After being swept eight nautical miles (just under 10 miles) out to sea, dramatic video footage shows an elephant rescued by the Sri Lankan navy during a laborious 12-hour process.
Officials first noticed the elephant during a routine patrol off the island's northeast coast. The animal was struggling to stay afloat. Video shows the elephant nearly submerged in water and using its trunk as a makeshift snorkel to breathe.
According to the Agence France-Presse (AFP), which first reported the story, Sri Lankan navy officials believe the animal was pulled out to sea while trying to cross the Kokkilai lagoon. The lagoon lies in the middle of an animal sanctuary and sits between two stretches of jungle the elephant may have been trying to pass.
"They usually wade through shallow waters or even swim across to take a short cut," one official told AFP.
The video shows multiple navy officials swimming from a ship in scuba gear with ropes, which they tied around the elephant. One individual even sat atop the elephant's back to help guide it to safety.
Eventually the animal was guided to shore, where it was released into the care of wildlife officials, according to the Navy's website.
That an elephant was spotted swimming is not entirely unusual. The large mammals are buoyant in the water and swim fully submerged, using their trunks as snorkels.
In an emailed statement to National Geographic, co-founder of Elephant Voices Joyce Poole noted, "Elephants are considered the best swimmers of any land mammal—perhaps excluding trained human swimmers."
Poole added that after reviewing footage of the rescue, the elephant appeared to be tired.
Some elephants have even found fame as swimmers. Rajan, a 66-year-old Indian elephant that died last year, was famous on YouTube and featured in movies where shots of the 12-thousand-pound mammal show it gliding smoothly through the water.
While they can swim for fairly long periods of time, they will tire if not able to rest. Navy officials intervened, claiming the swimming would have caused the elephant to burn too much energy to survive and that the prolonged exposure to saltwater could have damaged the elephant's skin.
Under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Asian elephants are classified as endangered and have faced significant threats from logging and loss of habitat. Most males and females in this species lack noticeable tusks, leading some to believe they face fewer threats from poaching; however, many are hunted for their meat and leather.
Since the turn of the century, Sri Lankan elephant populations have fallen by almost 65 percent thanks to an increase in deforestation on the island. Currently, the elephants are protected under Sri Lankan law, where killing one results in steep penalties.