The sea is a place filled with mysteries. It is an entirely different world underneath that endless stretch of salt water. But, the surface is far less mysterious, and all you get to see is a calm stretch of blue sea which sometimes turns violent during turbulent weather. There are ships, boats, people going for a dip, the occasional dolphin or whale.
And then there are elephants, humongous pachyderms that look quite out of place in the sea. We have seen animals swim across lakes, ponds and rivers. But rarely do we come across wild animals swimming across the sea. This is exactly what happened off the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka a few days ago when three elephants were rescued from the sea on two different instances within a space of a few days.

Jumbos around the world face threats for its ivory tusks which are worth millions. Over the years, Sri Lankan elephants have been talked about extensively due to the increasing human-elephant conflict. Frequent clashes between the two have resulted in several deaths on both sides. On the other hand, the government and activists are making sure that these mammals are safeguarded.

We have read, and watched elephants being rescued from wells, traps, pits, and lakes. However, this was probably the first time that many Sri Lankans come across instances of elephants being rescued from the sea. What made it even more bizarre was the fact that there were two instances in quick succession. This triggered several questions and concerns.

Jumbo dip

The first incident was reported on July 14, 2017 when an elephant was spotted 16 km off the coast of Kokkilai, Mullaitivu. The second incident was reported on July 23 when two young elephants were spotted by the Navy, struggling to keep their trunks above water levels. On both occasions, the Navy eventually rescued the mammals with the help of other wildlife officials.

While experts cannot zero in on a particular reason for this phenomenon, they pinpointed certain aspects that could have led to the jumbos’ ocean excursions.

Are elephants good swimmers?

Experts opine that this is not something to be surprised. “Yes, elephants can swim,” says Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR), Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando. In fact, there have been instances where elephants have been spotted in seas off the coast of the Andaman islands.

Speaking to the Nation on the issue, Dr. Fernando stated that though swimming elephants are not a new phenomenon, experts were yet to understand the reasons behind the elephants going out to sea.

According to Dr. Fernando, there have been instances before where an elephant had swum across the sea. He said that elephants tend to cross the seas in order to return to their original habitats.

“Some time ago an elephant was translocated and we had attached a GPS collar on the mammal. The animal was taken to Maduru Oya and released. However, he left the park and went North up to Sampur and swam off,” Dr. Fernando explained.

Dr. Fernando who had been in touch with Naval officers of the area on the issue says that the navy knew the elephants in the area and would be able to tell if an elephant was from the region or not. In fact, the first elephant which was rescued from sea did not belong to the area.

“So it might be that the elephant which was located first was swimming away to its original habitat,” Dr. Fernando said. However, the other two elephants rescued a few days later were said to be of that area.

Past instances

Dr. Fernando said that in the past too, instances had been recorded where elephants had crossed over to the islets near the harbour to feed.

On the other hand, Dr. Fernando also cited the possibility of the elephants being dragged into sea due to riptide, a dangerous offshore current, which is caused by the tide pulling water through an inlet along a barrier beach.

“The riptide starts close to shore, then you get dragged inside a couple of kilometres offshore. That could also be a possible explanation,” he added.

Meanwhile, Avinash Krishnan, an international research officer attached to a conservation group A Rocha, also shared the same views as Dr. Fernando stating that the discovery of the elephant was ‘less remarkable than it seemed’.

“They’re very good swimmers,” he said. “Swimming about 15km from the shore is not unusual for an elephant,” Krishnan had told The Guardian. He, however, had said that the navy’s intervention was probably still necessary as they cannot keep swimming for long because they burn a lot of energy.

Navy monitoring seas

Meanwhile, the Navy stated that there was no special initiative launched following the rescue of elephants. Navy Spokesperson Lieutenant Commander, Chaminda Walakuluge told the Nation that the navy had a routine patrol along the coastal areas of the country and that was sufficient to monitor the sea at the moment.

“We don’t need a special operation specifically for this. Our officers are on the alert all the time. The three elephants were spotted during our normal routine. Therefore it is adequate,” he said.

However, according to Dr. Fernando, there have been no records of elephants trying to cross over during the war. He said that it might have been due to the various barriers and fences that were setup along the coast for security reasons.

“But the situation is different now and that’s why I think this situation has arisen,” he added.

In addition, Walakuluge added that factors such as high temperature in the region could have resulted in the elephants going out to sea. “The dry weather could have also resulted in scarcity of vegetation. These are all possibilities,” he said.

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