Sri Lanka elephant census begins

An elephant walks past a temple in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy, some 116kms from Colombo, on 8 August 2011 Sri Lanka is home to thousands of elephants

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Sri Lanka has started the first nationwide survey of its elephant population, aimed at better protecting the animals and their habitat.

The survey, which started late on Thursday, lasts until Saturday evening.

The results will be published in a few weeks.

A government wildlife official has tried to allay concern from conservationists that the census will be used to bring more animals into captivity.

Some 3,500 people are counting the elephants from watchtowers at 1,500 watering holes and ancient irrigation lakes.

They are classifying the animals by age and sex, and trying to get an idea of their movements and distribution.

This is the driest time of year, and animals are at their most thirsty, so come to drink in large numbers. An eyewitness in one of the main parks, Minneriya, said however that Friday was very hot and few showed up early in the day.

The people of this mainly Buddhist country revere elephants as sacred. Since ancient times, captive elephants have fulfilled ceremonial roles for priests and kings.

Yet there is also a modern conflict between farmers and free-ranging wild elephants - a clash that results in dozens of human and elephant deaths each year.

A senior wildlife official, RB Dissanayake, told the BBC they want to use the survey results to minimise these ongoing clashes and declare new protected areas.

The official strongly denied reports that it will also serve to find strong young elephants to be captured and donated to temples.

He said tame elephants would instead be bred from the existing domesticated or captive population.

Earlier this week, environmental groups pulled out of the elephant survey after a minister said it would be used to tame more of the animals.

He is reported to have withdrawn these remarks.

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