SLWCS Field Report SLWCS Field Report The SLWCS Elephant ID Project Ravi Corea Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society My first introduction to

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SLWCS Field Report

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A herd of females have formed a phalanx to safeguard the young calf


SLWCS Field Report

The SLWCS Elephant ID Project

Ravi Corea
Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

My first introduction to Pinky I guess was not one of the most affable encounters. She chased us down the road for nearly 500 meters before deciding to get some grass. This was way back in 1998 while visiting the Wasgamuwa National Park. And following that first encounter with Pinky we found out from park personnel that for reasons not known Pinky had a disposition to charge or chase vehicles and in the course of doing so had managed to mangle a few vehicles as well. So since that first exciting experience with Pinky, whenever we visited the park we would always keep a wary eye out for her. It was pretty nerve racking when we were travelling on jeep tracks that had thick jungle pressing right up to the sides of the road. In such habitat she could pop out from anywhere! On several occasions she had done so to our consternation - luckily since we were alert to this fact managed to put some distance between us thereby surviving her onslaughts to turn is into a wreckage. But in open grassland type of terrain this was not a problem, since Pinky stood out like sore thumb among all the other females.

Pinky’s outstanding feature was these large patches of pigmentation she had on her ears, face and neck – hence the name. It was around then that we decided to start an elephant identifying project. Mature bulls of course had very distinct physical features but the females were a different issue. Female elephants too had physical features that could help to identify them, but most female elephants did not have very distinct features like Pinky. Nevertheless they all had features unique to each of them, but the challenge was to categorize what these traits were and how to record them for future analysis.

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Pinky's pigmentation was very similar to this bull's

For a casual observer to identify individual females in a herd was no less challenging than trying to identify individual chickens in a flock of white leghorns. Similarly female elephants in a herd become a brown amalgamation of pachyderms making it rather difficult to identify them individually.

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Elephants in a herd seems to blend into each other

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At a distance they all look alike

There were methods that were being used by recording certain physical traits such as the primary and secondary folds of the ear, tail and tail tuft characteristics, nicks, tears, lumps, warts and scars, and overall body shape, etc. These traits were recorded on diagrammatic field data sheets with matching photos. This was laborious work especially once data has been collected for over 100 elephants, to flip over files of datasheets and photo catalogues to match information on elephants that were being continuously collected from the field.

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Physical signs such as lumps and warts are helpful to identify elephants

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An elephant with no visible distinct signs is much harder to identify

In 2007 the SLWCS pursued to develop a computer algorithm in partnership with the University of Moratuwa (UoM) to computerize the entire process of storing and analyzing data to minimize the effort to match and compare information on elephants. The goal was to create an Automated Elephant Recognition System© that could match photos that were taken by anyone and by any type of camera - meaning both film and digital. Certain features of the program would be open for citizen science thereby allowing any person to upload a photo of an elephant to find whether it was already identified and recorded and if it was not then the program will keep it on file for future reference. Two undergraduates from the Computer Sciences department of the UoM worked on the project up to the point they were about to have a working prototype, and then rather unfortunately due to funding issues the entire project had to be ended.

It was interesting to learn that several years ago a team from the Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, USA worked on a project to develop a computer program to identify Asian elephants using their footprints. They are attempting to develop a system similar to how human fingerprints are used to identify people.

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The folds and tears in the ears are characteristics that help in identifying elephants

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This bull elephant and the one below....


...are not the same though they both have a lot of pigmentation on the same areas of their bodies.

Why is it important to identify individual elephants or for that matter individuals of any other species? The identification of individuals of a species is important to understand behavior, social organization, ranging and other information that is important for their conservation and management including to developing measures for conflict mitigation.

The SLWCS Elephant ID Project is still continuing and has the following objectives:

The Primary Objectives are:

1. To identify individual elephants, their social structure and behavior
2. To monitor populations over time
3. To understand elephant movement or their ranging over time

The Secondary Objectives are:

1. To gather information on habitat preference over a time of individuals or herds.
2. To identify the most frequented areas.
3. To understand the temporal and spatial pattern of elephant distribution.

The Tertiary Objectives are:

1. To map human-elephant conflict (HEC) areas and habitats most frequently used by elephants.
2. To understand the temporal and spatial aspects of HEC compared to elephant distribution and habitat use.
3. To gather information to develop preventive and adaptive mitigation strategies to resolve HEC and management plans for elephant conservation.

Every elephant that has been identified receives a specific number and a name and all of their information is recorded in a catalogue. The names are given arbitrarily and generally depend on the idiosyncrasies of the elephant researcher.

The following is a sample of elephants that had been recently identified at our project site in Wasgamuwa in the Central Province of Sri Lanka.

159. Ranitha

Image#159: Ranitha the precocious male calf

Image#159: This young male’s name is Ranitha. He is a year-old male that was observed in the Wasgamuwa National park. He was the only juvenile of his age so he got a lot of attention from the herd. He was trying to come very close to us, but his mother kept trying to stop him but all her attempts were in vain and he came towards us like in the photo to show how cute he is.

121. Ranitha   Mother

Imge#121: Ranitha with his mother Ranjani

Image#121: The female’s name is Ranjani and she is the mother of Ranitha. In this photo she is trying to stop the young male from approaching our Land Rover.


Image#2847: Ayomi with her male calf Pathum

Image#2847: The female’s name is Ayomi and her male calf’s name is Pathum. We first encountered them by the Weheragala Tank (lake). They were with two other females. Unfortunately the body conditions of both Ayomi and Pathum are not great. We first saw them a couple of days back at Madupitiya Plains by the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor around 11 am.


Image#3386: Little Nimal with his mother Suneetha

Image#3386: The female’s name is Suneetha and she is a matriarch. Suneetha is old. Her male calf’s name is Nimal. He is very well fed. Always seeks attention and once got punished by some adult bulls. In the picture he is trying to grab the grass that his mother is about to eat.


Image#3881: Nimal with a slightly larger young male called Wasantha, they could be cousins.


Image#3989:: Sita with her calf

Image#3989: The female is Sita and she is with her calf who has not being named yet. They are part of Ayomi’s herd. They were together almost all the time we saw them in the last field season. They are both in very good physical condition.


Image#7626:: An unidentified female with a new born calf and two juveniles

Image#7626: This new born “class one juvenile” has not being named yet. We spotted them in the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor. We observed them standing very closer to the Tree Hut. In this picture the female (also yet to be identified) was trying very hard to hide the little calf and other young juvenile members in the herd were helping her in this effort.


Image#9038: Unidentified females with calf

Image#9038: This is another unidentified female with the same herd with the new born calf (image#7626) on the same day and time at the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor. She too was trying to hide her calf.


Image#9204: The Aunties and their offspring

Image#9204: This family group has been named the Nandas (Aunties). They are three similarly aged adult females and all three have calves that are of similar age. They were often seen during last year’s dry season at the Weheragala Tank (lake).


Image#9239: Two females from the herd that is known as the Nandas (Aunties) with their calves.


Image#9283: A uniquely-shaped elephant that belongs to the herd that is known as the Aunties

Image#9283: The third female from the Nandas (Aunties) herd suckling her calf. This female we first encountered in the Wasgamuwa National Park (WNP) in November 2010. She has a very unique shape to her dorsal ridge. This photo was taken on September 2016 at the Weheragala Tank which is outside the WNP.

Photo Credits:

Chinthaka Weerasinghe/SLWCS
Chandima Fernando/SLWCS
Ravi Corea/SLWCS

Big, rumbling thanks to our Corporate Partners for their kind support and to everyone who has donated and supported our wildlife conservation efforts!

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