South Asia

Sri Lankan elephant numbers 'healthy', survey suggests

A herd of Asian wild elephants in Sri Lanka
Image caption A partial survey of wild elephants conducted in 1993 during the civil war found less than 2,000

Sri Lanka's first nationwide census of its wild elephant population suggests it is "in good health", officials say.

Sri Lankan officials said 7,379 elephants were found, with 5,879 seen near parks and sanctuaries and another 1,500 estimated to be elsewhere.

The Wildlife Conservation Department said before the count it thought just 5,350 members of the endangered species lived in the island country.

Some environmentalists in Sri Lanka have queried the survey's methodology.

In 'good health'

The three-day survey began on 11 August and classified the animals by age and sex.

Wildlife Conservation Department director HD Ratnayake said 3,500 people had set up 1,533 counting posts near watering holes, irrigation tanks and lakes commonly used by elephants.

"We have an elephant population which is in good health and its population growth is also very good," Mr Ratnayake told reporters in Colombo.

The survey counted 1,107 baby elephants, he added.

Use in festivals

Conservationist Prithviraj Fernando told the BBC elephants could visit a number of different watering holes in one night. Dr Fernando said the radio tracking of about 50 elephants in Sri Lanka had provided a wealth of information that could be used to plan for the animals' future.

A group of around 30 conservation organisations had boycotted the census after Sri Lanka's wildlife minister reportedly said it would be used to identify strong young elephant calves, to be "donated" to temples for use in festivals.

The mainly Buddhist population of Sri Lanka revere elephants as sacred, with captive elephants fulfilling ceremonial roles for priests and kings since ancient times.

Officials later denied the census would lead to elephants being taken captive, saying the data would instead be used to formulate policies to protect the animals. It would also be used to mitigate the conflict between farmers and free-ranging elephants, they said.

Officials say nearly 200 elephants are killed annually when they stray into agricultural areas, while marauding elephants are said to kill some 50 people each year.

It is the first survey of elephant numbers since Sri Lanka's military crushed a decades-long uprising by Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009.

The civil war had prevented researchers counting elephants in the north and south of the country during a similar survey in 1993 that found 1,967 elephants. In 1900 the elephant population was estimated to stand at 10,000 to 15,000.

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