Elephant domestication on Sri Lanka has a rather long history, starting with times of Sinhalese Kings, who kept these animals for military purposes as well as demonstration of their monarchical power. Some chieftains, who would capture elephants for the Sinhala kings, were permitted to keep 1 - 2 elephants themselves. In course of time, tradition of elephant domestication was continued by Portuguese and the Dutch, reaching our time. Currently, these animals are still privately kept for different purposes such as logging, construction, tourism, ceremonies or temple work.