The animal was first spotted by a Sri Lankan Navy boat on a routine patrol off the northeastern coastal town of Kokilai. The rescue effort swelled to three more vessels and a team of navy divers.
Using ropes and guidance provided by officials from the Department of Wildlife, the team towed the elephant back to land, where it was handed over to officials from the wildlife office, the Sri Lankan Navy said in a statement.
Chaminda Walakuluge, a Sri Lankan Navy spokesman, told Agence France-Presse the elephant was likely caught in a riptide while crossing the Kokkilai lagoon, a coastal body of water wedged into jungle on either side.
“They usually wade through shallow waters or even swim across take a shortcut. It is a miraculous escape for the elephant,” Walakuluge told the AFP.
Joyce Poole, co-founder of the Elephant Voices conservation group, told The Washington Post in an email that “elephants are considered the best swimmers of any land mammal, excluding trained human swimmers.”
Poole said the elephant in the video looked tired, presumably from keeping afloat for an unknown period of time. Their swimming talents leading to danger is not new, she said.
“I well remember flying in the early 1990s over barren and deserted islands off the Kenyan coast near the Somali border and seeing the bones of elephants that had been killed there,” Poole said. “Clearly they swam from the mainland to the island only to meet their deaths there.”
The subspecies of elephants in Sri Lanka, commonly known as Asian or Indian elephants, weigh between 4,400 and 12,000 pounds and stand as high as 10 feet at their shoulder.
Only 2,500 to 4,000 have survived after deforestation and development disrupted migration patterns, a drop of 65 percent in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the 19th century, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Elephants there have been forced from their home on the southern tip of the tear-shaped island due to human activity.
Killing a Sri Lankan elephant is punishable by death, the WWF noted. But no word on what reward there might be for saving one.