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Tracking Sri Lanka's elephant census

Al Jazeera's Steve Chao reports from Minneriya National Park in central Sri Lanka where thousands of elephants are being counted.
Last modified: 14 Aug 2011 14:59
An elephant gets pampered and showered ahead of one of Sri Lanka's most famous Buddhist festivals, the Perahera in Kandy.

It's a long and bumpy ride along the winding dirt roads of Minneriya National Park in central Sri Lanka. We're travelling in open top jeeps, just skimming under the canopy of foliage in this dense jungle.

It's late afternoon and we're headed for one of the last watering holes left in the hot dry season.

"There should be many elephants there right now," shouts Dhanushka Lakmal, our driver and guide, over the roar of the engine, "maybe a few hundred."

For the first time, Sri Lanka's government is holding a census to determine just how large the resident elephant population is. Some 4,000 volunteers, wildlife staff, and military personnel have spanned out in parks across the country.

Equipped with binoculars, sleeping bags, and some rations, they will spend 48 hours, some perched precariously in trees, trying to get an accurate count.

Wildlife experts estimate that there could be upwards of 5,000 elephants - a healthy number considering that many have died as human development is increasingly encroaching on their territory.

Protective beasts

Over a crest and around a bend, the jungle opens onto a plain. And there we see them. "How many do you think there is?" asks Lakmal excitedly.

Still about a kilometre away, the herd looks like distant grey dots, and i can only guess. "About a hundred?" I ask. "I would say two hundred or more, look some are still on the edge of the jungle," points out Lakmal.

As we get closer, our jeep slows to a crawl, so as not to scare the herd. Elephants are extremely protective of their young, and here at the park, have been known to charge vehicles.

We see this for ourselves, as a female elephant rushes towards a van carrying a number of journalists. When the van doesn't move, she rams it, breaking the front headlight. The vehicle beats a quick retreat, with the female and a number of other elephants in chase.

"That one is a dangerous one," says Lakmal. She is the perfect example of the conflict between humans and nature. We learn the female elephant lost one of her babies when it was struck by a car on a nearby highway.

She has never forgotten. Pregnant again, she's attacked some 15 vehicles this month alone. The census itself was under attack by wildlife groups in the days leading up to its beginning.

Sri Lanka's wildlife minister, S M Chandrasena, had been quoted as suggesting the government would use the exercise to find some of the healthiest elephants to bring them into service at the various temples for religious purposes.

Currently more than a hundred elephants, almost all orphans, are used in various Buddhist ceremonies, like the famous Perahera festival in Kandy.

The claim led to a number of groups announcing they would boycott the census. And in the end, Chandrasena was forced to hold a press conference denying the accusation.

“We don’t have a special reason to count tuskers. People say we are going to give away some tuskers. I can't handover tuskers to anyone as I wish. And, I don't want to,” Mr. Chandrasena said.

Accuracy questioned

Some wildlife experts question the accuracy of such a census, as not every water hole can be covered, and many observers don't have the proper training.

Still, the wildlife department says it will give them an overall picture of the situation, and help guide habitat protection policies in the near future. "Look out behind us," says Lakmal.

I turn and see a herd of about a dozen elephants emerging out of the jungle. Two of the larger adults trumpet, and threaten to charge. As we prepare to move, they stop.

The younger elephants in the group have been ushered into the back of the pack, and the group slowly makes its way around us, cautiously keeping an eye on us.

When they are far away enough, Lakmal fires up the jeep and we set back out on the dusty road. With night falling, my thoughts are on how defensive this elephant herd is and wonder how the growing human population will affect them in the future.

Normally some 150 jeeps carrying tourists run about Menneriya National Park.

During the census, tourists have been barred from entering. And at least one park ranger noted, not only were there more elephants willing to come out of the jungle but also many other species of wildlife, including the ever-shy deer population.