Swimming trunk: elephant rescued from ocean 10 miles off Sri Lanka coast


Michael Safi, The Guardian

Date Published

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An elephant has been rescued from the ocean about 10 miles (16km) off Sri Lanka’s north-east coast, the country’s navy has said.

Navy personnel said the pachyderm was caught in a current off the coast near the town of Kokkilai and dragged into the ocean, where it was spotted by a patrol boat.

Department of Wildlife officials and another navy vessel were dispatched to the area and helped drag the animal back to shore in a 12-hour rescue.

Divers aided by wildlife officials approached the distressed elephant and tied ropes to it, before towing it gently to shallow waters near the coast, where it was released.

Avinash Krishnan, a research officer with the conservation group A Rocha, said the discovery of the animal so far from land 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.”

But he added that the navy’s intervention was probably still necessary. “They can’t keep swimming for long because they burn a lot of energy,” he said.

“And the salt water isn’t good for their skin, so in this case, the situation probably warranted human intervention.”

Asian elephants regularly traversed short distances through the water, he added, including in the Andaman Islands, an Indian archipelago, where they have been observed swimming between the small landforms.

Chaminda Walakuluge, a navy spokesman, said the animal had probably been swept into the sea while crossing the Kokkilai lagoon, a large stretch of water that lies between two areas of jungle.

“They usually wade through shallow waters or even swim across to take a shortcut,” he said. “It is a miraculous escape for the elephant.”

Photos posted on the navy’s website show the animal trying to keep its trunk above the water as divers approached it. Elephants use their trunks as a natural snorkel and have a unique lung structure among mammals that allows them to withstand variations in pressure above and below the water.

Genetically, they are also close relatives of manatees and dugongs, both water-dwelling animals.

Biologists have speculated that elephants might have first reached Sri Lanka by taking a similar route to the animal retrieved on Monday, swimming from southern India.