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The Asian elephant once roamed from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in western Asia as far east as China's Yangtze River. No longer. Now a highly endangered species, it has been eliminated from western Asia completely, from substantial parts of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and almost entirely from China. Exceedingly adaptable in diet and behavior, elephants can survive anywhere from grasslands to rain forests, but they must migrate across large areas to find water and suitable food at different times of the year. Such vast ranges have become extremely rare in densely populated, rapidly developing Asia.
Though it's difficult to count elephants in the wild, it's estimated that the wild Asian population, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the 20th century, is now only 37,000 to 48,000 animals. Yet thanks to ancient cultural tradition, about 16,000 Asian elephants are kept in captivity in 11 Asian countries. This situation makes the Asian elephant unique among endangered large mammals. In Thailand there are nearly three times as many elephants in domesticity as in the wild.
Elephant researchers in Thailand teach villagers how to respond to frightening encounters in the forest.
AMNH Threats to Wild Elephants
Elephant researchers in Thailand teach villagers how to respond to frightening encounters in the forest.
• No room to roam: The greatest threat to wild Asian elephants is habitat loss and fragmentation. Throughout the tropics, humans have cleared large areas of forest and have rapidly populated river valleys and plains. Elephants have been pushed into hilly landscapes and less suitable remnants of forest, but even these less accessible habitats are being assaulted by poachers, loggers, and developers.
Once-continuous habitat has become increasingly broken up by dams, tea and coffee plantations, roads, and railway lines. These developments obstruct the seasonal migrations of elephant clans. Habitat fragmentation also divides elephant populations into small, isolated groups, which are then at risk of inbreeding. Some biologists believe that there are no longer any wild Asian elephant populations large enough to avoid genetic deterioration over the long term.
• Conflicts with humans: When elephants stray out of the forest into settled areas, they sometimes destroy property, trample crops, and even kill people. Not infrequently, farmers respond with gunfire or poison.
• Ivory poaching: The international ivory trade has contributed far more to the decline of African elephants than Asian ones over the last few decades. Still, the people of Asia have a 500-year tradition of ivory carving and often hunt males for their tusks.
• Capture of young elephants: Many young elephants are removed from the wild to supply tourist and entertainment industries. In the process, mothers and other females attempting to protect the young are killed. Many calves captured for such purposes are prematurely weaned, socially isolated or otherwise cruelly treated, and die before they reach age five.
Threats to Domestic Elephants
For thousands of years the elephant was part of the fabric of daily life in Asia. They served primarily to transport goods and people. When the 20th century began, elephants were put to use by the timber industry, destroying their own habitat in the process. Except in less-developed Myanmar, the need for elephant labor has steadily declined since World War II, and so has the domesticated Asian elephant population.
With domestic elephants becoming obsolete, the occupation of mahout, or elephant handler, no longer commands the respect it once did. The profession, its specialized knowledge, and the time-honored relationship between man and animal are dying out. Children have little interest in learning the trade. "The skill level of elephant-keeping, the ability to control bulls, is going down very, very rapidly," says Thai elephant expert Richard Lair. "Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, what are we going to be doing with our bull elephants?"
As roles for captive animals dry up, impoverished elephants and their mahouts are a common sight in Thailand's urban landscape.
The biggest problem facing domesticated elephants is unemployment. The situation is perhaps most dire in Thailand, where a complete ban on logging in 1989 put several thousand elephants and mahouts out of work. An elephant typically eats about 200 kilograms of food a day, "so unless you're a very wealthy person who likes to keep expensive pets, or unless your elephant is actually working for you and generating some income, it's not easy to keep an elephant in captivity," explains Robert Mather, the country representative for the World Wildlife Fund in Thailand.
And while one person can watch a whole herd of cattle or sheep, each elephant needs one person and sometimes two people to look after it. But with the decline in skilled mahouts, many elephants are now handled by inexperienced people. This leads to elephants that at best are poorly cared for and at worst severely abused. Human keepers are being harmed by elephants more often as well.
New Jobs for Beasts of Burden?
Although well protected from international trade, Asian elephants have little protection under domestic laws. Generally, national wildlife agencies in Asia consider the domesticated elephant to be just another domestic animal (and allow their tusks to be sold), while livestock departments consider it wild and not under their jurisdiction. "So it's in a very curious, halfway position that makes conservation very difficult," explains Lair. Caring for privately owned domesticated Asian elephants often turns out to be the job of an impoverished mahout—or nobody's job at all.
Elephants are now competing for fewer jobs at lower pay, which has forced mahouts to accept undesirable jobs or to overwork their animals. In Thailand, some owners have even started selling their elephants to be slaughtered for meat. Less than 10 years ago, such an act would still have been unthinkable. "Captive elephants in Thailand at the moment would seem to have rather limited options," says Mather bluntly. Possibilities include:
• The tourist industry: Ecotourism is a booming market in many developing countries, and often it's the only viable solution for elephants. In addition to offering protection to some wild herds so that tourists can observe them in their natural habitat, ecotourism has given many domesticated elephants better work opportunities. The elephants that carry tourists safely on treks through the jungle are usually well cared for. "It's not desirable; it's not traditional," Lair points out. "On the other hand, it's relatively harmless, and it's the only form of employment that will make sure that people continue to keep elephants." But not all elephants are temperamentally suited for toting tourists—especially not the large, aggressive male elephants once valued by loggers.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of elephants are also being used in less benign forms of tourism. Performing in shows or serving as special attractions in hotels and tourist centers, they often suffer from lack of social contact with fellow elephants or risk injury doing dangerous and unnatural tricks.
• Logging: Selective logging—in which only certain trees are cut, leaving the forest habitat as a whole intact—would be an optimal choice. Elephants could work in a traditional and legitimate manner, and their use would protect the forest by reducing the need for roads and heavy machinery. Selective logging is rarely employed, however. It is an option only in places where sufficient healthy forest remains, which is not the case in many parts of Asia. And in Thailand, the 1989 ban has made all forms of logging illegal.
The Thai ban sparked a jump in lumber prices, which led to a boom in illegal woodcutting. Elephant labor is essential to this illicit trade, which is thought to employ between 1,000 and 2,000 animals, in northern Thailand in particular. But these animals are poorly cared for.
• Begging in the streets: More and more elephants can be found with their destitute mahouts begging for money in the streets of large Asian cities like Bangkok. These elephants suffer respiratory infections, damage property, and get hit by cars.
Solving the Plight
Fortunately, the elephant has become a flagship species of wildlife conservation in all 13 countries of Asia where it is still found. Efforts are being made on many fronts:
• Reducing the hunting and capture of wild elephants for ivory and tourism.
• Curbing habitat destruction: One solution is to create vegetated corridors between separated habitats. This can be as simple as building a bridge across a canal, but the bridge must be wide, as only bulls are bold enough to cross a narrow bridge. Other ways to improve the quantity or quality of remaining habitat include maintaining a buffer zone of secondary-growth forest and creating waterholes.
• Improving protection of wild herds: This is complicated. Populations must be large enough offset inbreeding and environmental dangers such as droughts and floods. Yet herd size must be controlled to minimize encroachment on human habitats and to foster local support for elephant conservation.
Trenches, electric fences, spotlights, and noisy rockets have all been used to deter elephants from straying onto planted fields, but with varying degrees of success. Other tactics include persuading farmers to grow crops that aren't attractive to elephants and removing troublesome bull elephants. However, the males disproportionately responsible for crop damage and attacks on humans tend to be the most successful breeders, so eliminating them from the population isn't a desirable solution. If existing habitat is inadequate, sometimes elephants are relocated to roomier ones.
• Better care for captive elephants: Another initiative is to establish centers to accommodate unwanted, abused, and confiscated elephants. For example, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang provides a home, work, food, and veterinary care to more than 100 elephants. Dangerous animals are confined in a secure area; young working elephants are trained; and the rest roam free and breed, producing young elephants that will be reintroduced to the wild.
• Reintroduction to the wild: "If elephants can't find gainful employment, then instead of having them wandering the streets of Bangkok begging for money from tourists or Thais, let's just put them back in the wild," says Mather. "Send them back into the forest. That's their home." Thailand's Elephant Reintroduction Foundation does such work, releasing domesticated elephants into the wild to generate wild herds.