Africa vs Asia – The beginning of the end?

September 3, 2013 12:00 pm

When one thinks of the plight of elephants in the world today, what comes to mind is the merciless killings of the African elephant for ivory. Think again. A much worse threat of extinction is happening to the Asian Elephant. These magnificent animals are often overlooked compared with their African cousins but in reality they are much worse off.

The African elephant has benefited from a highly emotional public outrage at the bloody slaughter for ivory. Appeals to help fund its survival have been so lucrative and widespread that the Asian elephant has remained in the background. Safaris and wildlife documentaries have reinforced the image of the African (bush) elephant, and the latest ivory poaching crisis has once again thrust it into the limelight. This has significant repercussions for their future survival in the wild.  To put it in statistics that everyone will understand, over the past 100 years, 84% of the population has been lost, having declined from a population as high as 250,000 in 1900 to around 40,000 in 2013. As they decline, so does the uniquely complex and biodiverse ecosystem that they support. There is a real and present danger that future generations may never witness nature’s greatest masterpiece in the wild. Their habitat is being destroyed at a terrifying rate, only 5% remains, and they are being ruthlessly poached and traded to extinction.

Indian elephants

The Indian Elephant population has decreased by 84% in the last 100 years.

One of the reasons that African elephants have managed to evoke such a response through the variety of charities that are fighting for their survival is partially to do with the simple fact that it is easy to film the wild African elephants as they are much easier to find on the open savannah plains. By comparison the Asian elephants are hidden in the thick undergrowth of the jungles, they are a forest species and have never been documented in quite the same way.

The poaching of Asian elephants for their ivory (and potentially other body parts) is not considered as significant a threat as it is to African elephants, for a number of reasons. The numbers may pale against the horrifying figures from Africa, where an estimated 36,000 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks last year. However it is essential to set the figures in context. Firstly, there are far fewer Asian elephants than African to begin with: approximately 40,000 compared to 400,000. Secondly, only male Asian elephants have tusks of any substantial size, which is one of the main reasons that they have not been poached to quite the same extent. Thirdly, most of the large bulls have already been poached during the last ivory crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. This has resulted in a dangerous imbalance between males and females, down to as few as 1 to 100 in some areas.

African elephants

The African Elephant has a much larger natural habitat to roam than the Indian Elephant.

It has even been estimated that India may have as few as 1,200 breeding males from a total population of as many as 28,000 elephants, the largest Asian elephant population in the world by far. The killing of just a handful of bulls can threaten an entire population’s ability to reproduce, it can upset the gender balance in populations and threaten their future viability, thereby potentially having even graver consequences. However, the poaching of Asian elephants for their ivory does continue and remains a significant threat.

An example of this was an elephant which was left to slowly rot for at least four days. The carcass of a 15-year old male elephant was found in Odisha, India, close to the boundary with Jharkhand state, in October 2013. His whole face had been hacked off to remove his tusks, and it was subsequently confirmed that he had been deliberately targeted and shot for the ivory.

With a recent upsurge in demand for ivory, particularly from China, not only has the poaching of African elephants soared, but it would seem that it is on the increase in Asia. Far more data is required however, as all that is currently available is anecdotal. The situation is further confounded by the fact that some of the Asian elephant range states, particularly Thailand and Malaysia, have become a transit point for ivory coming from Africa, and where seizures have occurred, the provenance of the ivory is not always clear.

This is largely where most efforts appear to be directed; equipping, training and deploying rangers as well as implementing increasingly sophisticated technologies to stop poaching. While an essential component of overall efforts is to stop the illegal trade, such efforts will forever be treating the symptom and not the cause of the problem, and will always confront the challenge of trying to get ahead of the poachers as their operations become increasingly sophisticated. Furthermore, successful arrests and confiscations rarely lead to the kingpins behind the operations. As poaching operations are increasingly linked to international terrorist organizations – with Al-Shabaab, the Janjaweed and the Lords Resistance Army all heavily involved in ivory poaching, they consequently have become an issue of national and international security. Anti-poaching efforts should, therefore, no longer be left to underpaid and under-resourced forest departments, park rangers and NGOs, but require the intervention of national armies, as is beginning to happen with some success in Botswana.

As with anti-poaching, efforts to stop the illegal export and import of wildlife through international ports receive a great deal of attention, but are also still largely treating the symptoms and not the cause. They are likewise continually having to fight an arms race against increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations.

The Indian Elephant in its natural jungle habitat.

The Indian Elephant in its natural jungle habitat.

While there is greater potential for reaching the kingpins involved, especially through international intelligence gathering and the involvement of INTERPOL et al., efforts are still hindered by inadequately trained border officials who often struggle to identify illegal wildlife parts and to distinguish those from protected species from those that can be traded legally, as well as the sheer scale of the problem. Looking for consignments of illegal wildlife products hidden in containers among the thousands that are transported can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. It is estimated that seizures account for only a small proportion of the overall illegal trade in wildlife.

The rapid increase in the scale of the illegal wildlife trade has been spurred by economic growth in Asia, and especially China, where so much of the trade is directed. While rhino horn and tiger bone are in demand for Traditional Chinese Medicine, intricate ivory carvings are largely desired for their aesthetic value and as a status symbol. Surveys have shown that a majority of Chinese people are not aware of the negative side of the ivory trade, nor that elephants must be killed for their tusks. As a result of a legal one-off sale of confiscated ivory stockpiles in 2008, there is a legal ivory market within China, but research has shown that this is not being regulated sufficiently and provides loopholes that facilitate the illegal trade. The need to educate the countries in what the effect of their super-stations may have not only on their wildlife but the surrounding ecosystems as well is imperative.

With all the attention that African elephant charities have received in combating this problem they have managed to cut poaching by ninety per cent since the ivory ban. The African elephant is really making a dramatic recovery. The Asian elephant has not been given the same attention and is in desperate need of help. Because of the vast areas they need in which to roam, the foremost threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss on a massive scale. This is not an issue for the African elephants as they have large areas of land to stray.

The spread of human settlements and the clearance of forest for timber, plantations, farming and mining in rapidly developing nations are leaving elephant groups marooned in ever-decreasing pockets of forest. While the global population may have fallen by 85-90% in the past 100 years, a rough calculation suggests that as much as 95% of their original habitat has been lost over the same period. Across much of their range, suitable habitat is now confined to protected areas, many of which are too small to support viable elephant populations. Myanmar is a possible exception, where much of the forest remains intact and is thought to hold significant populations of elephants, but where little of it is protected. Likewise in Sumatra, up to 85% of elephant habitat is outside protected areas, but Indonesia has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world and much of this is likely to be converted for agriculture, particularly palm oil cultivation.

To combat this the charity supporting Asian elephants ‘Elephant Family’ have tried and tested with success the concept of ‘Elephant corridors’.

indian elephant

Mark Shand: The founder of the Elephant Family charity.

There is a growing imbalance in India between the rural man and the natural life of the elephant living in harmony. Both are blameless and both are victims of greed; greed caused by the desire for timber, and the consequent massive deforestation. Elephants are creatures of habit. They have, for centuries, followed the same migratory routes in search of food. They arrive and find none: their larder has been cut down, and in desperation they turn to raiding crops on which the villagers’ livelihood depends. The villagers are helpless and, even if they could afford to buy modern firearms, would usually be loath to use them as the elephant is a revered. All too frequently this is bringing people and elephants into conflict. Where this has become extreme it is resulting in deaths to both: it is estimated that 400 people and 100 elephants lose their lives annually in India as a result of conflict. Many of the human deaths come as a result of chance encounters with elephants, often after dark, while some also arise from direct confrontations in the defence of crops. “Sadly, this situation is worsening. The Indian elephant is simply running out of living space. Recently a herd of thirty were creating havoc as close as twenty miles to Calcutta. It is fervently to be hoped that desperate measures like culling will not be introduced, and it is up to man to redress the balance. The tiger, which until recently was almost extinct, is beginning to make a dramatic recovery thanks to the resources and expertise made available to ‘Project Tiger’. The elephant must now be given the same attention.

The situation is most extreme in India, and Sri Lanka, on account of the high human population densities and extreme fragmentation of habitat. In West Bengal, India, in particular, the situation has become desperate as elephant herds have been forced from one conflict area to another, and have become increasingly stressed and aggressive as a result.

Government responses have been more extreme, including the capturing of perceived problem elephants in Sumatra between 1985 and 2009 (the practice has officially stopped, but is believed to still continue in some parts), or their translocation to protected areas, particularly in Sri Lanka, until 2011. The capturing of elephants in Sumatra led to many elephant deaths, and to this day there are up to 550 living in captivity, many still in very poor conditions.

Indian elephant habitat

Elephants are deeply embedded within Indian culture.

Protection of habitat and the securing of wildlife corridors between forest fragments are the highest conservation priorities for Asian elephants. Elephant Family have saved vital stretches of forest and have reunited isolated groups of elephants by reconnecting pockets of forest with ‘elephant corridors’. These corridors of protected land act as elephant highways, joining up forest fragments and allowing all wildlife – including tigers and orang-utans – to roam freely, to find new sources of food and, crucially, to breed successfully.

Other effects of development and the ever growing populations encroaching on habitat are unknown to most but are having a significant effect on the elephant population. Again this is to do with the human/elephant issue of space something that the African elephants do not face.

Roads and railways are increasingly dissecting forests across Asia, and there are a growing number of reports of elephants being struck by vehicles. In the past 25 years almost 200 elephants have been killed on India’s railways, and while a number of preventative measures are in place and being developed, new lines are still being developed through elephant areas and are being upgraded to a broader gauge to carry faster trains. Fatalities on Sri Lanka’s railways also appear to be increasing in frequency. Environmental Impact Assessments are urged in the planning of any such developments, and far greater collaboration is required between the Forest and Railways Departments. Because of the roads through the corridors, there is also the risk of opportunistic development, such as small road-side stalls, which if left uncontrolled could see the level of human activity within the corridors increase to such an extent that elephants and other wildlife are deterred. Such activity can be prevented through greater vigilance within the corridor, and by engaging the local communities through a targeted awareness campaign.

indian elephants

Another issue which can be seen in the state of Orissa, India, poorly maintained and low-hanging power lines are thought to have electrocuted at least 150 elephants in the past ten years. In some cases electricity lines have been deliberately tapped to hunt other animals, and in the absence of correctly fitted circuit breakers, these have unwittingly killed elephants. Steps are being taken to have the power distribution companies fulfil their responsibilities for maintaining the power lines but it has been a long and difficult struggle in getting them to comply.

To conclude, the Asian Elephant is increasingly endangered and needs as much awareness and help as the African elephant. The Elephant corridors have made a huge difference but there is still much more to be done. Currently there are 9 elephant corridors completed with 88 possible corridors to identify. Only half of these will be viable options but they need help to be made into a reality. Raising funds and awareness is an integral part of this and to get people to realize that if the Asian Elephant becomes extinct, soon after many others such as the orangutan, tiger and rhino will follow. Allowing this to happen is not only ignorant but extremely dangerous. Addressing the issue of space is essential and coming up with ideas such as the voluntary resettlement of two communities (38 families) from within the Karbi corridor into 38 new homes outside the corridor where they will no longer suffer from crop loss and property damage caused by elephants and other animals, and where they will be supported to have improved livelihoods. This is a prime example of thinking outside of the box to come up with successful solutions to save this magnificent species. Over one hundred years ago, the American naturalist Charles Frederick Holder had recognized the inevitable and wrote: The Asiatic elephant is said to be holding its own. But the rapid advance of the British in the East cannot fail to have a fatal effect and extermination is only a matter of time. They are the last of a powerful race worthy of earnest efforts of preservation. The question of their extinction rests with the rising generation’.”

Let’s not make this statement a reality.

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  • Rafael Ascaro

    A very worth cause – save those elephants, Asian & African alike!

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