Elephas maximus maximus is the sub-species which is distributed in Sri Lanka. The elephant has an enormous cultural and religious significance to Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka. The Lord Buddha’s relic casket is carried on an elephant every year during the festival known as Esala Perahera.
The elephant has been protected in Sri Lanka since the 12th century, but nevertheless many of them were captured to be used as war elephants or for export to other countries. The systematic slaughter of elephants began with the arrival of the colonial powers and the introduction of the firearms. In 1937 the animals were given full legal protection. But still, elephant numbers have declined in recent times, largely due to attrition of animal’s habitat.
The elephant population in Sri Lanka decreased over 67% in the past 200 years. Original the elephants were distributed all over the island, but today they are primary restricted to the lowlands in drier regions.
The number of elephants in Sri Lanka today is a fraction of that existing few hundred years ago. Today between 3,160 and 4,405 elephants are estimated to be present in Sri Lanka of which between 2,000 and 2,870 occur largely in the protected areas (according to WWF). In addition, the number of elephants in captivity has declined as well, from about 670 in 1955 to approximately between 400 and 600 today.
With the reduction of their habitats elephant populations have broken up and some herds have got pocketed in small patches of jungle. With their movement restricted, especially when food and water resources are depleted, elephants migrate into new cultivated areas, which were their former habitat.
With their large size and intemperate appetite, elephants can easily destroy the entire cultivation of a peasant farmer in a single night. Thus the conflict between man and elephant has become the most serious conservation problems in Sri Lanka, where a combination of deforestation, agricultural expansion, and human population growth has substantially reduced the habitat that was once available to the elephant.
The conflict has escalated in the recent past; during the last decade alone, a total of 1,369 elephants were killed.