- Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 7,500 elephants, which is about 10% of elephants that live in Asia. They live on about 2% of the country’s land area, and a little more than 7% of male elephants bear tusks.
- Tuskers are exposed to more harm than other elephants, even though poaching for ivory is not common in Sri Lanka. As time has passed, seeing tuskers in the wild parts of Sri Lanka has become a rarity.
- More than 400 elephants have died in Sri Lanka in the past year. The country has the world’s highest number of elephant deaths and the second-highest number of human fatalities due to human-elephant conflict after India. Nearly two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s elephants live outside protected areas.
- The views expressed in this essay are those of the photographer, not necessarily Mongabay.
My love and passion for the wild elephants of Sri Lanka run deep within my veins, as deep as my love for photography.
Big males known as “tuskers” are a sight to behold in the wild. When he steps out of the forest canopy and into the sunlight, he strides along the plains like a colossus exuding absolute confidence and dominance over all before him. The female elephants rumble and trumpet in excitement, and the other males move away in fear. The tusker truly is the king of the Sri Lankan wilderness.
Throughout the years, Sri Lanka’s wild tusked males have been gradually diminishing for a variety of reasons. For several centuries, the elephants of Sri Lanka have been prized, and hence, many were exported to neighboring kingdoms. Tuskers were highly valued as beasts of war and considered culturally significant.
During colonial times, elephants were widely considered vermin and were killed by the thousands for sport and pleasure. Tuskers were an especially sought-after trophy.
Post-independence brought in new challenges to the survival of these majestic beasts. Land management and development projects further marginalized wild elephant populations. Big elephant drives, undertaken in a bid to reduce human-elephant conflict have resulted in increased conflict with the elephants eventually returning to their home range.
Today, Sri Lanka, home to about 7,500 elephants (Elephas maximus maximus), but few are tuskers. Sri Lanka now mostly has tuskless bulls, known as makhnas in India, their iconic ivory having been lost through time.
Tuskers constitute only a tiny proportion of Sri Lanka’s elephant population and are largely scattered across the island’s dry and intermediate zones. To encounter one in the wild is an extremely rare experience, and when I do find one, the exultation I feel and the connection when making eye contact with him is beyond words.
As a photographer and elephant watcher, I sometimes feel that they are trying to tell me something. Perhaps they know that their days in this land are numbered and their future is uncertain. In their eyes, sometimes I see a deep sadness of loss that I feel they are trying silently to convey.
It may come as a surprise that the majority of tuskers, and elephants in general, are found outside Sri Lanka’s protected national parks and sanctuaries. These giants are scattered across small pockets of forests surrounded by an ocean of human settlements.
When I venture into certain areas in search of them, I am often taken aback by the fact that such large animals could live in such small spaces right next to busy, bustling towns. But this is the harsh reality faced by Sri Lanka’s dwindling elephant population.
In recent decades, elephant habitats have shrunk while thousands of human settlements have sprung up around or in the midst of elephant terrain. This isolation has resulted in the loss of lives, both human and elephant. Globally, Sri Lanka has recorded the highest elephant deaths and second highest human deaths, as a result of human-elephant conflict (HEC).
As the conflict has intensified, villagers have begun resorting to drastic means of retaliation, with loud, but generally harmless, firecrackers being replaced by homemade explosives, known locally as hakka pattas, placed inside bait such as cucumbers that injure the mouths of elephants. Often, such an explosion can lead to an astoundingly agonizing and drawn-out death as a result of the horrific injuries sustained.
On the other hand, villagers sometimes lose family members and constantly live in fear of elephant attacks.
Sri Lanka’s elephant population faces an uncertain future. Now, the question may be whether Sri Lanka’s development agenda leaves space for wild tuskers and other elephants. Will it be that the only remaining tuskers are the poor creatures who spend their lives in chains, and occasionally parade themselves wearing illuminated costumes to appease a nation’s view of culture?
The fate of the tuskers and all other wildlife lies in the hands of every Sri Lankan, not only the impacted villagers or those that are in power. It is within every one of us. The deciding decade is upon us, and the choice is ours to make.
Rajiv Welikala is a professional wildlife photographer who has been traveling and exploring the wild corners of Sri Lanka and the world for more than 20 years. He is one of Sri Lanka’s leading wildlife tour operators and organizes and guides photographic safaris worldwide. His passion for wildlife began at an early age, and his love for elephants — and tuskers in particular — is well known. Welikala has spent his life documenting and discovering the last remaining wild tuskers of the island, and working to protect and conserve them.
Banner image of Wasaba, a tusker and an aggressive bull from Sri Lanka’s North Central province, during the musth period. Wasaba is known to attack and disperse other bulls and even larger tuskers. Image by Rajiv Welikala.