TRUNK AND DISORDERLY: Sri Lankan elephants often come into conflict with humans. © Wikimedia

Scientists in Sri Lanka have produced the first-ever evidence-based distribution map for Asian elephants.

The researchers carried out interview surveys across the country and found that the charismatic mammals occur over around 60 per cent of the island nation, a much higher proportion than elsewhere in its 13-country range.

Earlier distribution models either covered smaller areas within individual countries, or were based on “guesswork and conjecture”, according to the authors of the study published in the journal Oryx earlier this month.

It represents the first time a country-wide, evidence-based distribution map has been produced for the species.

Elephant expert Prithiviraj Fernando from Sri Lanka’s Centre for Conservation and Research and colleagues divided the island into 2,750 grid cells, each measuring 25 square-kilometres, and conducted interviews with three residents per cell.

If cells were uninhabited elephant presence was estimated based on the four surrounding cells.

This data was then combined with GPS tracking data gathered from 2004-2018, and the team found that most of Sri Lanka’s elephants live outside protected areas, leading to well-publicised conflicts with humans.

The authors suggest that under these circumstances, trying to confine the animals to certain areas is not a sound conservation strategy, and instead recommend a “human-elephant coexistence model” to reduce conflict by installing electric fences and other barriers around villages and farmland.

“This approach has been incorporated into the National Policy for Elephant Conservation and Management in Sri Lanka but is yet to be fully implemented”, they add in the paper.

The Sri Lankan population of Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, is often recognised as the subspecies E. m. maximus.

It is currently considered endangered by the IUCN and is threatened particularly by habitat loss, with the most recent population census indicating there are less than 6,000 wild individuals remaining.